Captain Owen P. Honors: Remember Navy, style has strategic value.

by Craig Hooper on January 3, 2011

Admiral Nimitz may have loved his raunchy jokes, cussed a blue streak and been all manner of weird in his private life. I don’t care. Why? Because Nimitz, when dealing with the public and his subordinates, understood his rank and role in the Navy demanded professional comportment.

Even as a low-ranking commander of the ROTC unit at UC Berkeley, Nimitz realized the importance of proper demeanor. Rather than indulge in bringing the fraternity aboard ship, Nimitz brought Navy to the fraternity–and became legend.

It takes a village to make a Navy. Brutal, insensitive, ill-mannered officers will never disappear from the service. Some may be our best fighters. But–even back in 2006-7–being flip, lashing out, or, well, being a simple boor is not something any officer should be doing in any media. Period. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but, even in the face of provocation (or a long deployment, an old, tough-to-command antique ship or, oh, an online scolding), an officer should always be the gentleman (or woman) and project themselves in a professional manner.

It’s what the Navy demands.

Officers manifesting as (literal) jerkoffs don’t give me (and shouldn’t give anybody else) confidence that they can succeed in the delicate business of representing the United States–In the Atlantic Basin, Africa, Indian Ocean or elsewhere. Professional comportment is pretty important these days, and if an officer can’t muster the brainpower to understand that, then, well, that’s a matter for his or her promotion board.

We already know that maintaining high standards of public comportment is important. The command climate–their behavior of those at the highest ranks–guides the behavior of subordinates. And that’s why, in any investigation into Captain Honors comportment, there should be some scrutiny of the Enterprises’ behavior as a crew. Have somebody in some school someplace do a forensic analysis to determine if command climate might have influenced crew behavior. Were there behavioral anomalies aboard the Enterprise in 2006-7? An uptick in sexual assaults? Higher incidence of unplanned pregnancies? Is there anything that stands out that might inform future leaders–and help the Navy understand the professional cost (or perhaps, benefits) of command behavior informed by, oh, Beavis and Butthead? Or one that, oh, claims these videos had an educational purpose when they, uh, didn’t (see the CNN interview of the Virginian Pilot editor here).

There is a larger strategic issue at stake. We already know that ill-mannered behavior on a Port Call can have serious–even catastrophic–strategic consequences. A Jane’s reporter (look at my exchange on twitter last night) has already noted the Enterprise had an ugly port call at Kuala Lumpur when Captain Honors was the XO. There are indications that leadership was not engaged in getting the crew to behave professionally while there.

That cannot stand. With a shrinking Navy and several other emergent navies out there making port calls, a blow-out “all-hands-rig-for-Animal-House” call ashore is an indulgence of the past. America

simply cannot afford to fix the damage done by an unprofessional crew overseas. And whether we like it or not, port calls are professional. They are part of the Carrier Strike Group mission portfolio, and, in some particularly sensitive cases, demand as much command accountability as putting bombs on target.

(And, as an aside, Captain Owen Honors should have been well acquainted with the perils of video in a youtube age. In 2007, the present commander of the Enterprise Strike Group, RADM Terry Kraft, was almost cashiered from his job as CO of the USS Ronald Reagan over this little video. Remember this tempest? And…in the interests of fairness, it might be advisable to find out if the lower-ranking people who planned, performed and participated in that happy, funny bit of pro-Navy fun had their Navy careers somewhat attenuated.)

So rather than follow the herd in claiming that this tempest is just about style over substance, I urge the Navy to deliberate. In full. It is high time for the Navy to realize that professional comportment is, today, a strategic asset.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Hooper January 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Scott, this is great stuff. Concur with most.

As for your last paragraph, I have said that I don’t know the answer. It’s a tough thing to determine and leads to a set of “chicken or egg” questions. But it’s worth looking at this, and exploring it in greater detail. Hope that it is part of the ongoing “investigation.” More chance of getting something of value than an investigation aimed at trying to figure out just which Admiral was aboard and possibly in a position to watch the Big XO’s videos…

For that matter, I think the Enterprise will do fine. No officer is so great they can’t be replaced. And the crew of the Enterprise are professionals; they’ll be fine.


CDR G (recently ret) January 5, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Craig, I agree. Two comments–I didn’t see much on the video snips that I haven’t seen or heard onboard a ship somewhere before. In the rowdy rough company of friends, not a big deal and maybe even a measure of good fellow-feeling and morale. That said, no officer or senior petty officer in his right mind is going to allow himself in today’s PC climate to be caught on camera participating in this. This guy immediately fails the situational awareness and judgment tests. Goodbye.


Scott January 4, 2011 at 11:11 pm

I haven’t fact-checked, but I seem to recall someone telling me there have been fewer Skippers of nuclear powered aircraft carriers than there have been astronauts. They are an elite few and it takes some doing to earn the privilege to sit in that big chair on the port side of the bridge. They are all aviators and they are all warriors. Warriors are called on by society to perform service to the state. Society may have expectations, but any class — warrior, clergy, teacher, other — sets its own standards of conduct, which it deems necessary to effectively carry out its duties. As you would expect, the standards of our military are high. We are asked to do unpleasant things. The fist of the state, we coerce, we intimidate, we break, we hurt, we kill. Sure, we rescue, we cordon, we comfort, but those functions are not why we exist. Society tells us what to do and it would rather — more often than not — let us figure out how. That “how” is not always tasteful or polite.

To your first point, aviators don’t start out as CVN CO’s. They start out putting another plane in the crosshairs or a ground target under a video cursor, designating something for destruction. They decide whether or not to pickle the bomb or let loose with a 20mm gatling gun. They live with the consequences just like the Soldier or Marine, even if they can’t see the vacant stares of the dead or the bloody stump of the man to their left. Anyone familiar with naval aviation has heard about the studies that measured cockpit stress levels over “Indian Country” versus trying to get aboard the floating “airport”. Putting bombs on target and getting lit up by SAMs: more relaxing. Aviation may be technical, but it’s not antiseptic or removed. Getting aboard on a normal day — never mind the dark and dusty night — ain’t latte drinking. Nor is it for the kid turning the torque wrench in a jet, hoping it all holds together and brings his shipmate back from afar.

What is the War on Terror? Is it more real for a “FOB-bit” who eats 4-squares a day, goes to movie night, stands outside and has a smoke in his t-shirt at sunset? Is the 20-something Sailor who gets blown down by jet blast towards a spinning prop on the flight deck at night less of a warrior than another kid in body armor with bullets zinging past his head? Danger is danger, whatever you call it, and Sailors put themselves at risk daily, just like their ground-pounding brothers and sisters. The War on Terror is an abstraction used by politicians and academics. It’s not a circle on a Venn diagram that one service has greater or lesser proximity to. While the Army sat in garrison for decades in Germany and South Korea, we were at sea. When they go back to garrison, we will still be at sea. Army families had to relearn and are still learning about the strain of deployment and separation. Navy families have never forgotten. Ground forces deploy in time of war. Sailors and Marines always deploy. One is not more steely or battle-hardened than the other. With 10,000 Sailors on the ground in CENTCOM, I’d caution anyone saying the Navy is untouched by “real combat”.

I understand the language of hyperbole to make a point, but let’s not credit the Navy with living a life of delightful pleasures out on the ship or in the sky. You can call them BS videos, but whether it’s the Big XO or a Junior Officer in a squadron, they contribute to the morale of the crew. As for time, if you’ve ever truly spent time with aviators, they’re anything if not efficient. There isn’t a lot of time to waste. Aviators mission plan, brief, fly and debrief. Nobody is unemployed after the flight’s over. They all have ground jobs that involve the tedious admin expected of a government operation and for the Officers and senior enlisted, a lot of time spent leading and managing people. As for the videos, I guarantee they are planned and executed like any other mission. The content and dialogue can certainly be debated, but nobody was just standing around looking to have fun. Resources are at a premium on the ship, too. Can’t just go for a run around the perimeter; wedge in time on one of the few treadmills. It would be easy to go on about how challenging it is, but every service has its own crosses to bear.

On your second point, regrettably General Mattis is a one-of-a-kind. I truly admire all his qualities, but how he arrived at 4-stars in today’s military is a mystery to me and many others; perhaps even an occasional surprise to the General himself. I thank whomever the cast of characters was that made it happen. Our Marines and the nation are richer for his leadership and his voice. The truth of the matter, however, is that his catalogue of commentary would get most General and Flag Officers fired. Bold and at times “politically incorrect” statements are somehow offensive to polite society. It’s the subject of an entirely separate post I want to write, but risk taking in language is probably indicative of an individual’s willingness to risk and be innovative in other ways. If we are always coloring between the lines, we become ever more predicatble. Beatable. Vulnerable. Finite in our existence. “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” were not polite. Fire bombing Dresden was not behavior above reproach. As Mill said, war is an ugly thing. We have high expectations of our leadership, but at the end of the day we expect them to get the job done: securing the blessing of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

On the wider issue of command climate, now that ENTERPRISE leadership’s intestines are paying out onto the deckplates, I hope they do look at all the other health and welfare indicators of crew life. It could be that Big XO’s “raunchy” videos were tacit acceptance of lax standards. Or, it could be they just provided welcome comedic relief to the majority of crewmembers who found them entertaining. Does correlation now imply causation? Linking pregnancies (for example) to command climate is treacherous. It’s akin to linking high school pregnancy to the policies and attitudes promoted by a small town mayor. The question at the end of the day is, was the CO a malignant cancer Fleet Forces cut out or was it a beauty mark that once gave Big E her character? What effect will removing a popular and effective Commanding Officer have on the morale and confidence of a crew that will sail in harm’s way in a fortnight?


Craig Hooper January 4, 2011 at 3:38 pm


The question of to whose standards shall we hold to, I answer, “Why not the best?”

Yeah, and some aspects of this thing aren’t fair. Boo F’ing hoo. We must, as a community, stop wailing about how the U.S. Navy, by firing Captain Honors, no longer values a fighter. First, no matter how much we want to believe it, the War on Terror has not been at sea. Flying bomb-laden aircraft from a carrier, latte in hand and with time/energy to put into bullshit videos…yeah, it may be a fight, in a technical sense, but THE GREAT ENTERPRISE TOUR OF 2006-7 sure isn’t the sort of crucible from which we’d spawn a Nelson. (Perhaps a good manager for O’Hare, maybe?)

The current conflict is a land war, not a sea one.

Second, the Navy does value their warriors. Look at Mattis. He is as rough as anybody. As colorful, too. I don’t see him dialing back his un-PC behavior one whit. So, claiming this fracas is some sort of cull-of-the warriors thing is pure baloney. Bull Halsey was as colorful as they come–a warrior and a tough SOB–but that man would have never resorted to “bonding with the vikings” in such ways on film. He had other, more classy ways of bonding with his Vikings (see, oh, like his “cease firing, but if they show up again, shoot them down in a friendly way” quotes) There is plenty of room in today’s Navy for a second Bull Halsey.

I think there is a wider issue here; ship performance can be tied to command climate in ways that do tend to be overlooked. Does an Honors-giggidy-giggidty-giggidty-inspired command climate synch to assault rates? Pregnancies aboard ship? That’s something to find out–I do not know, but I strongly suspect that a guy like Honors can build a great-fighting floating f$$$ing four acre airport and yet still, in the final analysis, his methods may sink the rest of the Navy by straining the already-stretched system–sending trained people home pregnant, building up abuse-rates, degrading the Navy’s wider strategic position, burning political goodwill, driving away potential new recruits and so on.

It’s something for promotion boards to do a better job of pondering.

In the end, it’s possible to be both a warrior and a gentleman. But at the higher ranks, if you can’t muster the brainpower or the discipline to do both, well, then, guess what?

You are not suitable for command and don’t (or shouldn’t) make rank. You do your warrior thing–or not–at a lower rating, and then, you know, after 10 or 20, you leave. Maybe it’s all unfair, but…I mean, that’s why God made things like retired-LTs, right?


Scott January 3, 2011 at 9:52 pm

ADM Nimitz is a shining example of comportment. ADM Stockdale is an exemplar for how to conduct one’s self as a POW. They might be ideals we strive for, but the rest of us just do our best. CO/XO/CMC should certainly set the standard and be held to a higher level of accountability. Whose standards should we hold them to though? MSNBC’s? CNN’s? The View’s? The Garden Club? The Hell’s Angels’?

For lack of anything better to do, the media has latched onto this story and presumed to know the context in which these videos were made. The 99% of Americans who have never worn a uniform have no way of relating. With 5000+ sailors aboard the ship, why was there no widespread offense taken for 3 years? Why? Because there was no widespread offense until the media whipped us into a frenzy in 2011. We used to admire Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, reveling in the smell of napalm. We wanted our Marine fighter pilots to be like The Great Santini at work. Now what do we want? Someone who can kill but not swear? Someone who can ensure we don’t drop a nuclear reactor into the bottom of the sea without making an off-color joke? Ah, glorious perfection. Sadly, man is…human.

CAPT Honors and leaders like him up and down the chain of command have the responsibility of setting the example. They also have the supreme challenge of trying to connect with thousands of subordinates whose average age is 20. Think about that. They need to find ways to connect so they can get their message to sink in. He’s trying to speak to a generation that likes reality TV. They like being shocked. They like raw humor. Playing non-stop Lawrence Welk on ship’s TV isn’t going to make them more genteel. You have to be able to relate. Did CAPT Honors do that in a perfect manner? Maybe not. Does he have a growing fan base on Facebook who are fed up with a PC-paranoid society? Indeed, he does. Will it keep him from getting relieved? I fear it won’t. I suspect the easiest course of action for quelling the media is to serve up the fresh kill.

While I don’t discount the importance of the Strategic Corporal and how a single misstep can lead to significant consequences, I think you over estimate the long term impact of bad behavior by our Sailors. I don’t know what the specific circumstances of Big E’s port visit troubles in Malaysia were, but what was the impact after she left port? Did U.S. carriers stop pulling in? No way. Were liberty privileges for subsequent visitors a little more stringent for awhile? Maybe, but I doubt it impacted the amount of cash that flowed into the local economy. Minor incidents pass quickly into memory. Consider the heinous acts that our forward deployed forces in Japan have had occasion to commit: assault, rape, murder. I make no excuses for them, but I hope I’m painting a picture. “Incidents” have always happened. They especially happens when you put 3000 “young visitors” ashore who’ve been under stress. You can provide all of the leadership in the world, but statistically somebody is going to screw up. We call those liberty incidents. We deal with them. We apologize. We mete out punishment on the individual. But rarely does it damage relationships on a national level. Crime happens in any society; it just gets more notice when it’s attached to a foreign face. If the 3000 went ashore like Vikings, it could have strategic consequences. These days, you might see 5-10 Vikings go ashore, with the remainder exemplary Ambassadors who represent America well and leave the smiling locals with fists full of converted dollars.

If Big E had more issues than the average CVN in Port Kelang, I would chalk it up to an Atlantic Fleet crew that had little to no experience in an Asian nation that’s 60% Muslim. It’s a challenging port visit for any ship since Sailors spend at least an hour on a bus getting from Port Kelang to Kuala Lumpur where the real liberty’s at. It compels folks to squeeze more in while they’re in the city and they may feel more inclined to take risks further from the ship. Ten years ago, the ship I was on had a sailor who “insulted the honor” of a local Malaysian woman, likely through inappropriate contact. It was a huge deal. It was a huge deal for that Sailor and his chain of command. He was drunk. He was stupid. He made a mistake that would NOT have landed him in jail in the U.S. Not every 20-something is an Ambassador. We do our best, but you can’t reach and teach everyone. If CAPT Honors is guilty of anything, he’s probably guilty of trying too hard to reach everyone, including those 10 Vikings.


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