For starters, I'm only interested in talking about it right at this moment because I just read this article from Navy Times in its painful entirety. It was painful to me because it's a bit like being a survivor of domestic violence and going to a support group meeting to listen for two hours to other people's heart-wrenching stories of watching and receiving domestic abuse. While admittedly my time in the surface Navy was mercifully short (a solitary, seven-month deployment) compared to anyone who's actually gone PCS-afloat, nevertheless I can personally bear witness to the fact that the dysfunction which was attested to by the crew of the USS Shiloh is actually symptomatic of the entire surface Navy, and based on my interactions with Submariners (my dad not least among them), I'd say the submarine community might even have it slightly worse.
The Navy itself (and the military in general, if I may generalize based on secondhand accounts from fellow Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines) has a serious leadership problem. I've spoken with enough retirees to know that this is not news, and the fact is that "military intelligence" has been, and always and forever will be, a comical contradiction of terms. While I could trot out a litany of stories that I have learned about from others regarding ridiculous policies and behaviors of military leadership, I'm going to try to confine my narrative as best as possible to my own experiences, mostly for the sake of time constraints.
For those who are unaware, I went to Captain's Mast (Marines know it as NJP, Army/Air Force types call it Article 15, but yeah same difference) in June of 2016 for what were ostensibly "serious offenses" committed while deployed to a combat zone. In actuality, I was ten minutes late for a watch turnover, wasn't up in a chat program twice when people wanted to chat with me, and didn't get a list of information as quickly as possible (I got it the next watch instead of when I was asked to). Because my supervisor and I had had previous personality conflicts, he decided that this would be an ideal opportunity to thoroughly document all of my shortcomings, seek written statements from other people we worked with to exaggerate the seriousness of the charges, and then transmit all of this information back to my home command shortly before my return home from deployment.
Did I make these errors? Yes. By the letter of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, I was unequivocally guilty. However, and this is what concerns me about many more cases than just my own, these were the kinds of issues that, according to Navy leadership philosophy, should have been handled at the "lowest level possible." Unfortunately, Navy culture is such (and again I'm broadly extrapolating here for the entire military) that many senior NCOs and junior officers are either unable or unwilling to exercise sound judgment in handling issues on their own.
The military is a peculiar place unlike any other institution in the private sector. Although we are purported to be a pure meritocracy, there are numerous examples throughout the armed services of people who simply "put in their time" to make it where they are. Again, I'm painting with broad brush strokes here, and it needs to be said that there are in fact some amazing human beings whom I have had the rare pleasure to work with and call friends. However, when it comes to people with serious decision-making authority of any kind (what we call "bottom-line" authority in Navy world), I can think of maybe three to five officers or senior enlisted in my entire career who honestly seemed well suited to their current position, if not a slightly higher one.
The Navy has had at least four notable accidents since January, to say nothing of two combat missions in Yemen and Somalia that resulted in the deaths of two SEAL operators. While operational risks are inherent to the dangerous nature of our work overseas, it strikes me as remarkable that this spate of "mishaps" has come in such quick succession. While CNN is quick to lay blame squarely at the feet of the Trump administration, I would point out (with no desire whatsoever to protect Trump) that a dysfunctional culture does not come about overnight. These problems of leadership have been years in the making.
For my own part, I should probably acknowledge that I once held a leadership position several years ago which in retrospect I was thoroughly unqualified for. Though I did the best with the tools I was given, the task of managing 52 Sailors at times all by myself was something for which the Navy left me woefully unprepared. While I still console myself to this day with the knowledge that several successful careers were born out of that division for which I was LPO, the fact remains that the vast majority of leaders in the military (and the Navy CT community in particular) rise entirely too quickly to positions of importance, and then flounder under the weight of the so-called "Peter Principle" dragging them to the ocean bottom.
Conversely, some communities progress so slowly through the advancement process that the only real quality necessary for long-term success is the ability to tolerate incalculable amounts of senseless military BS and still remain somehow unfazed and outwardly optimistic about the military life. In the surface community, I would say this latter situation is far more accurate. People flee in droves from places of low job satisfaction and low employee morale, leaving only the most hard-headed and hard-hearted people around to fill the gaping vacancies.
Again, I can't state enough that these are generalizations, and some people in EVERY workplace are bound to be there because they are genuinely good at and love their job. For the most part, however, the military abets and shelters those who are somewhere between decent to downright terrible at their chosen career, and they remain there voluntarily because they know that they get paid the same regardless of their output and will eventually be able to retire as long as they keep below the radar.
So how does this relate to my screw-ups which cost me a stripe?
Well, I'll tell you.
Had I had anyone in my chain of command who was willing to go to bat for me, so to speak, and make the case that this situation ought to be handled at their level instead of kicking it flippantly up the chain, it's quite possible that I may have seen the errors of my ways and opted to go on and have a long, proud Naval career. Because not one person in the chain of command had the intestinal fortitude to take a risk, I went all the way up the flagpole and spent 30 lovely days on a mock-deployment (aka "restriction," a very vanilla version of Navy jail) which flew by fairly quickly in light of the SEVEN. DAMN. MONTHS. that I was neglected and left out to sea on a platform where I was incapable of providing good intelligence.
My time on that ship was instructive, if nothing else, in the ways in which tyrannical and micromanaging leaders make a name for themselves by meeting all the performance wickets at the cost of tremendous human capital, not to mention the utter destruction of their personal credibility by shamelessly pandering to the next boss up the chain while refusing to support the interests of those under their supervision. I'll never forget when an entire crew was told to paint the exterior of the ship while the skipper drove us headlong into a rainstorm, because looking good was of paramount importance... but not important enough for us to divert our course and/or hold off on the painting until the storm blew over.
Am I grateful for all the wonderful people I've met, the incalculable value of all the training that I've received, and the numerous travels and life experiences which were only possible because of the Navy? Unequivocally yes. Do I suspect that there is a systemic brokenness in military culture which enables people to abdicate personal responsibility and critical thinking by simply "doing what you're told?" Also, and very sadly, yes.