The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A change of command

I was engaged in a bit of dialogue with someone the other day where I brought up the thought that presidents primary purpose was to inspire. Things kind of went downhill from there with a disagreement over why we elect "leaders" and what "inspire" meant and so on. During that conversation, I thought about something which, to me, illustrated my concept beautifully. It was too long to relate in a comment or short conversation so I brought it here.

Back in the olden days, as some of you know, I was in the U.S. Navy. I joined at the tender age of 19. The Vietnam war was just starting to escalate. It had been a little over a year since the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and the draft was picking up quickly. But this isn't about why I enlisted or that war. It's about the ship I was assigned to after my initial training was complete and, specifically, about its captain.

The captain of a Navy ship is, of course, the leader of the ship and its crew. In some ways, he is the ship. Tradition is that whenever the captain leaves the ship, even for a short period, the ship's bell is rung (4 times, if memory serves) and the announcement "USS [ship's name] departing" is made. When he comes back aboard, he is again announced in a similar fashion. His name and actual rank* is not mentioned. Remember this, it becomes important later.

Captain Gurney was a short man, perhaps 5'8" at most. He was not liked by the crew. I learned that almost immediately. Eventually, the captain and I also did not get along. That story will be told at another time. A ship's crew does not have to like their captain but they do have to respect him. I did not see much of that respect, if any, while I served under him. The crew seemed to dislike him intensely. This seemed to be because he liked to take the ship out to sea. As often as possible. And because he demanded certain standards of behavior.

The crew's morale is what was his downfall, I think. And that morale was low. Abysmally low. The captain was demanding, strict, and a bit of a perfectionist. What he wasn't was attuned to the feelings of his officers and crew. The ship enjoyed high marks in proficiency in every review under his command. We had one of the top gun crews in the squadron. We did well in all other aspects too. But that morale thing? Well, it hurt the captain's standing with the brass.

When it came time for him to move up in rank (he was a full commander), he was passed over each time. We had been his last chance to make that 4th bar. After three passes, the Navy tended to push career officers out. He failed to make the grade that third time. When it came to the end of his command, there was a Change of Command ceremony on board while we were in port. I don't think these ceremonies take place at sea very often, if at all.

The crew was assembled on the fantail (the deck area on the stern to you landlubbers) in dress uniform, all the officers were present, as well as the new captain. We stood at attention facing the hanger deck where the officers stood and the ceremony took place. The ceremony went fairly well, the only glitch being no one had us about face so we would be facing the ensign (the flag) as it was lowered and raised as a symbol of the change of command. Instead we stood at attention with our backs to the flag. You could see his jaw tighten, you could almost hear the grinding of his teeth.

After the ceremony was over, a limo pulled up to whisk him away to whatever desk job the Pentagon decided to bury him under. The captain saluted the ensign (flag) then the Officer of the Deck and then started down the gangway. At this point, the Petty Officer of the Deck was supposed to ring the ship's bell and announce for the last time for this captain, "USS Brinkley Bass, departing" followed immediately by "USS Brinkley Bass arriving" to complete the ceremonial rites. Instead, this is what we heard:

"US Navy Commander Departing."
"USS Brinkley Bass arriving."

It was the equivalent of a slap in the face to our departing captain.

Why was it done? Because in spite of keeping us safe, pushing us to do our best, he did not inspire us at all. We had performed well under his command, better than most other ships in many ways, but he did not inspire us. He pushed us hard, which is needed. But when we came up short, he did not take the blame. It was clear he felt we had failed him. When he praised our efforts, it seemed he was praising himself instead.

There was no inspiration.

Looking back over the years I served him, I think he was a much better captain than we gave him credit for. He just didn't have that certain something which binds a crew to its captain and so we saw things in an "us vs him" manner.

*A commander of a ship in the Navy is always referred to as "Captain" regardless of actual rank. He may have the rank of commander, lieutenant commander, or even just lieutenant, but he will be called "Captain" by the crew. It's tradition and protocol.

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