Saturday, September 25, 2010

Esprit de Corps

Here is a post by Christopher Brownfield on Thomas E. Ricks' The Best Defense blog which should give pause to those in the US who go around slapping each other on the back about have "the best military" in the world:
A former attack sub officer alleges that cheating on qualification exams is widespread in the submarine force. Indeed, Christopher Brownfield writes, it is almost enforced by other officers:
My fellow officers were surprised by my failure, and wondered aloud why I hadn't used the "study guide." When my second exam arrived, so did the so-called study guide, which happened to be the answer key for the nuclear qualification exam I was taking. I was furious. Defiantly, I handed back the answer key to the proctor and proceeded to take the exam on my own. I failed again. My boss, the ship's engineer officer, started to document my failures with formal counseling so that he could fire me.

The most competent junior officer on our ship ran to my rescue, confiding that none of the other officers had passed the exam legitimately; the exam was just an administrative check-off. "Swallow your pride," he told me, and just get it done.
This does make me wonder why Defense Secretary Robert Gates has come down so hard on the Air Force for missteps with nuclear weapons, but doesn't appear to have touched the Navy on this issue.
It is clear that Brownfield has the integrity you would look for in an officer class. But it sure raises questions about the "successful" officers in the US Navy.

Brownfield has written a book about his Navy experiences. Here is the Publishers Weekly review of the book:
Now a graduate student, the author of this brash memoir of dysfunction in the armed forces began as a lieutenant on the nuclear submarine USS Hartford, where military professionalism was tarnished by systematic cheating on the nuclear-propulsion exam and high blundering when senior officers ran the ship aground. Then came a stint in the pre-surge Green Zone trying to reconstruct Iraq's electricity system in a unit whose officers spent their time downloading pirated movies or angling for consulting gigs. Tasked with the daily briefing on the collapsing grid-- blackouts proliferated as insurgents wrecked power lines, killed repair workers, and kidnapped officials--Brownfield seethed as his efforts to address problems bogged down in military bureaucracy. Brownfield was one obstreperous lieutenant: he crashes a party with Ahmed Chalabi and the American ambassador, sounds off to a visiting senator, and tweaks generals to their faces. He similarly overreaches with his incoherent analysis of the Iraq War as a war for oil and a vague call for a global energy regime of "sustainable interdependence." Still, Brownfield's stimulating, disabused tale of corruption, incompetence, and careerism in uniform is a useful--sometimes explosive--corrective to hagiographic accounts of America's militarized approach to nation building.
If you go look at the one posted review of the book on Amazon you find someone who claims to have served in the Navy at the same time and attacks Brownfield for lying in order to produce a "controversial" book and make a quick buck.

My experience is that nobody writes a whistle-blower book to make money. There just isn't much interest in the world for a message which goes against common prejudice. Instead, it is pretty clear to me that the Publishers Weekly reviewer and the Amazon reviewer both have an axe to grind: they don't like anybody who bucks conventional morality and reports that the emperor has no clothes. During the 1960s and early 1970s, dissent from the rah-rah official stance on the Vietnam war got you abused by the "leaders" of society as well as all the ordinary people who felt empowered to beat up on anybody with unconventional thoughts. It is this kind of closed-mindedness that allowed the disaster of the Vietnam war to proceed for 10 years, chew up millions of American soldiers, kill 58,000 Americans (and 820,000 Vietnamese as well as several thousand others from adjacent lands and "allies" in the fight).

I just finished reading an excellent book, Harvey J. Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America and it reminded me how Paine was abused by loyalists and even American revolutionaries who formed the Federalist Party, as well as conservatives and reactionaries over the next century and a half. Brownfield is not writing this article or his book expecting glory or to be showered with gold. To point out that your heroes have feet of clay more often gets you killed. He is doing it out of a duty and a love of country. Those who opposed the Vietnam war weren't expecting a pat on the back. They did it because the policy was bad. History has shown this to be true, but these "heroes" never got a pat on the back. Brownfield will never get a pat on the back. He will get slandered. That is the burden that a whistle-blower must bear.

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