Today’s post comes by way of AT1 Charles Berlemann, Jr. Currently assigned to VAQ-135 (World Famous Back Ravens), he enlisted in 1998 and has made five deployments (see “Postcards from Deployment”). Interested since 1995 (Charles calls himself an “unofficial member), he joined the Institute in 1999. We have maintained correspondence for a few years now and as a former VAW MO and CO, I would have moved heaven and earth to have had someone with his presence, leadership skills, technical acumen and, let’s call it what it really is, ethos in my squadron. He comes to this fora with eloquently expressed concerns about the current emphasis and projected direction for the Institute. If you are a member of the Board of Directors – stop, read and carefully consider what is written. Here is one of the bright lights in the Institute’s membership and someone with real vision for its future…someone you need to pay attention to.
I am writing today since you dear reader care just as deeply about the USNI as I care about our organization. We want to see this organization be a place where ideas can be allowed to ebb and flow. Our organization should be willing to help people generate their ideas and not suppress them. We also want to see our organization grow with membership; whether that member is a brand new sailor walking in a graduation ceremony at RTC Great Lakes or the retired master merchant mariner in his backyard. Our publishing arm is also, incredibly important to not only ourselves, but to our nation’s knowledge level. I feel that if we see a transition of our organization from an independent forum that fosters our current mission of advancing our professional, technical, scientific, and literary knowledge; over to an organization that becomes an advocacy group that we will be losing a uniquely different voice for the naval profession.
I was one of those rare geeky kids interested in USNI publications as a youngster. I have been an avid reader of both Proceedings since the mid 1980’s, starting when I was in the 3rd grade. My father, who has been a member since the late 1970’s, who use to leave his copy of “Proceedings” lying on his end table; I would borrow and attempt to read them. Initially I would just look at the photo captions and article titles. Even at that young age, I was asking questions about what those titles meant and why some of the articles had been included in the magazine. As I got older, I would dive into the book reviews and the letters to the editors. Every so often there would be an article which would peak my interest so I would read it in full and discuss it with my dad asking about why an article was written. I wanted to know “What is going on that led the author to ask this question?”
A classic example I remember from that time period was the debate on the future of Naval Aviation post Op Prairie Fire and El Dorado Canyon. People were asking why those ops went “joint” when it could have been accomplished strictly via the assets 6th Fleet had on hand at the time. My dad and I discussed that topic for a full weekend. Over breakfast at the Oceana Officer’s club that weekend, we ran into one of my dad’s friends, a Commander, who had just completed a student tour at Newport. My dad told him we were talking about what he had just majored in, which was joint operations. This O-5 explained to me the effect that a piece of legislation was having on the whole Department of Defense, where that legislation came from and how this legislation created a major change in how the mission was planned compared to just a decade previously when he was an O-3 flying in Vietnam.
As I grew older, I read articles debating everything from what a disadvantage the Arsenal ship would be to the fleet to why we still need to maintain the E-2’s on the flight decks and not depend on the USAF AWACS program to provide eyes to the fleet. I also saw minor debates on the fringes (like in the classic “Nobody Asked me, but…” editorials) that would only become bigger issues by the time I joined the fleet in 1998. These debated ideas included topics like how the PRT program is failing our sailors or why the post-Cold War RIF/BRAC combo is going to bite us in the rear. I mention these because I see those types of articles lacking now in the magazine. Rather than seeing both sides of the issue given equal weight and consideration, there might be a flood of “letters to editors” advocating why an article is wrong or misguided if that article seems to go against conventional wisdom. When healthy debate is crushed or outright denied, it is a serious issue because we fail to learn from the experience of the old salts and the new ideas of the new sailors. Just because an article doesn’t toe the party line whether this party is OpNav/SecNav, ACME Industries, or even our older generation of naval sailors; this doesn’t mean an issue isn’t something we should review the pros and cons of. There is a feeling that our organization’s written arms seem unwilling to take on any sort of submissions because some of our current juniors feel they can’t write well enough.
Another major issue facing the USNI relates to communication and writing skills on a national scale. That is, the difficulty people have in translating their thought process into written words and making those written words effective in helping their position. I bring this issue up, because it has been discussed in the last two college English Composition classes that I have taken. It is important for an organization like ours to ask why people are afraid of writing. There are a number of issues in the structure of my own writing, grammar, and composition. I see it at nearly every paper that my mother has kept from my public schooling, I can see it with a posting I wrote for the blogger named Steeljaw Scribe for his Guadalcanal theme project a few years back, and even when I was attempting to compose a journal for some college classes as part of a side project. More than a few people I have talked to have mentioned some of the same or very similar issues. For a number of people they have grammar down pat but can’t logically organize a thought if the world’s survival depended on it. Others can craft a thought that can potentially make Jefferson or Paine cry in the beauty of that thought; however, the grammar makes them look like a 2 year old to the world. The USNI would benefit by being willing to take material full of good ideas and work with the authors on grammar and presentation issues as need to make their ideas ready for publishing. The board of directors could recognize that the judicial usage of editors in these submissions we will be expanding our influence in helping the next generation of writers. Since this next generation of writers are currently on the deck plates working within the systems and policies created by our seniors. By seeing what our younger generations having tickling their minds or even making the history that will be talked about by future generations; we maintain a usefulness to our services via our members.
If the USNI really wanted to expand their membership and keep the organization as a useful independent forum, then they need to appeal to all ranks. One way to do this would be to accept articles and submissions from all ranks, whether that is the Fireman Apprentice or the CNO. The editorial board should ask everyone to send them material because writing from all ranks will appeal broadly to readers of all ranks. At one time we used to have essay contests, including one for enlisted authors, which encouraged these submissions and published the best articles in Proceedings. These used to be announced in the fleet to all ranks via Plan of the Week or Plan of the Day notes. Currently, we have lost that voice. I would like the board to recognize that the editorial pages of the Navy Times, or other trade publications, should not be the only space where discussions and counter arguments can grow. This could create a revolution in our membership. Even more so we might be introduced to more folks who are writing our history as they working their jobs.
Right after I joined the US Navy in 1998, as a gift, my dad purchased for me my very own membership to the USNI. Since then, I have always managed my budget to pay for the 3 year renewal when I get close to expiring. There have been other magazines and organizations which at various times I have started and stopped but the Proceedings/Naval History combo has always been at the forefront. It is important to me because I see it as a window into how some policies get drafted. More than that though, the books that have the USNI publishing stamp on their spine were critical to my personal and professional development.
When I get that book catalog twice a year, I go through circling books that sound interesting or exciting. This is a tradition I have maintained since childhood. Right now on my book case there are twenty to thirty books that have a USNI publishing house stamp on the spine. I have even passed on books to others who thought they might not enjoy a book on a topic but end up loving the copy that I gave them simply because it was different then what they typically could find in the name brand book stores. It was a book about a subject you didn’t always see covered. When I talk with others about USNI membership, I tell them the best part of the membership is access to the books the USNI publishes. The USNI gave folks like Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts their start in writing. They have also been a source of publishing for great technical or historical writers like Norman Friedman, Dr. Milan Vego, Dr. John Lundstrom, and many others. There are USNI books I use weekly if not daily on the job. I keep my issued copy of “The Blue Jackets Manual,” 23rd edition, plus a copy of “The Guide to Naval Writing” on my desk at work. This organization publishes books that might never get a chance to see the light of day otherwise. Think about the loss that would create to not only our own internal education, but also to our national education on the naval services. I also can’t stress enough what this organization’s “Classics of Naval Literature” series has done to save books from all but being lost forever because they have fallen out of favor with the general populace. Books like “Run Silent, Run Deep”, “Mister Roberts”, “The Quiet Warrior: Biography of Raymond Spruance”, “Away All Boats”, and “Ned Meyers or Life before the Mast” would be out of print. Though there is other groups such as, The Library of America, they aren’t publishing these books deemed to be from an unprofitable niche. Our membership would be harmed in a change in the USNI mission lead to us dropping our publishing house. Yes, it is it OUR publishing house and they are helping to not only tell our story, but also communicate the technical and scientific ways of doing our jobs. Having these books offered at discounted prices to members is a great advantage for our newest sailors.
If USNI board cared, they should have a kiosk set up at Great Lakes as well as Annapolis. They should be actively trying to solicit the membership of the kid from Smallville, Kansas who is now a Seaman Recruit getting ready to head across the street to learn how to become a Bosun or the kid from North Pole, Alaska who is going to become a Hospitalman; just as much as that kid from the Bronx who is going to be part of the graduating class of 20XX at the trade school or the student from Mayberry, North Carolina who just received his commission via ROTC. The board should be at Great Lakes looking to show the advantages of membership; everything from the magazines which offer just as much insight as Navy Times if not more, the numerous books we publish year in and year out, to even the discounts on travel from membership. There should be talk from the sales reps of a discounted membership to our newest sailor just like the ones that are currently being offered to the brand new Ensign or 2nd Lt in our services.
However, just like the way our sailors view programs inside the Navy like NMCRS, they view the USNI as being full of stuffed shirts that either have articles that are written above the sailor’s perceived education level or the articles are written by ghosts who work for those stuffed shirts to advocate a specific policy change. This is the issue too when it appears the only people who have Proceedings spread on the table in the ready room or the wardroom usually starts with the LCDR or above. I can’t tell you how many times I got queer looks and questions from my JO’s while standing the in port ASDO or ADDO why I was reading a Proceedings that also had my name on it. The classic line of, “I read it for the articles”, didn’t seem to go over well with a few until time in the Sandbox and a few beers led to discussing things in the fleet. They realized I had a pretty good grasp on things. This is an issue when more sailors are willing to debate things in Navy Times and its editorial pages rather than in a place which has as its mission statement the idea of being a totally independent forum to advance the professional, scientific, and literary knowledge of the naval professions.
USNI missed an opportunity to become more relevant to a wider audience when discussions around the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” were reported first in JFQ and not in Proceedings. More opportunities for constructive debates relevant to sailors of all ranks were missed over such topics as the LCS program, the F-35 JSF and its second engine, negative results due to over-dependence on computer based training, if UAV/UCAV’s are really something we should be betting the farm on, and even the topic of how foreign policy decisions affect our naval profession. I think that some of this shift away from our organization being a place for healthy debate started between 1993 and 1994, when we saw a huge argument from the editorial staff about whether or not to publish an anonymous article on Anthrax vaccine safety. The question was whether or not someone should publish anonymously or if they should only be published if they have the guts to put their name to what they wrote. As I remember it, this debate ran for the better part of 18 months and took an interesting tangent. Readers began to question whether folks were only writing articles to the USNI as a way to score bonus points on an Eval/FitRep. They also began asking if senior leadership was stifling debate over what was being published in an attempt to “control the message”. As more than a few organizations and even governments have learned, controlling the message can bite them in the backside.
These are just some of the issues that I have seen in the last few years with the USNI. I have expressed these concerns to the USNI staff in person at places like the annual warfare expo. I wrote this essay because I feel that the changes being proposed by this organization’s board requires me to, nay, demands that I write this essay to support what our organization stands for. I believe we will lose all the unique benefits and advantages if they board changes the mission to one of advocacy instead of being an independent forum, as our current mission states. I hope that the board considers these ideas and thoughts on how to strengthen what we have before they completely abandon our origins and convert this great institution into something 180 degrees out of phase from what this organization stood for when it was founded in 1880.
I tack this essay onto the church door as Martin Luther did on the Church in Wittenburg as a way to foster debate about our organization. I hope that this will prevent us from going down the well paved road of good intentions.
To borrow phrase, I am AT1 (AW) Charles Harold Berlemann, Jr. and I am the United States Naval Institute!