An Army Officer Explains the Navy

A little long but worth the effort, especially if you are Navy.

A speech by Mr. Harry Levins at a Navy League dinner. Mr. Levins has consistently offered to our local citizens interesting and supportive articles concerning our military services. This speech was remarkable in its recognition of the role our Navy and Marine Corps is playing in the war against terrorism. A brief bio of Mr. Levin's career follows -- in his own words: "Harry Levins is senior writer of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, specializing in military coverage. He is a Vermont native whose journalism career spans 39 years and three newspapers -- the Rutland (Vt.) Daily Herald, Long Island's Newsday and the Post- Dispatch. >From 1963-65, he served as an Army infantry lieutenant, mostly in West Germany."

John Kane, USNA '44


My thanks to Capt. Kane for inviting me here tonight. You ought to know now honored I am. After all, I'm an old soldier. To me, the Navy is a mysterious institution. It's an institution in which the NCOs dress like the officers, and the officers almost never get their hands dirty. It's an institution whose people call a rope a line, and a stairwell a ladder, even though it's as plain as the nose on your face that you're looking at a rope or a stairwell. It's an institution that never warns you about wearing a hat into the wardroom - and then glares at you when you wear a hat into the wardroom. It's an institution in which people take frightfully brief showers.

I've gotten damper in the predawn dew. And it's an institution that sometimes speaks and behaves as if we're all Englishmen living in, oh, 1880 or so, and Queen Victoria is now and forever on the throne.

I guess I'm saying that to me - and to millions of my countrymen - the Navy is the least American of the services. Now, nobody would ever say that about the Air Force. Hell, Americans invented air power. The airplane, too.

The Air Force is high-tech, high-speed, zoom-and-boom. It's as American as hot rods and forward passes. I'm aware that the Marines are a part of your Navy. And yes, they have their own odd vocabulary. They call a hat a cover, for God's sake. But maybe they're even more American than the Air Force.

Who's the all-time No. 1 Marine? No, it's not Chesty Puller, and it's not Smedley Butler, and it's not even Ted Williams. It's John Wayne - and you just can't get more all-American than John Wayne.

And then there's the Army, my Army. One author wrote a book about the cultural differences among the services. This author - he was once a
sailor, by the way - said that the Air Force's first loyalty is to technology, to its airplanes. He said the Navy's first loyalty is to the Navy itself. And he said the Army's first loyalty was to the Republic, of which the Army views itself as the loyal servant. By the way, he added, this is why the Army so often gets screwed. But the Army is America, from Audie Murphy to Beetle Bailey. That leaves us with the Navy, and the question of why it seems to be outside the rest of society.

For one thing, physically speaking, the Navy is outside the rest of society.

No carrier task force ever made a port call in St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Evansville. By definition, the Navy does its work out of sight, somewhere out there beyond the hazy horizon. Even along the coasts, few Americans pay attention. The United States is a maritime nation. We depend on seaborne commerce. But how many Americans ever pause to consider that fact?

We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient -- as alabaster cities and amber waves of grain. We're wrong, of course. But even in major ports like New York, residents ignore what the oceans mean to America. A few years back, I asked a friend in the Bay Area to take me by the Oakland docks. My friend had some trouble finding his way in. He'd lived on the East Bay for almost his entire life, and he'd never toured the docks. What we saw was as fresh to him as it was to me - mile after mile of cranes and containerized cargo, Subarus and Sonys and God knows what. And all of it got here by sea. But most of us think the stuff just shows up in showrooms and stores in St. Louis. When we think about it at all. And if our maritime-nation status is way off in the back of our minds, so is the Navy that protects that status. Oh, sure, America has its Navy towns - but not nearly so many as it once did. And a lot of those Navy towns are stuck off in some coastal corner.

Bangor, Washington. Kings Bay, Georgia. Those places aren't exactly Brooklyn, or Philadelphia, or Boston, or San Francisco.

The only sailors most Americans ever see is the chief at the recruiting station. Think about it. Here in St. Louis, we see a lot of the Army,thanks to the kids in ill-fitting uniforms who come and go from Fort Leonard Wood through Lambert Field. And although we see less of the Air Force, we're aware that it's just across the river, at Scott Air Force Base.

But the sea services? The Marine Corps is small, and far away. The Navy is big, but it, too, is far away -- on the coasts, in places like Norfolk and San Diego, places we rarely visit. And then, as I said, when we do make contact with the Navy, we're up against an institution that draws most of its vocabulary and traditions from the Royal Navy of a century and half ago - from Victorian England. To people like me, sometimes, it seems quaint - people saying Aye aye, sir; instead of Yessir, and talking about port and starboard, instead of left and right. But sometimes, it seems downright alien. On a sunny day in December 1991, I was chatting with some lookouts on the battleship Missouri, bound for Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary observance. We were on the flying bridge, or whatever it is that you people call the open bridge on top of the enclosed bridge.

Like most young militarypeople dealing with reporters, they asked whether I had prior military experience. Yes, I told them, I had once been an infantry platoon leader in the Army in Germany. They asked me what I thought of the Navy. I said, Good chow. They nodded.

And I said, but I can't get over the class system. They asked what I meant. I said, Well, in the Army, I wore the same fatigue uniform as the enlisted men.

When they got muddy, I got muddy. When they got cold, I got cold. And when the chow truck came out to the field, the other officers and I stood at the end of the line. If the chow ran out, we went without. The sailors' eyebrows rose. I continued, if I'd ever had an enlisted man wait on me the way they do in the wardroom, I'd have been court-martialed. And don't the officers ever talk to you guys? Does everything go through the chiefs?

Just then, the lookout with headphones barked, XO on the bridge! Away flew the cigarettes. Up shot the binoculars. I don't know if those kids could have spotted a Soviet submarine ambush.

But the XO never had a chance. Later, back on the fantail with a cigar, I ruminated about the officer-enlisted relationship. I concluded that on a crowded ship - even on a ship as big as the battleship Missouri -- it probably has to be that distant and aloof. Still, I felt odd every time I saw those signs that said Officers' Country -- Official Business Only. Think about it - all the great Army novels are enlisted-man novels, and all the great Navy novels are wardroom novels. And most Americans are enlisted men at heart. Ah, well. I won't change the Navy.

If Franklin D. Roosevelt couldn't, I can't. Roosevelt once said that trying to change the State Department was all but impossible - but that trying to change the Navy was even worse, like punching a feather pillow. No matter what you do to the feather pillow, he said, it always returns to its original shape.

But - and here's the serious part of this speech - this era seems to be the perfect time for America and its Navy to get to know each other. If you kept up with Washington rumors before Sept. 11, you know about the talk in the Pentagon of cutting back on carriers. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's people were talking up something called transformation -- and for the Navy, that meant mothballing a couple of carriers, maybe more. After all, the thinking went, in an age of cheap and accurate missiles, the carriers are big fat targets. And in an age of precision weapons, the carriers' air power can be replaced by cruise missiles and long-range Air Force bombers with smart bombs.

Well, after Afghanistan, that kind of talk sure went away, didn't it? I think Afghanistan showed that in a messy age with no clear-cut big enemy, expeditionary forces are utterly and absolutely priceless. And by definition, a Navy and a Marine Corps are expeditionary forces. You folks seem to own the franchise on the future. You'll get an argument from the airpower people on that one. In fact, you are getting an argument from the air power people. The Air Force Association pumps it out daily. But the Air Force is also putting all of its money into short-range fighters. They're nifty, but only when you have runways in the neighborhood. Otherwise -- as we have learned in Afghanistan, only the carriers will do. They're expensive --no, they're frightfully expensive -- but it's beginning to look as if they're indispensable.  Same thing with the Marines. A Marine Expeditionary Unit is a frightfully expensive way to put a reinforced battalion of infantry on the scene. The Army is cheaper, but without staging bases, the Army is irrelevant.

Now, the Association of the United States Army makes less noise than the Air Force Association. The Army people tend to sigh, and then to hope that when they're needed, the nation will remember them. And someday, they will be needed. Remember: Afghanistan is almost the last war - and you know what they say about getting ready to refight the last war. Still, I think you folks are wonderfully positioned. If we have to do Somalia, or Sudan, or the Philippines, or Indonesia, we'll turn first to the sea services. In the Cold War, you folks took a back seat to the Air Force and Army. Now, it's your turn to shine - and in Afghanistan, you shone. Don't be shy about it. Let your fellow Americans know that a big Navy has its uses, after all.

Capt. Kane told me that I should speak briefly, and I'm pushing the brevity envelope, so I'll sit down and shut up. But not without one last question: Why do you call it a brow instead of a gangplank?

Thank you very much.

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Last revision: April 03, 2009 07:31 AM
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