This morning’s military article comes to us with news that the sailor who had been accused of burning down a baby carrier has been cleared of any wrongdoing. The article actually points out two problems that have plagued the Navy for decades.
The first is that the US Navy has a long history of finding scapegoats upon whom to place blame for institutional failures. In this case, you have a ship that is poorly maintained and cluttered with junk. A sailor warns his division officer that the place is a fire hazard and is ignored. A fire is started by some unknown source. Sailors can’t put it out because they and their officers have no idea how to perform even basic damage control. Instead of blaming the command for poor training, maintenance, and housekeeping, blame the sailor who tried to warn you. The Navy saves face, and who cares about those stupid enlisted men? They are there to be destroyed for the sake of officer careers.
That is reminiscent of the Iowa explosion. In the case of the Iowa battleships, there was a flaw in the firing system. The silk making up the 50 pound bags that the gunpowder comes in were famous for leaving embers behind in the chamber of the 16 inch guns. Ramming them into the breech too quickly while those embers were still there was a recipe for explosions. They had been known to cause mishaps in those guns for decades.
However, those cannons were a huge PR point for the Navy, providing tons of photo ops and bragging rights for recruiting commercials. So when the Iowa had an explosion, instead of blaming a faulty process in a 50 year old weapons system and hurting their recruiting tool, they blamed a sailor who they alleged was a jilted gay lover.
That brings us to the second issue exposed by the above article. The Navy has had recruiting issues for decades. The smarter and nerdier recruits all want to go to the Air Force, which is seen as more technical and cerebral. A lot of the muscle-head jocks want to prove their masculinity and join the Marines. Many other kids want to be able to play with machine guns and blow shit up, so join the Army. What does the Navy have? The Navy has historically solved that problem by trying to project this image that everyone in the Navy is a fighter pilot, a SEAL, a computer technician, or an officer. You will note that no one in Navy movies except Steven Seagal is ever a cook, and even then, Seagal was a Navy SEAL cook. Assigned to a battleship. Not everyone can have those awesome jobs. In fact, most Navy jobs are tedious jobs more akin to janitorial work than to anything cool or technical. There are more people cleaning toilets and doing officers’ laundry than there are SEALS in the Navy. (There are as many Admirals as there are ships– someone has to be their orderlies.)
So the Navy convinces everyone that they can be a SEAL, or a Rescue Swimmer, or a nuclear power plant operator. The recruiters make the pitch and convince you that your job is going to be AWESOME, and will come with all sorts of promotions and large cash bonuses. What they don’t tell you, or at least gloss over, is that the washout rates are on the order of 80 percent or more for some programs. Sometimes they wash you out for nebulous reasons, like “possesses traits undesirable in this career field” because the kid got caught with a beer while under 21 years old. Starry eyed high school kids join the military to be SEALS, washout before training even starts, and find themselves cleaning toilets and chipping paint with a hammer for the next four years.
The Navy knows that those jobs suck, but they have you under contract for the next four years, so they don’t care if the sailor is happy or not. As evidenced by the statement from the Navy prosecutor:
Prosecutors said Mays was angry and vengeful about failing to become a Navy SEAL and being assigned to deck duty, prompting him to ignite cardboard boxes on July 12, 2020…Mays thought he would be jumping out of helicopters on missions with the SEALs, but instead he was chipping paint on the deck of a ship, and he hated the Navy for that, Jones said.
This is a common story. The reality of the Navy is far different from the image it portrays in the movies. The Captain of the ship doesn’t listen to some E-4 Petty Officer with grudging respect for the knowledge he possesses. The Captain is more likely to be a career ticket puncher who is desperately trying to become one of the Navy’s 265 Admirals, and will destroy that E4’s life to do so. I can’t speak for the other branches, but that is life on the big, gray boat.