Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Navy and a Sanctioned Class Divide

Thanksgiving Day 2009 was the most professionally embarrassed I have ever been as a naval officer.  At the time, my squadron was deployed aboard the USS Nimitz in support of combat operations in Afghanistan.

The day itself was remarkable for other, better, reasons.  In the early afternoon, my section of Super Hornets had rushed up to a troops-in-contact situation in the far northeast corner of Afghanistan.  A SEAL Team was being attacked by a group of insurgents, and we employed against the enemy mortar position.  We arrived back on board ship to find General David Petraeus making the rounds and shaking hands.

Following our debrief, my crew and I happily, if a bit wearily, made our way down to the officer's wardroom for our Thanksgiving meal.  Stuffing, turkey, everything.  It was about 30 minutes until the wardroom was to close, and there was barely anybody in it.

I needed some time to decompress following the meal, so I wondered up to the hangar deck to get some fresh air and be alone.  When I arrived, I saw a snaking line of hundreds of sailors weaving through the cavernous space.  I saw a few of my squadron's sailors, and asked them what was going on.  They told me it was the line to get their Thanksgiving meal.  There were rumors that despite the hundreds of people still waiting, because it was closing time, they were going to cut off serving the meal.  "Mission First, People Always."  Right.

I was stunned.  Twenty year old kids, ten thousand miles from home, pulling twelve hour shifts for weeks straight to turn wrenches so we could fly, and it seemed likely they wouldn't even get a Thanksgiving meal.  Meanwhile, the officer's wardroom was still empty.

Without telling them why, I told the seven sailors I recognized to follow me.  I led them down the ladderwells to the empty officers wardroom, and told them to fill a bunch of to-go plates with food.  They eagerly did.

While they did so, I tried to find the Supply Commander who ran the officers mess, and see if he would be willing to open up the wardroom to help alleviate the crush of enlisted folks that were about to miss Thanksgiving.  He told me he wasn't allowed to do that.  I stormed off, and told my sailors to fill their plates as full as they possibly could before leading them back upstairs.

Our Nimitz officer corps utterly failed our sailors that day.  Yet, on a smaller scale, we fail them everyday aboard embarked ships.

The Navy is one of the only places left in America where a clear, enforced and openly accepted class structure still exists.  If you are an enlisted sailor, you cannot walk in the blue tiled "officer's country" unless on offical business -- an even then you'd do best to avoid it.

On board a carrier, sailors line up for every meal and make their way through long cafeteria style lines to get chow.  Officers head to the wardroom, and are served meals while enlisted sailors in snazzy outfits act as our waitstaff.  Behind us, in cabinets covered in glass, tens of thousands of dollars worth of Tiffany's silver used to serve VIP's glistens.  Mood lighting and jazz plays during Sunday brunch.  It embarrassed me the first time I had an E-3 clear my plate, and it still embarrasses me.  

The thing that always impressed me most about the few days I spent in the field with Marines was that their officers nearly always let their subordinates eat before they did.  And then they ate amidst their Marines.

It is high time the Navy ended the archaic practice of segregating the officer corps from their enlisted subordinates during shipboard meals.   It is an antiquated practice rooted in tradition that is no longer relevant for an information age, socially collaborative society.  A truly Disruptive Carrier Commanding Officer would take this step of his own volition and see the transformative and unifying effects a less hierarchical meal structure would have.

Similarly, a Disruptive Division Officer would forgo the wardroom and make a commitment to spending time each day breaking bread with his charges.  This is something I never had the foresight to undertake.

One of the reasons tech company's provide meals for their employees is to foster free flowing, unscripted conversation between people that wouldn't normally interact.   Every employee, from the company janitor to the CEO, has access to the same space.  It gets the conversants thinking about ideas within the company they hadn't considered.  It also brings lower level employees in more informal contact with their superiors. Ideas are generated.  Conversations are developed.  And innovations are born. 

As our military enters an age where innovative thought and creativity will be the hallmark of successful strategy, we must embrace the conditions that make such things possible.

Deliberate Design Matters
Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, describes the success of Pixar:  "[They] realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration, its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together." Later, he quotes Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles as saying, "Steve [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.  So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company."

Furthermore, on a ship, the mess decks are classic "third places:" Interactive environments that are neither home (berthings) nor the office (workcenters).   Sociologist Ray Oldenberg notes:
These shared areas have played an outsize role in the history of new ideas, from the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century England where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modernist Paris frequented by Picasso and Gertrude Stein.  The virtue of these third places is that they bring together a diversity of talent, allowing people to freely interact.
Leadership, in many ways, is simply about being present.  It's about usefully interacting with your subordinates.  It is taking an interest in their complaints and taking action on their valid suggestions for improvement.  Good order and discipline can be maintained while still informally engaging during unscripted social gatherings.  

Our most successful and recognized Naval organizations already encourage a more horizontal communication chain, and blurred lines between officer and enlisted.  Both the Blue Angels and Naval Special Warfare units require close bonds between leaders and led, and as such there are very few distinctions in social standing.  Let's emulate the best of our services, and help foster more collaboration.

Traditions are valuable, as long as they don't persist merely because they are traditions.  New realities require adaptation.  We have a highly disciplined and educated military.  There is no need to still engage in a class-cleaving system that replicates the most foul excesses of the nineteenth century gilded age.   End opulent differences in officer and enlisted embarked meals.


  1. Slight differences in the funding/budget structures between the Wardroom, CPO mess and enlisted messes would make this a bit more difficult than simply removing the verbal prohibitions against it.

    Still, that shouldn't stop the attempt. I retired in 2005 as a PO1 with tours on MIDWAY, INDEPENDENCE and KITTY HAWK, and the mess decks were often the only place that provided an "escape", however temporary, from the daily grind. When I did a small TDY on a tin can, I was amazed that the separation between the enlisted mess and CPO mess was nothing more than a waist high flower pot.

  2. I remember one time when, as a JO, I attempted to sit down with one of my division (briefly) in the enlisted mess, because he'd just come off a particularly disastrous watch and I wanted to let him know that there were no negative repercussions hanging fire for him.

    The on-the-spot butt-chewing I got from the COB was memorable, the later one by my div chief slightly less vivid but his comprehensive explanation of how I screwed things up left me an indelible impression on me.

    Both of them were adamant about the value of a segregated chow. To them, chow was one of the few places where people got a pretty strictly-enforced break from the structure imposed by the chain-of-command - and that this, in and of itself, was valuable.

    I suspect that there is some truth to that, so any solution to the very real problem of an aggressively enforced class distinction (i.e., "opulent differences") should account for the need for there to be a safe space where people can decompress without leadership intrusion or observation.

    Chow's a good place for that to happen. Maybe it's not the best place to choose to create your 3rd space. What are some other options?

  3. Within the structure imposed by the chain-of-command, perhaps it is important to take a break from that structure and communicate as peers. But I think the point is not that it is important that we get a break from the structure, but that the structure exists in the first place. Gore is a company built on 150-person plants, not that much bigger than a submarine. Yet, their plants function astoundingly well with all people as "associates", whether they are machinists, engineers, accountants or executives. The purpose of the meal is to provide an opportunity for bottom-up ideas, which is sorely needed. I had personally always thought that if you're going to your CO to find out what needs to be done instead of your chief, you're looking in the wrong direction.

    One could argue that a warship isn't a company, and we need that structure to fight wars. However, based on the conversation at the NWDC Innovation Symposium today, I would postulate that Naval personnel at all levels are more comfortable in their role as technician in the business operations of maintenance than as tactician.

  4. The smoke deck acts as an effective 3rd place to those who use it. It is often disparaged by the non-smokers, but I have found some great conversations there (including a tattoed DCC who did impromptu Damage Control training). Cigar call on the bridge wing was effective as well.
    This was on a DDG. I think it's harder to do this type of stuff on a bigger ship, but small boys can break the paradigms more easily and experiment with blurring lines.

  5. One of the MANY reasons I avoided large commands. Cruiser/Destroyer's for LIFE! However, once I went Espeditionary, the line between commissioned and enlisted fairly well disappears. Especially if you are sent out for a mission. First names, shared liberty, dinner out together... Now this may have been due the fact the Cox'n was in charge of the boat, not the Officer, or maybe it was a cleansing mindset.

    I like what he is saying about the caste system, but if he doesn't like it, don't go to a bird farm... Turn in your wings and find a small unit...