Tuesday, January 04, 2011

About Those Videos

To no one's surprise, the Navy has fired Captain Owen Honors, commander of the USS Enterprise.

Honors, who had served as skipper of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier since May of last year, was sacked after the Virginian-Pilot newspaper posted copies of raunchy "morale" videos that he produced while serving as executive officer of the Enterprise in 2006-2007.

The videos, shown to thousands of crew members over the carrier's closed-circuit TV system, featured Captain Honors using gay slurs, staging "suggestive" shower scenes with female crew members and simulating masturbation.

A story about the videos appeared in Sunday's edition of the Pilot, which also made them available for public viewing through its website. By Tuesday, Honors' fate was sealed, with the Navy announcing his dismissal at a hastily-called press conference:

"After personally reviewing the videos created while serving as executive officer, I have lost confidence in Capt. Honors' ability to lead effectively," said Adm. John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in Norfolk. Harvey declined to answer questions from reporters.

The long gap between the videos airing on the Enterprise and their appearance at the Pilot website raises obvious questions about the lack of complaints (until now), and the lack of action by Navy leaders.

As for the first issue, it appears that few among the carrier's crew took offense to the videos. In fact, a number of Enterprise sailors, current and former--men and women--have rallied to Captain Honors' defense. As Sara Sorcher of the National Journal reports:

In solidarity with Honors, Facebook groups with titles like “We Support Captain O.P. Honors!“ have garnered thousands of members. Nearly 1,000 have signed a petition to keep him as commander of the carrier, and many have swapped out their Facebook pictures for images of Honors in uniform.

Before Honors became XO of the Enterprise, the mood on board was “awful,” said Kimberly Wooster, 32, who served as an electronics technician from 2001 to 2005 and left because she was so unhappy.

“People were leaving because they couldn’t take it anymore. Even as a strong, grounded person it was just very, very hard. Everything seemed to be disintegrating so fast,” Wooster said in an interview, describing a particularly bad 18-month period where the carrier was not deployed, but crew members were working 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week.

When asked if other XOs or commanders did anything to boost morale on the ship before Honors, Wooster responded, “Hell no.”

“We were not worth their concern or their time,” she said. “I don’t think we even registered on their radar.”

Wooster only overlapped with Honors briefly and said she later received burned copies of his videos.

“People were saying, ‘You left too soon. This guy’s amazing. He’s made us feel like it’s OK,’” she said. “It’s not that the job got so much easier, it’s just that someone was finally listening, aware that these are 18- to 24-year-olds who have lost a lot in the last year and they need something to understand they’re not alone.”

Wooster's comments are illustrative, for a couple of reasons. First, she confirms that Captain Honors' videos received wide dissemination. If a former Petty Officer from the Enterprise could get copies of the videos, it's reasonable to assume that senior officers saw them too. So, why didn't anyone raise red flags three or four years ago when Captain Honors was producing those tasteless (but amusing) skits?

We're guessing that the brass viewed Honors as an effective leader. Unit morale is one of the responsibilities of a ship XO (executive officer), and it looks like Captain Honors inherited a very unhappy crew on Enterprise. Apparently, most of the sailors appreciated his efforts and we're guessing that the "Big E's" efficiency improved under his watch. So, the brass was willing to look the other way.

Incidentally, we are not trying to condone Captain Honors morale efforts. While the videos that have found their way into the public realm, we're also remind us that the Navy has its own, unique culture. Bawdy skits, offensive humor and other customs have long been used to relieve the monotony that sets in after months at sea. It was in this tradition that Honors produced his videos, and judging by the comments on various Facebook pages and other on-line forums, his efforts were appreciated.

But even if his motives were focused on crew morale and mission accomplishment, you still have to ask the essential question: what was Captain Honors thinking? We assume that the former carrier commander was aware that his videos were making their way around the fleet. And surely he knew it was just a matter of time before they showed up on YouTube. The fact they weren't on-line (until the Virginian-Pilot got hold on them) is another testament to the popularity and respect that Honors earned from his sailors.

They understood that on-board "morale videos" were intended for the crew--and no one else. It was one more shared experience that bonded them together during months of training and long periods at sea. It's a concept that is almost alien to anyone who hasn't been a sailor, or part of the wider military community.

You see, there's something about shared hardships and camaraderie that bring people together--or drive them apart. In that environment, you quickly discover which senior officers genuinely care about their troops, and the ones that are more interested in that next promotion. Captain Honors clearly fell in that latter category, even if his efforts at morale-boosting have been deemed inappropriate.

Apparently, the former skipper of the Enterprise didn't understand that his Navy has changed(along with the rest of the U.S. military). Honors is only a couple of years younger than your humble correspondent. We came into a military culture where a certain degree of raunchiness was tolerated, even encouraged.

As a junior intel officer, I knew female colleagues who included "Playboy" shots in their aircrew briefings--just to make sure that no one fell asleep and missed the important stuff. A male officer in my organization used the base distribution system to send copies of his favorite skin magazines to pilots and spooks in other squadrons (he recently retired as a Colonel). And some of the dirtiest jokes I've ever heard were told--in mixed company--by a female officer who also retired as an O-6. Today, the same activities would get them an Article 15--at a minimum--and put offenders on the fast track to an early civilian career.

To be fair, some change was in order. There probably was too much sexism and vulgar behavior in the "old" military, but clearly, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.


ADDENDUM: As others have noted, the release of the tapes is curious, to say the least. The Enterprise is scheduled to deploy in less than a month, and the carrier's new CO faces the difficult task of getting up to speed as his ship sails for a war zone. Carrier deployments are tough, and having a brand new skipper on the bridge won't make this one any easier. Some have even argued that the "disclosure" of the tapes was aimed at decreasing readiness on a key ship. We won't go that far, but it makes you wonder: why didn't these three and four-year-old tapes surface much sooner, and not on the eve of a deployment?

As for the "source" of the tapes, it was clearly an inside job. We can't point to a specific individual, but there are two prime categories of suspects. The first (and most obvious) are individuals who received a poor performance report from Captain Honors (former department heads on the Enterprise would be in that group, along with E-8s and E-9s who were evaluated by Honors since taking command, or during his previous tour as XO).

There's also the possibility that Honors was torpedoed by one of his peers. As a Naval Academy grad, Top Gun graduate, decorated aviator and tours as a carrier XO and commander, Owen Honors was on track to become an admiral. Now, with his career in tatters, there is no chance he will ever reach flag rank. We're guessing that Owens was up for his first star in the next year or so--and a presumptive choice for promotion, had the scandal not erupted. Instead, Owens is toast, and there will be one more opening when that board meets. It wouldn't be the first time that a cut-throat Captain or Colonel has deliberately sabotaged a colleague, to enhance their own chances at promotion.

One final thought: if you're so inclined, do a Google search for Captain Owens, then do the same thing for Captain Holly Graf. Readers will recall that Captain Graf was fired as skipper of the USS Cowpens last summer, for "cruelty and maltreatment of her crew." That was the Navy's description of her actions--not ours. Mark Thompson of Time correctly described her as a "female Captain Bligh" who verbally abused her crew and even throttled a Royal Navy exchange officer who served on her pr evious command, the USS Winston Churchill.

In case you're wondering, that web search for Graf produces fewer results than a similar query for Captain Honors. But more importantly, much of the coverage of the Graf controversy was limited to Navy Times and military blogs (Time was a notable exception among the MSM). Outside of military circles, few have heard of "Horrible Holly" Graf. Meanwhile, the Honors scandal has been front-page news around the world. We're not surprised.


BuckeyeSandy said...

Well I hope to high heaven some Beta tapes made in Korea during the 1980s never see the light of day.

Then again, those in the tapes are also long retired too.

"Morale" does not always equal "Moral."

It is a shame, and I'd put money on "covering bases" towards a promotion, although, if it comes to light, while never in the MSM, it will end that person's career too. If you "sell-out" a "brother" who else will you sell out?

I saw some of the tapes, and really, there is more explicit stuff on comedy sitcoms today, or on SNL.

chrisale said...

As a civilian, but one who has spent time at sea so am at least familiar with the concept of the monotony of days and weeks with only your crewmates.

#1: Sure, raunchy is fine.

#2: His videos would have been fine if kept forever onboard the Enterprise, shown whenever the crew needed a laugh.

#3: Letting them be shared was the beginning of the end... that's where it crossed the wider "moral" standard.

#4: Civilians, including myself, will never understand why it would be OK for someone in such a huge position of authority, militarily, socially, personally, to make anything like that and think it's OK. There is being funny, then there is being a bigoted a-hole. Conduct not becoming an officer would be the opinion of the civilian population.... the population served by the military.

#5: The reason the other (woman) commander didn't make the 10 o'clock news in Nunavut is because she wasn't commanding one of the most powerful and largest military vessels in the world. Period. 1000s of sailors. It's a "do you want this type of person protecting you" type of story, in the most sensational way. That's what makes the story juicy.

Isha said...

Interesting perspective on this case. I've always been under the impression that the navy was a different world with very different sensibilities and that their sensibilities do not belong in my world, but mine do not belong in theirs.

I'm female, not personally involved with the armed forces at all but actually not at all offended by the skits. And despite not really understanding the intricate and complex nature of deployments, I also can't see how removing him just before one is the best solution for this ship.

... Pendulums, you give them a little nudge and you don't know where they can fly off to.

Richard said...

In an age of political correctness, when Top Secret/CODEWORD NSA and CIA operations are published with impunity, and diplomatic and military communications are floated across the electronic ether with sanctimonious disregard for consequences or sanctions, we are clearly losing the war… and losing it from within!

The faux indignation of witless liberals has replaced effective accomplishment and respect as the premier measure of leadership. Cpt. Owen Honors, meet Col. Alan West.

Admiral Wooster should be ashamed of himself.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that we can have people like Al Franken, of whom we can see pictures of as an adult rolling around in diapers sucking his thumb with a toy, and Barney Frank with his gay lover leading our country, but OP gets nailed for this? I flew with him; he is a decent guy. Was it because he made a satire about gays, or are we purging the military of anyone who can lead their way out of a paper bag?

Rorschach said...

If I were a betting man, I'd be laying my money on a colleague that is also up for promotion to flag rank torpedoing his career, not to someone with a poor performance review.

MarkD said...

I lost all respect when my daughter visited Canoe U and was told that "they deserve their own officers." The they were, of course, minorities.

I was under the impression it was the United States Navy. Then again, I was a Marine, so that's probably too sophisticated for me. Or the brass are a bunch of pussies.