Navies in the Twilight Zone

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Navies in the Twilight Zone

The firing of the captain of the USS Enterprise raises interesting questions about what’s OK behaviour in wartime.

Last week, Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of the US Navy Fleet Forces Command, relieved Capt. Owen Honors of his post as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. His offense? The Virginian-Pilot—the local newspaper of record for the Norfolk area, the primary US naval hub in the Atlantic—disclosed that Honors had initiated and emceed a series of raunchy videos aired on board the Enterprise in 2006-2007, when he was the ship's executive officer, or deputy to then-Capt. Larry Rice. He will be forced out of the service. Capt. Honors had to go. Even so, this case reveals something about the twilight zone the US Navy has inhabited for the past 20 years.

Society is entitled to demand that its moral and ethical standards be upheld in the armed forces and to exact retribution from officials who defy the public will. While theorist Carl von Clausewitz cautions against making policy a ‘tyrant’ that tramples on military officials’ prerogatives, he nonetheless insists that policy ‘permeates’ the full range of military endeavours, except perhaps for routine administrative matters like ‘the posting of guards.’ Clausewitz leaves it to policymakers and the populace to determine when to impose their own judgments.

In general, however, political leaders allow the military greater latitude in wartime, on the logic that the nation has higher priorities than enforcing strict standards in the ranks, and that soldiers, sailors, and airmen may need to blow off steam amid the exigencies of combat. There are exceptions, such as the relief of Gen. George S. Patton for slapping a soldier, as memorably depicted by George C. Scott in the movie Patton. Removing him from command removed him from the thick of the fight for Western Europe, at least for a time. The US Army made it work despite Patton’s temporary absence from the battlefield, but the fact remains that there’s some risk to punishing character peccadilloes in wartime.

The problem for the US Navy is that it has dwelt in a grey area between war and peace since the first Gulf War, which commenced two decades ago next week. In a real sense, the naval aviation community has been at war since January 1991, while the surface and submarine fleets have fired few shots since the expulsion of the Iraqi Army from Kuwait. Carrier aviators helped patrol the skies over Iraq, enforcing northern and southern no-fly zones ordained by the UN Security Council. They’ve rendered close air support to operations in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003. In short, they’ve been on a wartime footing for 20 years.

The picture looks quite different for the surface community. Apart from ferrying air power into combat zones, the US surface fleet has remained largely on a peacetime footing since the first Gulf War. There’s little difference between wartime and peacetime in surface ships—the major difference being whether ordnance is expended in target practice or fired at real, living adversaries. Indeed, the normal daily routine for ships at sea is ‘Condition III,’ also known as ‘Wartime Steaming.’ Under Condition III, the crew mans various key positions—navigation, engineering, weapons—to levels suitable for combat cruises, when the ship doesn’t expect battle but may be taken unawares by enemy action.

In a sense, then, the surface navy is perpetually at war, even when there are few threats to surface forces. Its seafarers think mainly in peacetime terms. Honors thus found himself straddling a weird intersection between the aviation and service communities, and between war and peace. He is an F-14 Tomcat pilot and former test pilot. This means he may have gotten caught up in the swagger of aviators at war and sought to bolster the air wing’s morale through dubious means and at the expense of other segments of the crew. And yet he served on board successive surface vessels—USS Mount Whitney, USS Enterprise—where the normal peacetime mentality prevailed. Publicly calling Enterprise surface officers ‘fags’—one among the many offenses that precipitated his firing—doubtless left non-aviators cold.

This sort of shenanigans may escape public scrutiny during a full-blown war, when the rah-rah form of esprit de corps pervades the entire fleet. This time, instead, it generated a backlash among the US Navy hierarchy and society more generally. None of this excuses what Honors did. It’s possible, however, that he believed the environment was more ‘permissive’ (to use the military jargon) for such things than it truly was. He misjudged the surroundings—and paid the price with his career.

With any luck, other authority figures will learn the lesson. Being a ‘global force for good,’ as the US Navy has taken to billing itself, involves not only high-end warfighting but also noncombat functions like counterpiracy, counterproliferation, and disaster relief. The navy will operate in a twilight zone for some time to come.


James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are theirs alone.