By: JOHN LEHMAN SPECIAL TO THE U-T     12:01 a.m.July 7, 2013  Updated 10:11 p.m.July 5, 2013

John Lehman was secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, and a member of the 9/11 Commission.

Some naval leaders are born great (Nelson), some achieve greatness (Nimitz) and some have greatness thrust upon them (Forrestal). But what they all have in common is the most valuable of leadership talents, a willingness to be decisive under pressure based on a refined sense of the calculus of risk and reward.

All great leaders have made bad decisions and miscalculated risk at times in their careers. A leader cannot achieve success without failures along the way; Nelson at Boulogne, Nimitz grounding his first command, Forrestal trusting Symington — but they learn from them.

But the advice of Gilbert and Sullivan has nonetheless proved all too valid in peacetime:

“Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, And you all may be Rulers of the Queen’s Navy.”

Peacetime navies tend to be risk averse, and those who tend to rise to the top are those who are noncontroversial consensus decision-makers and above all, risk avoiders.

But not in modern memory has risk avoidance been carried to such extremes as it is in today’s Navy along with the other armed services. Political correctness is increasingly enforced with a religious zeal. “Zero tolerance” is proudly hailed. One strike and you are out. Year after year as the fleet shrinks, records are set in removing commanders for cause. Other senior officers who attempt to protect their subordinates from unjust persecution are themselves embroiled.

A perfect example in the news is the current case of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, highest ranking female astronaut, whose career is blocked by Sen. Claire McCaskell, because Helms intervened to prevent a gross railroading of a young captain for alleged sexual harassment. As in China, to be accused of political incorrectness is to be found guilty, and there is no career recourse.

In choosing a career of naval service over civilian life, a young naval officer or NCO is already accepting many disadvantages: family separation, constant uprooting of family, lack of ability to change companies for better opportunity, and of course, risk of death and maiming.

To all this is now added the high risk of a career-ending anonymous hot-line call made by a disgruntled subordinate claiming sexual harassment, or any other of the myriad impieties of political incorrectness. To be accused is to be ruined.

After years of flawless service, of family sacrifice, hardship and valor, careers now can come to an abrupt end.

Of course there are many journalists, armchair strategists and think-tankers who applaud the victory of those like Rep. Pat Schroeder who vowed to “break the culture” after Tailhook ’91.

They herald the arrival of unmanned aerial, surface and undersea vehicles as eliminating the need for naval sea dogs and their warrior culture, since future naval warfare will be done from unified bases in Nevada, with operators requiring a culture rather closer to computer geeks.

As the old naval culture, best described by Napoleon as “L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace!” (audacity, audacity, always audacity!) disappears, what is being lost?

Those old attributes of naval leaders — willingness to take intelligent calculated risk, self-confidence, even a certain swagger — that are invaluable in wartime are the very ones that make them particularly vulnerable in today’s zero-tolerance Navy. The political correctness thought-police, like Inspector Javert in “Les Misérables,” are out to get them and are relentless.

A new naval culture of risk aversion has been created. Men and women with the potential of great naval leadership are not the type to accept such an environment, and they are leaving in numbers that will set records when the economy recovers.

Service bureaucrats will be quick to refute with statistics to show that retention of the best is at an all-time high.

Ironically, the new culture’s measures of excellence reward the most risk averse. It is inconceivable that Jones, Decatur, Farragut, Halsey, King, any of the McCains, Zumwalt or Holloway, could have made it past lieutenant commander in today’s Navy.

We will only find out what has been lost when our naval weakness ends our ability to deter, and once again we find ourselves in an unnecessary war.


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