This page was last updated on 18 July 1999.

A Veteran's Guide to Revisionist History

(or "Please Excuse the Young Guys Trying to Have Lives")

by Commander Ward Carroll, USN
Note: This article appeared in the June 1999 issue of USNI Proceedings under the title "Let the Youngsters Live Their Lives." It is presented here with the permission of the author, for which I am grateful.

The other day as I was running some weekend errands, I saw a bumper sticker on a rusted out Honda in front of me that struck me as germane to some of the attitudes surrounding the state of the Navy. Actually, this particular bumper sticker was only one of many on the transom of this Reagan-era beauty, but it stuck out from the amplifier and effects pedal and surf wax logos, partially because of its neon yellow lettering against a jet black background color scheme, but mostly because of its message. The sticker read: "If it's too loud, you're too old."

We reached a stop light and as I entered the left turn lane, I pulled abreast of the Honda and was immediately engulfed in a rhythmic low-end din emanating from the little car, a 4/4 thud that shook it to the rims and pushed the windows out to the point they looked as if they would surely shatter. The beat was punctuated by some guy rambling some inane rhyme over it. I couldn't tell what he was saying exactly, but his tenor sounded angry. I couldn't even hear my own radio for the racket.

That was music? What happened to melody and depth and meaning? Was music not important anymore? As the red light stayed red forever, I pondered my own musical upbringing and the profoundness of it. I thought of the artists and iconoclasts who formed bands like The Beatles, and how they changed and shaped western civilization, and about Woodstock, and how music mattered then. It was important, and with the importance came beauty, art, and fun. I mused on how the life had been drained from today's music, and how it had been reduced to an industry-fueled trifle, driven by computer-tracked sales figures and the bottom line of mega-corporations. It wasn't spontaneous or sincere or fun.

But as I glanced at the driver of the Honda and wondered how he could stand the volume in the tiny space, I saw he was lost in the beat, head bobbing and hands drumming on the steering wheel. The lyrics must have made sense to him because he was matching the singer rap for rap. He looked to be, dare I say, having fun.

Then it struck me: perhaps the bumper sticker was right. Maybe he wasn't the problem; maybe I was. What sort of elitist had I become, what sort of pedant, that I could judge what qualified as "real" in the celebration of youth? At that moment I realized who I was: I was an old guy. It was time to let go and give the next generation their due: the consideration that they'll be true to the sense of what moves them. My Paul McCartney was my dad's Elvis Presley and my grandfather's Charlie Parker, and is now my son's Busta Rhymes. Whose goose bumps are more well-defined when listening to their favorites?

Alas the rumblings, from the pages of professional journals, and from idle chatter in the parking lots as the seminars, meetings and receptions let out; the consensus seems timeless and irrefutable:

  • The Navy used to be more fun.
  • The warrior culture is gone.
  • Today's officers are forced to be careerists.
  • Things are too technical.
  • Nobody has a sense of duty and national service anymore.
  • As a result of all of the above, the defense of our great nation is in jeopardy.
As an officer who until a few months ago was involved in the tip-of-the-spear carrier-based strike warfare side of the Navy, and is now working with the next generation of officers, midshipmen at Annapolis, I have a response to the assertions above: Cease buzzer and relax.

Those who feel the six bullets above are true (I'd guess primarily sidetracked active duty O-6s and retired senior officers) haven't been paying attention. This isn't 1994 and we're not arguing with SecNav about why we can't give a new guy in the squadron the callsign "Puke" anymore. While you continue to fan the embers (not flames) of dated controversy, the lieutenants and lieutenant commanders of the fleet have been fixing the program, and, I submit, they've been having fun in the process.

No, you say? Well, which fun are you talking about? The fun of the sea-based race riots in the early '70s? The Vietnam-era fun of public disdain for the military? The fun of months on Gonzo Station and a failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt?

Or by "fun" do you mean pulling liberty in Subic Bay -- you know, old style liberty, where a man could act like a man, or even a caveman and not worry about getting charged with Conduct Unbecoming an Officer? Are you heartsick because we've lost the ethos of "what happens on cruise stays on cruise?" Hey, that was what trust was all about, brother. How's a guy supposed to figure it out now?

I was deployed with the USS George Washington (CVN-73) Battle Group this time last year, and I saw more esprit and fraternity in that air wing than I'd ever seen in my career, and I've been in five different fighter squadrons, two of them B.T. (Before Tailhook). The Marine Hornet squadron XO was killed in a mid-air while flying in the Gulf and the entire wing banded together and threw a wake during the port call a few days afterward that was as reflective, energetic and cathartic as any gathering of a group of warriors could be. So tell the officers there at the Seaman's Club in Dubai, on a 12-hour strike-ready tether, with tears of joy in their eyes for having known the fallen comrade, and conviction in their souls for the missions ahead, that their emotions are somehow invalid.

And yes, I said gathering of "warriors." You see, while you were watching Larry King Live and hoping the President was going to get impeached for adultery (what does he think this is, the old days in Subic?) the United States Navy was executing strikes into Iraq. While you grew tired of the ethics debate between Ted Danson and William Bennett and began to channel surf, the forward-deployed surface warfare officers were high-fiving each other because they got their last Tomahawk off and crossing their fingers that it would make it to the target. At the same time, after reading an article you wrote that said she was bringing the service to its knees, a female Hornet pilot watched the AAA light show beneath her and responded to radar-warning gear indications with jinks and expendables while guiding a laser-guided bomb to a direct hit on a chemical munitions bunker. And 200 miles north of her a Tomcat crew took the war to downtown Baghdad in a jet you said was too old to be effective.

In case you missed it, Desert Fox was a Navy victory that validated the viability of carrier-based warfare in the post-Cold War world. NATO tasking notwithstanding, let the Air Force at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia worry about the lack of a mission and morale as they sit grounded by the host nation's political concerns. Navy crews were too busy rising to the challenge of flying five strikes in three days to hangdog around and debate their raison d'etre - the same way, at this writing, aviators in USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) are too busy assisting in the combined effort of Operation Allied Force over the Balkans to participate in discourses about the modern utility of naval power.

As the dust has settled on the watershed issues of the early- to mid-1990s, the Navy has taken stock of the lessons learned and attempted to implement the proper fixes. Agreed, in a lot of cases the changes aren't happening fast enough, and yes, many good officers are still getting out dissatisfied. So was everybody in the pool for CNO in your day? And was every CO you worked for Gary Cooper?

And technology isn't a burden, by the way. You had reduction tables and a sextant, they have hand-held satellite navigation systems. If you had a chance to see the rate at which tactics are developing, not only in the wardrooms and ready rooms, but at the weapons schools and centers of excellence that didn't exist in your Navy, you'd realize these guys have the luxury, not the burden, of technology to focus them on the mission.

When you utter statements like those listed in the bullets near the beginning of this article, you're implicitly saying, "My life was better than yours ever has the potential to be," and that's fine. You're old. You probably need to think that. We respect what you've done, but guess what? It's not true. And it's not fair that you should poison the well for the talented folks that are trying to follow you. I've seen it here at the Naval Academy in the attitudes of many of the midshipmen. They have this sense that the Navy is in peril, and their careers are going to be misery. I didn't tell them this; I was too busy planning the war and working 18 hours a day at sea loving life to give them any of these ideas. You told them.

Get out of the auditoriums and visit a ship at sea (talk to a type commander's public affairs officer for an embark) and get yourself back in touch with reality. On any given day off either coast of the United States, you can see crews of patriots fighting the war of the Inter-Deployment Training Cycle, young men and women who don't need to be petitioned on a value-added basis, but possess the same sense that you had about service to country. You'll see the job getting done. You'll see that the defense of the nation is in good hands, maybe even in better hands.

It's a loud message. If it's too loud, you're too old.

Commander Carroll is an F-14 Radar Intercept Officer with over 2,800 hours in the Tomcat and 825 arrested landings. After serving as the air wing operations officer for CVW-1, he reported for his current duties at the United States Naval Academy as the Director, Company Officer Masters Program and as an instructor in English and Ethics. Commander Carroll was also editor of Approach Magazine, the naval aviation safety journal from 1989 - 1991.