Democracy in the Navy

ONE Easter Sunday, more than thirty years ago, I landed on the island of Perim, at the southern end of the Red Sea. The visit of a few hours impressed my boyish imagination with two things. One was the unspeakable dreariness of the spot — a mass of black rock baking under a tropical sun, with not a green thing save about a square yard of turf, imported from the mainland, which the handful of British soldiers at the post tried to keep alive. The other impression was the sacredness of military caste, due to a story told in my hearing about a subaltern who had recently been in command.

The poor fellow had grown so desperately lonely in that forsaken spot, that he summoned his sergeant, and, after pledging the man to secrecy, asked him to dinner. Some time after, while in liquor, the sergeant boasted of his distinction. The matter was investigated, the subaltern was proved guilty of the horrible crime, and dismissed from the service. When I heard the story, I could not understand what there was so awful about the young officer’s conduct, but was ashamed to betray the fact by asking questions. In later years, oncoming in contact with the military, I was given to understand that, while democracy may be all very well in politics, it has no place in the army or navy.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the leaders of democracy in our history have always looked coldly upon professional armies and navies. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the cry was that they were ‘instruments of tyranny’ and ‘dangerous to liberty.’ These sentiments sound absurd now; but it is only fair to remember that Napoleon was a contemporary warning and example. At any rate, it was due to this feeling against armaments that we were so badly unprepared for the War of 1812. After that war the charge that the navy was an ‘instrument of tyranny’ ceased to be popular; and every war since then has aroused enthusiasm for both our military organizations; but during the long interims of peace there has always been an undercurrent of suspicion or resentment. At bottom the sentiment seems to have been, that our army and navy are organized on traditions that are not only foreign to America, but also hostile to democracy. In our own times that sentiment has apparently been directed chiefly against the navy.

To be perfectly candid, the traditions on which our navy was founded were both foreign and undemocratic. These traditions do not hark back to the Revolution. The truth is that our Revolutionary navy was not conspicuous for discipline or efficiency. For example, the precious rascals who composed the crew of the Ranger demanded, in Bolshevik style, that every order involving the destination of the ship be put to vote of the crew; and Paul Jones maintained discipline only by sheer force of will and the iron rod.

After the Revolution what was left of the navy became extinct. The navy of to-day dates from 1798, when a fleet was created to deal with the French privateers in the Caribbean. In that campaign our ships coöperated with the British, and it naturally came about that we borrowed outright the regulations of the British navy, and with them the British traditions of rank and discipline. In fact, we did not even have a distinctive uniform for our officers until the close of the War of 1812.

Many of the Revolutionary captains were merchant-skippers, who, as Paul Jones complained, were scarcely able to spell out the oath at a court-martial. Jones, who had once been a midshipman in the British navy, insisted, in a letter to the Marine Committee, that ‘none other but a gentleman is qualified to support the character of a commissioned officer in the Navy.’ It would be interesting to know his idea of a gentleman. He himself was the son of a gardener, but he secretly believed that he was the illegitimate son of the Earl of Selkirk, and his raid on the earl’s estate was for the purpose of kidnapping the old gentleman and forcing him to acknowledge the paternity. Although there is not a shred of evidence to support the idea, it doubtless gave Jones great satisfaction to believe that half of him was, not only gentleman, but noble.

In 1798 only the ablest of the Revolutionary officers were chosen for our new frigates, and the midshipmen appointed that year represented the ‘first families’ of the Atlantic states. At the same time, the men of the crews came from the back alleys of the seaport towns. Thus at the outset there was a social chasm between commissioned and enlisted grades, which was perpetuated by the traditions which we borrowed from the British navy.

In recent years changes have taken place which have tended to bring the banks of the chasm so close together that it can easily be jumped. In the first place, the midshipmen have long since ceased to represent the ‘first families.’ The officers of the present American navy hail from every grade of life, from millionaire to bootblack. In the second place, the immense improvement in the treatment accorded to the enlisted men has resulted in a corresponding improvement in the character of the bluejacket. The sailor and the officer may come from the same rank of society. What is more important, there are a hundred vacancies at the Naval Academy open to enlisted men who can pass the entrance examinations; and since we went to war many a warrant officer, who had risen from the enlisted grade, has won temporary promotion to the commissioned ranks.

All this is anathema to the navies which still cling to the old aristocratic traditions. Our navy is ‘too democratic,’ our officers are ‘not gentlemen,’ and our enlisted men are so ruined by consideration that we do not know what discipline is. A German Naval Reserve officer obligingly informed me some years ago that we had no discipline in the American navy; and his opinion was eloquently confirmed by another German officer, about the same time, in an interview with an American lieutenant at Port-au-Prince. The American had gone ashore, leaving his boat to wait for his return. While he was gone, a German officer arrived at the same landing with his boat. Apparently the American sailors did not make way for his boat fast enough, for the Teuton was so enraged that he gave up his errand ashore and waited till the American officer returned. Then the storm burst. The statement of grievances ended thus, —

‘You do not in your navy know vot discipline iss! Look, I vill show vot it in our navy iss!’

Thereupon the German rose in his boat and proceeded to smite the two sailors who faced him on the thwart, beating upon their cheeks with the full sweep of his arm till he was out of breath,

‘Ha, you see?’ he panted, as he settled himself in the stern sheets again; ‘dot iss Cherman discipline!’

Strange to say, however, while our navy has been damned by the foreigner for its democracy, it has been criticized by our own people for being undemocratic. The phrase ‘instrument of tyranny’ long since yielded to ‘naval snobbery.’ This feeling is due chiefly to the fact that, despite the democratization of the commission, the tradition of social superiority in the commissioned grade has held fast. One of the ablest officers in our navy since the Civil War brought a storm of unpopularity upon himself and the service by a published statement opposing the idea of opening commissions to the enlisted grades, on the ground that ‘the naval officer should be a gentleman.” Unfortunately, as the country knew, this particular officer was the son of a day-laborer.

This insistence on a caste distinction between the commissioned and enlisted grades has no foundation in the naval Regulations; it is merely tradition, and a tradition borrowed, as we have seen, from the British over a century ago; but it has had the force of law. Not long ago, a naval officer took a prominent official to task because he had addressed an assembly of recruits as ‘young gentlemen’ instead of ‘my lads.’ To the ordinary American citizen it is not clear why it should be a misdemeanor to call these recruits ‘gentlemen,’ in view of the fact that there would have been no criticism of the term if the same men had been in civilian clothes. The word does not mean much, but the discrimination seems to make the sailor’s uniform a humiliating kind of livery. If the enlisted man is not a gentleman, it follows that he is not fit to associate with gentlemen; and it is worth while to call attention to the fact that all attempts made by the authorities to punish restaurant and theatre managers for discriminating against the enlisted man’s uniform are futile so long as the distinction is drawn by the service itself.

The invariable retort of the naval man has been that this distinction was necessary to discipline. And discipline in this connection seems to mean the prevention of ‘undue familiarity’ between the one who issues commands and the one who obeys. In the world of education, the word discipline has been associated with subjects that have been handed down by tradition but have no justification in usefulness; and it is quite possible that much the same thing is true of the caste line in the navy. For instance, there is little ‘undue familiarity’ between the ensign and the rear admiral, but there is no artificial barrier, as between Brahmin and pariah. They are both ‘gentlemen,’ but the ensign is expected to obey his superior with the same promptness that is expected of the seaman.

On the other hand, it is not fair to attribute the existence of the caste idea entirely to the native or acquired snobbery of the naval officers and their wives, as certain newspapers and Congressmen have intimated from time to time for many years. It is true that some youthful members of the service — especially brides, daughters, and midshipmen — have a careless way of referring to all who are not of the elect as ‘only civilians,’ or ‘only reserve officers,’ or ‘only enlisted men.’ But that air of superiority is not to be taken seriously, for it docs not represent the navy as a whole. As a matter of fact, during normal peace-times the line of social cleavage between officers and men has fallen close to such a line as would naturally and unconsciously be drawn in social intercourse for men in business or the professions. Although a midshipman may be a pretty rough specimen when he enters the Academy, his four years’ course applies a sandpapering process which gives him an immense social advantage over his brother who enters the navy by enlistment. It is also worth noting that in fleet athletics the officers play on the same baseball and football teams with the men, and that the captains of these teams are usually enlisted men. This is one of the horribly democratic blemishes of our navy which have worried officers of European navies.

The most probable reason for the survival of the caste tradition is that it fits in with the naval idea of ‘rates.’ The chief criticism of our new reserve officers is that ’they don’t understand rates’; in fact, it is hard for any outsider to regard these things as seriously as the naval man does. Rates are the unofficial but inflexible privileges that accompany each grade in the service. When a midshipman enters the Academy, he learns to his sorrow that he ‘rates’ nothing but the title ‘Mister.’ For example, he does not rate walking in Lover’s Lane, or using certain convenient stairs in the dormitory, or taking any of the short cuts through the Yard. But as he progresses from class to class he adds to his rates till, as First Classman (Senior), he rates every privilege that the midshipmen can devise without colliding with the Regulations.

The system of unofficial rates prevails also in the fleet. To the naval man, with his passion for orderliness, nothing seems more fitting than a place for every man and every man in his place. One side of the ship is as good as another, but commissioned grades come aboard on the starboard side and enlisted grades on the port side. The ‘Old Man’takes his exercise on the starboard side of the quarterdeck; the other officers take theirs on the port. A man’s place is one part of his rates. The other part comprises the privileges that accompany the place. The ordinary seaman sleeps in a hammock and has no handle to his name. The petty officer has a stateroom but still no handle to his name. The warrant officer, by virtue of his braided coat, attains the dignity of ‘Mister,’ but he and his wife are not on the officers’ calling list; and so it goes. Naturally, the social distinction between commissioned and non-commissioned grades came to be regarded as one of the many rates, to be accepted, like the rest, without question.

The shock of this war, however, has upset the tidiness of the military systems at home and abroad. When, in 1914, Great Britain had to expand her professional army to unheard-of dimensions, it is said that even the fashionable boys’ schools, like Eton, Harrow, and Rugby, were combed for material for officers, in order that the commissions should still go to ‘gentlemen.’ As the slaughter of officers went on, stern necessity forced promotion from the ranks. Correspondents reported that at first the ‘gentlemen’ officers averted their eyes and haughtily strode out of the cafes whenever a ‘ranker’ presumed to enter. At the present stage of the war, however, it is not likely that much of that spirit survives; certainly the Australians and the Canadians did their bit to kill it.

The change is reflected also in India. Before the war neither a native nor a Eurasian could rise above the noncommissioned grade, because neither — except the native princelings — was considered a gentleman in Anglo-Indian society. To-day both natives and Eurasians are serving as commissioned officers in the British army. Since the British navy has neither expanded nor suffered like the army, it has probably changed little in this respect. But after the disappointments and failures of this war, the English public has come to suspect that, though the old-school officer in either service did well enough in campaigns against the Burmese or the Basutos, when it comes to fighting Huns, gentility in the commanding officer is not so important as certain other qualities.

In the case of our own army the professional caste traditions have been pretty well swamped by the draft. Our army is a civilian army, and, on the whole, more democratic than any other, save possibly the French. As it happened, our navy was large enough to meet the war demands by an expansion of the regular organization. It is true that there are many more reserve officers in the service now than there were professional officers at the outbreak of war; and, as we have seen, many of these reserve officers seem unable to appreciate the sanctity of rates. But the great shock to the caste idea has come through the war enlistments. The popularity of the navy was never better demonstrated than by the flood of volunteers that poured into the naval recruiting stations at the declaration of war. Large numbers of these men came from the colleges and universities, and many were wealthy. It did not occur to these ardent young patriots that they were making themselves social outcasts by putting on the sailor’s uniform. On the contrary they were extremely proud of it, and that sentiment was heartily shared by their friends.

The consequence was that the enlisted man’s uniform appeared in every hotel, at every club, at every dance. In every navy-yard town sailors drove their high-powered motor-cars through the streets on the way to the country clubs. Some of the older officers shook their heads; this sort of thing was ‘bad for discipline’; but what can a man do when there is nothing in the Regulations to give him a handle?

An officer of my acquaintance found himself obliged one evening to invite a newly enlisted relative of his to dinner at a hotel. The youngster had often dined with him before, and cheerfully accepted. As the hotel was in a navyyard town, and other officers were present, the officer did not enjoy the meal. He felt that the morrow would bring a summons to appear before the commandant. But, sad as the breach of discipline was, according to the old standards, not a word was said about it. A few months later the papers contained the announcement that the commandant of a certain naval station had invited to dinner at his quarters twelve enlisted men and warrant, officers!

In short, this war has removed the stigma on the seaman’s uniform because the finest of our youth are now wearing it. If caste distinction be essential to discipline, as we have heard for over a century, the discipline of the American navy has now gone to ruin.

Of course, the conditions of to-day are abnormal. After the war, college men are not going to flock to the navy. But it is safe to predict that the caste idea will never be the same as it was before the war. In the past, the type of enlisted man improved whenever the conditions and the opportunities of the sailor’s life improved. In the future, with the large number of vacancies in the Naval Academy reserved to enlisted men, more ambitious youngsters will realize that the recruiting office is the best gateway to Annapolis. And if the Secretary’s recent recommendation is put in force, requiring every midshipman to spend a year as a seaman in the fleet before he can get his commission, little will be left of the prejudice against the bluejacket’s uniform.