The War on Terror and the Militarization of the US Navy
Handgrenade December 2021
A profession is an interesting thing to be a part of. Usually one is a member of a profession that is itself represented by an institution or institutions, “societies’ rules of the game” as Douglass C. North, Nobel prize economist, has noted.
I provide this caveat as a means to understand the hypothesis that follows because I consider myself a naval professional in the service of the people of the United States (one does not shed one’s profession once one retires as an officer, at least not in my case).
A major element in professionalism, as my colleague from another of my professions (and friend) Brian McAllister Linn recently pointed out in a key article, is that the profession is self-policing.[i] That is my purpose with this Handgrenade.
The so-called War on Terror that began in 2001 changed many things, and in ways that people are still trying to figure out. One of the ways it changed things was to accelerate a process that Andrew Bacevich has called “The New American Militarism,” and which he still believes to be a serious problem in the American polity that includes uniformed career officers. Bacevich’s original work on this topic predated the War on Terror, but his latest edition found that the War on Terror did nothing to diminish the trends he identified as contributing to the phenomenon, that instead it accelerated and intensified those trends.[ii]
The United States Navy was and is not immune to this problem. Normally one transposes the idea of militarism to the maritime sphere as “navalism,” but the two phenomena are different in fundamental ways, although they share some attributes. Navalism, overall, tends toward a global viewpoint and encompasses not just warships, but all activities that occur at sea, political, economic, diplomatic, a better way to view it in the current age is as maritime-ism. Unlike militarism, it has much less to do with land-based threats coming from a uniformed military against a civilian political structure. In order to suffer from militarism, the U.S. Navy would have to become more military, a process I call militarization.
The War on Terror contributed to militarization of the Navy via process that was opaque to many (especially those in the Army and Marine Corps), but also the public. Of the services, it is the Navy that most American citizens are least a familiar with. This is because it is concentrated in a few major port cities that many Americans never visit or if they do they don’t go near the Navy bases;, and not even the important ones like New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco (although this was not always the case). The other reason is obvious, but must be stated, a large component of the Navy, the fleet if you will, is deployed out to sea, out of sight, out of mind except for the pat, de rigeur (and facile to my mind) images one occasionally sees of SEALs and aircraft carriers on TV or social media.
The first major reflection of the militarization of the Navy was its wholesale change of how its personnel looked. As the Army and the nation struggled to man staff and provincial reconstruction teams, as well as to deal with a shortage of manpower for any number of traditionally “Army” jobs (force protection, provincial reconstruction teams in landlocked provinces, manning military detention facilities ashore for prisoners, etc), more and more Navy folks had to acquire soldier-type uniforms, what I call “GI Joe” outfits, instead of the traditional navy garb one is used to seeing sailors and Navy (not naval, naval includes marines) officers in. This program was called the Individual Augmentee (IA) program and required people from the US Navy to buy combat for land warfare style-uniforms. However, instead of mandating this garb for these strictly augment-the-Army ashore assignments, the Navy turned these uniforms into what we call the "uniform of the day" in the Navy, first using the crazy "acqua-flage" (blue-ish) uniforms which camoflaged sailors at sea from anyone trying to find them should their ship or aircraft go down. So the Navy changed those uniforms to greenish ones that are hard for average Americans to distinguish from Army and Marine uniforms, but will get the sailor a "thank you for your service" at the 7-11 or in public.
Before long the American public couldn’t tell a marine from a sailor from a soldier (or an airman for that matter). Clothes make the man (or woman), and so it may seem a small thing, but sailors now looked like soldiers and should it surprise anyone that they started to act like soldiers, especially since they were being asked to do soldier-type tasks in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa (among other places). Their identity changed, slowly in some cases, not so slowly in others; and with this change in self-awareness and with how they saw themselves. Specifically, since they were doing fewer and fewer tours on actual warships, they started to act more military. What should have been a short term expedient, because of the War on Terror, became a long term identity transformation for the personnel in the U.S. Navy. This was directly related to the length of the campaigns in the War on Terror. The Navy still wears these silly uniforms, that are completely out of place on a ship, or the Naval War College for that matter, today (although thank God the students at the Naval War College still mostly wear civilian garb as do those at Naval Postgraduate School).
But there is more. In becoming more and more like soldiers, the personnel, especially the officers, in the Navy began to adopt the cultural biases of soldiers and generals, and not those of sailors and admirals.
Should it surprise anyone that the public thinks the Navy is really a bunch of land-based assassins from a Call of Duty video game who look like the SEALS? That the ethos of Navy would change from one of expertise at sea to expertise in large staff processes and learning soldier instead of sailor skills? That these same sailors would become less and less proficient in sea-based tasks like basic seamanship, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, maritime counter-targeting and counter-surveillance, maritime surveillance (due to supporting forces ashore and not looking for subs, aircraft, and ships at sea)? That they would acquire the wrong weapons systems or place value on maritime force packages used for mostly land wars (aircraft carriers) and defer to the judgment of Defense contractors for what sorts of ships to buy?
The impact of the War on Terror on the Navy has been profound, and on balance, negative. But we may have not seen the worst of it. Are there admirals out there who favor the overthrow of the current government, and are willing to support forces that might do so via un-democratic processes? Wasn’t the Q-anon shaman just convicted of insurrection last January a former Navy man? What about the murderers that a previous President pardoned, wasn’t one of them a SEAL? I personally was contacted in 2020 to sign a petition in support of Donald Trump’s campaign signed by over 100 admirals, many of them retired, many of whom I once respected.
True, these are only anecdotes, small pieces of evidence, but one of the things that naval historians need to examine more honestly is how not having a peer competitor at sea for at least 30 years has combined with a 20 year long war with the U.S. Army as the pivotal service to change the ethos and culture of the U.S. Navy. And not for the better.
John T. Kuehn, Commander, USN (retired, 2004).
(who has never owned or worn a GI-Joe uniform, although he did wear a “poopie” suit –a 1950s solid olive green outfit worn by Beetle Baily--for one week at Aviation Officer Candidate School in September 1981.)
[i] Brian M. Linn, "Samuel Huntington, Professionalism, and Self-Policing in the US Army Officer Corps,"
Parameters 51, no. 3 (2021), https://press.armywarcollege.edu/parameters/vol51/iss3/9 (accessed 11-19-21).
[ii] AndrewJ. Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press, 2013), passim.