Murphy's Law: Bad Language And Good Officers


March 15, 2010:  Bad language has become an issue in the U.S. Navy. Recently, the captain of a cruiser of relieved of command for using "abusive language" on her subordinates. Since World War II, a certain amount of bad language from officers was expected aboard American warships. But it wasn't always that way. Before World War II it was rare for naval officers to curse publicly in the line of duty, something that was pounded into their heads while at the naval academy (where most of the officers came from). Admiral Ernie King’s reputation as an SOB was partially fueled by his habit of openly cursing out subordinates. And he was the commander of the navy (Chief of Naval Operations, or CNO) throughout the war. Quite a number of officers expressed shock at this habit. That, along with his womanizing, hampered his early career, despite his very obvious ability. This was why he got into the submarine service, and later aviation. He did extremely well in aviation, rising to rear admiral (temporary vice admiral for a while), but would probably not have gone higher were it not for the war 

There was a famous incident during Fleet Problem XX, in 1939. President Roosevelt and the Secretary of the Navy were present aboard a heavy cruiser, and took the opportunity to convene a conference of admirals to sort out assignments for the following year. This amounted to stuff like the president saying, “How about sending ‘Dutch’ Kalbfuss to head the Naval War College . . . ?“ and so forth.

King didn’t bother attending Fleet Problem XX, since he thought his career was over. It may have been, too, since his next assignment was the General Board, the Navy’s sort-off general staff/board of directors, which did important work, but was often the final assignment for guys needing something to do before retiring. Hardly more than a year later, CNO Stark convinced the president to give King the new Atlantic Squadron, which quickly led to King becoming a very capable, if foulmouthed, CNO.

Cursing became commonplace during the war, of course, and the custom continued after the war. This was much to the dismay to officers who had entered service before 1941. The navy was very effective back then, and officers were gentlemen. Or at least they sounded like gentlemen. Political correctness and cultural shifts (it's bad form to hurt anyone's feelings, intentionally or otherwise) have changed the navy in many ways. It's uncertain if any of these changes will be of benefit in combat. But at least you won't be cursed at.






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