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Contentions

RE: Judging Captain Honors

Max Boot puts his finger on the central point when he concludes that it’s Captain Owen Honors’s judgment — as a naval leader, not as a political actor — that was put in question by his ill-advised videos. But for the senior officers who decided to relieve him of command, I believe there is a deeper professional principle at work than reflexive, politically sensitive concern about the untoward sexual innuendo. In fact, I would call it a professional instinct more than a principle. Most officers recognize this intuitively: Honors’s failure of judgment — as the XO of a carrier — was not in making comedy videos with sexual connotations; it was in making comedy videos.

There is, naturally, levity in the Navy. But graduating to the carrier-command pipeline is tacitly understood to be the signal for an aviator to pack up his levity and put it in storage. In some things, the Navy can’t take a joke; command of the taxpayers’ most expensive, nuclear-powered weapon systems is one of them. An essential aspect of good judgment is choosing not to create unnecessary vulnerabilities to failure or reprimand on the job, either from a personal or an operational standpoint. Save the unnecessary vulnerabilities for your off-duty time. There are plenty of unavoidable ones lurking in the tasks you’ve actually been assigned.

The sense that Captain Honors’s fate wasn’t a political decision is a sound one. This was Navy discipline at work. It is always painful to have to discipline a senior officer; civilians might wonder if it was really necessary to act so summarily in Honors’s case. Hollywood tells us that misunderstood kids with attitudes often save the world between bouts of rebellion and self-expression. Does it really matter to be so serious?

But to the U.S. Navy, a carrier captain has the Navy’s unequaled nuclear-safety record in his keeping. And if you’ve ever witnessed flight operations on an aircraft carrier, and grasped that one man (or, someday, woman) is responsible for the safety and success of every aspect of that perilous, counterintuitive performance — all taking place a few decks above the nuclear reactors slicing through the water at 40-plus miles an hour — you may understand why the Navy regards a penchant for unsolicited comedy videos as a disqualifier.


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