by Walter Brasch
When the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot two weeks ago published on its internet page three videos made four years ago by the executive officer of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, it unleashed a firestorm that would sink the career of a decorated officer.
The Navy’s actions to relieve Capt. Owen Honors of command of the Enterprise—he had been twice promoted after the videos were made—appears to be little more than a desperate attempt at damage control.
Honors, a Naval Academy graduate and Top Gun pilot with more than 3,400 hours flight time and 700 carrier landings, produced and starred in the videos, which were transmitted on the Enterprise’s Closed Circuit Television System (CCTV). Those videos included scenes of sexual innuendo, homophobic jokes, and fraternity boy bathroom humor. None of the videos, while suggestive, sank into the depths of pornography. At the time, Honors, and most of the 4,800-person crew, believed the videos, broadcast while the ship was in combat operations, was a morale booster.
On Facebook, Twitter, and in the other media, even before the Navy made its decision on Honors’ career, thousands called the videos disgusting and inappropriate.
Honors now acknowledges the videos showed “extremely poor judgment” on his part. Adm. John Harvey Jr., commander of the U.S. Fleet forces, said the reason he reassigned Honors to desk duty, effectively ending his career, was because he “lost confidence in Capt. Honors’ ability to lead effectively.”
However, thousands of sailors and former sailors have come to Honors’ defense. A “support” page on Facebook includes about 27,000 individuals. Among those who support the captain are those who argue not only is Honors an excellent officer, but that the videos did what they were intended to do—raise crew morale during combat.
Although the Navy had ordered Honors to stop producing the videos, it took no other disciplinary action. Only after publication did the Navy take official action, attempting to stop the flood of attacks by closing the hatch on a distinguished military career.
If such actions by Honors were acceptable in 2006 and 2007, why were they now not acceptable? And, if they were not acceptable in 2006 and 2007, why was nothing done by the Navy to discipline one of its senior officers? Is Adm. Harvey’s actions the result of a media firestorm or because Honors truly is not fit for command?
But there is something else that needs to be understood, and it may be because the Navy has a bipolar Jekyll–Hyde history.
The Jekyll part is a Navy that has rigorous physical and educational standards for those in several of its services—SEALS, the nuclear Navy (both undersea and surface), and Naval aviation.
The Hyde part is a correlation between the Navy (as well as most military branches) and college fraternities. The enlisted ranks are filled with persons the same age as college students, with many of the same school boy values and beliefs, including a penchant for partying, bathroom humor, and tasteless jokes. Junior officers are usually recent college graduates. Both the military and fraternities, not unlike the general population, also have long histories of discrimination, sexism, and homophobia, parts of which appear in the videos.
The most serious recent incident occurred in September 1991 at a convention in Las Vegas. About 100 Navy and Marine pilots were accused of sexual assault on more than 80 women. In a “boys will be boys” attitude, condoned by senior flag officers in attendance, the first investigation was a whitewash. A subsequent investigation, demanded by the female assistant secretary of the Navy, detailed criminal conduct that would scuttle the careers of more than 300 individuals, both civilian and military.
Thus, it is not unusual that in a climate that condones fraternity-boy attitudes, complete with hazing at all levels, a decorated senior officer with extraordinary high fitness reports, may have believed what he did to boost morale would not be a problem.
The Navy’s lack of response in 2007 may have been far too lenient. However, its current actions are similar to what college administrators do to fraternities and sororities that cause embarrassment. College administrations spend a lot of time telling fraternities and sororities they must adhere to certain standards of conduct, but usually enforce those standards only when actions—including public drunkenness, hazing, sexism, and homophobia—becomes public. It’s then the college administration, like the Navy, declare such actions are unacceptable and, trying to stem public anger, overkill the response.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author of 17 books, and a former newspaper and magazine writer/editor and tenured full professor of mass communications. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]