This was going to be another column on the abortion issue, but there’s been enough of these already and none of them is likely to change many minds. Besides, I’m really not qualified to pontificate on the subject since I’m not a female, er, birthing person, and I’ve never been pregnant, although who knows what might be possible in this novel new world of gender identity flexibility. Instead, this will be a rant on a subject closer to my modest area of expertise: ships and military uniforms,

My qualifications for presuming to write on this topic include over 30 years of active military service, command of three warships, serving as executive officer of two others and service in the Pentagon. In Washington we usually wore our uniforms only on Wednesday which was commonly referred to as war-suit Wednesday, and on special occasions. There were three likely reasons for this, first to blend in with the civil servants and avoid intimidating them with symbols of high rank, second to avoid visible reminders that there are a whole lot of military officers stationed in Washington, and third to ensure that the uniforms still fit. I loved wearing the uniform of my country and my branch of service and was always proud to wear it in public, even when we were referred to as baby-killers by some Vietnam War protestors and dared by fellow Harvard students to walk across Harvard Yard in my service dress blues.

I also delighted in showing off my ships to visitors in both foreign and domestic ports. I always felt that our ship was the best-looking warship on the waterfront and thought that the taxpayers should get a chance to see and be proud of what their tax dollars bought and that foreign visitors would be impressed. I would regularly volunteer to be open for general visiting on holidays and would volunteer for port visit assignments, with the enthusiastic support, I might add, from almost all the crew (you can’t please everyone) who also liked to show off their ship. I also knew that the crew would be treated like royalty during those port visits and would make many new friends for the Navy.

Which brings me to the first topic. Recently, the Navy’s top officer, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, complained about Navy ships returning to port covered with rust. The admiral was quoted as saying, “Rust-free ships are critical for deterrence and naval readiness.” Added the U.S. Naval Institute’s retired Vice-Adm. Peter H. Daly, “You have to look like you mean business.” Quite so. Rust and corrosion, as every sailor should know, are among a ship’s worse enemies.

The issue was raised after pictures of rusty-looking Navy ships showed up on the internet. One of the worst examples was the supply ship USNS Alan Sheppard, a civilian-manned Military Sealift Command ship that was photographed in the Strait of Singapore looking, worn, tired and streaked with rust, according to reports. “The nonchalant attitude many are taking to the physical condition of the public-facing part of the Navy is, in a word, disgraceful,” said one former surface Navy officer. Said another, “We have become the worse-looking Navy in the world.”

Over-reaction? I don’t think so. Appearance matters. Would you feel comfortable boarding an airliner for, say, a trans-oceanic flight, with streaks of rust on the wing and fuselage or a cruise ship with running rust all over the hull and superstructure? And everyone knows a clean car, inside and out runs better. Why? Because it usually means that it’s also well-maintained by an owner who is fond of his vehicle and cares for it tenderly. I know from years of experience that with ships there is a high positive correlation between appearance and performance and also between appearance and crew morale. No sailor wants to serve in a rust bucket.

Then there is the matter of personal appearance and the image that it projects to the public. I won’t presume to speak for the other services, but the Navy has been through countless uniform revisions since I wore bell-bottoms as an officer candidate. Each change, in my opinion, has made matters worse. Would that time and energy spent on surveys and designing new uniforms been spent instead on designing ships that actually work unlike the low-end disasters such as the patrol hydrofoil ships of the Zumwalt era and the littoral combat ships (LCSs) of the recent era.

Why are sailors appearing in public places dressed like desert warriors just in from combat? Why, instead, don’t they dress like professional mariners like they used to? Why are they wearing camouflage in our cities when they are nowhere near a combat zone, unless you count the gang warfare occurring regularly in Democrat-run major cities? Why are they wearing clothing apparently intended to conceal them from—what? And there appears to be a great effort to conceal their rank, displayed only on their chest, nearly hidden amidst the camouflage background so that it’s difficult to distinguish a petty officer’s eagle form a captain’s rank device without getting really close and squinting at the wearer’s chest which must make females feels somewhat uncomfortable. The original blue and white “cammies” blended with a blue sea and made it difficult to discern a sailor in the water who had fallen overboard. The later color variations weren’t much better in a green-colored sea.

We managed to get through World War II and Vietnam dressed like military professionals in public, not in loosely-fitting pajama-like garments. Even during the war, appearance mattered. We are, fortunately, not at war now and yet our sailors dress like they are. Appearance matters. In March, 1943, when we were indeed at war, halfway through the North Africa campaign, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton assumed front-line command. Among his first orders was, “Every man who is old enough will shave every day. Officers will wear [neck]ties into combat. And anyone [not wearing] a steel helmet will be shot.”Presumably he meant by a German sniper, not by him. According to Stephen L. Moore, author of “Patton’s Payback”, recently reviewed by Daniel Ford in a Wall Street Journal book review, Patton seldom appeared without a tie, steel helmet, cavalry breeches, knee-high boots and a pair of ivory-handled pistols on his hips. In spite of pleas by his staff, he never concealed the three stars denoting his rank which made him a prime target. He wanted to be subject to the same risks as his soldiers who carried rifles, making them targets as well.

Patton was not a kindly, magnanimous leader, but he loved his soldiers and famously said that he did not want his men not to die for their country but to make the enemy die for his. The Germans considered him the most capable and feared general they faced. No one is suggesting that we return to his style of military dress (although the pearl-handled pistols sound rather cool), but there’s an important lesson in his legend. Appearances matter.

VOL. 112, NO. 20 - May 18, 2022

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