Getting It Wrong at 7th Fleet

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Navy Photo / MCS 2nd Class Mel Orr

Vice Admiral Scott Swift, commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, second from right, talks with his staff during a "behavioral leadership summit" Dec. 1 in Yokosuka, Japan.

What is happening in the 7th Fleet, homeported in Japan, but which includes the entirety of the Pacific Ocean and the Far East — including naval personnel stationed in Guam, Singapore and South Korea — is just one of those bone-headed moves that will cause more problems than it is trying to solve in the long run.

Everyone knows that the military is a hierarchical organization and that rank has its privileges. However, with those privileges comes responsibility. Senior leadership in the military has a moral and ethical responsibility to do the right thing from supporting the President and his policies to taking care of the troops. Covering one’s behind may be one of the privileges, but certainly does not make for good leadership or a good leader.

The 7th Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, has recently ordered a strict new liberty policy. All sailors and officers can no longer drink between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. (even in one’s own quarters) and must be back on the base or in their own housing by 11 p.m. The tighter rules remain in place following a Dec. 1 “behavioral leadership summit” on the events that led to their imposition.

This draconian policy, which affects all of 7th Fleet, including liberty ports in places like Thailand, Hong Kong, and Australia, was instituted after a half dozen liberty incidents and the rape of an Okinawan woman by two sailors in October. While the Japanese are growing less tolerant of American shenanigans on its soil, and rightfully so, punishing all of 7th fleet, which consists of thousands of sailors and Marines, for the actions of a few is going overboard (pardon the pun).

It is intrusive leadership at its most extreme. This is not a “preventive” order, it is a political decision to placate the Japanese and make it appear that the Admiral is in control. But, in essence, he has lost faith with the troops because he is not taking care of them. He is using them.

When one joins the military, there are certain freedoms that one gives up in order to maintain good order and discipline. One of those freedoms is the right to free speech. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines cannot impugn or criticize their superiors, including the President.

There are certain standards they must maintain physically, morally, ethically, and legally. They are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and are expected to act and perform as representatives of our nation — which they are, especially when overseas. And 99% of sailors and other military personnel abide by these limitations to their freedom because they are adults and law abiding citizens.

Sailors aren’t children, nor are they robots. Instead of treating them as such, they should be treated as the professionals they are. Given a choice, people will rise to the occasion when expectations for behavior are high, and they feel empowered instead of micro-managed.

There are going to be unintended consequences. I can think of a few possibilities, such as reduced morale, reduced retention, reduced military effectiveness, and possibly even increased disciplinary and alcohol-abuse problems.

American presence in foreign countries is something that those in uniform do not take lightly. But perhaps a better overseas screening process, more thorough cultural awareness programs, and intensified rights and responsibilities training should be utilized before mass punishment…and, of course, it goes without saying that the criminals, once convicted, should be made examples of and be punished to the full extent of the law.

In the meantime, sailors will obey the new rules. But it certainly won’t be with a cheery “Aye, aye!”