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United States Naval Institute: Proceedings
Vieques: Get Over It
By Captain John L. Byron
August 1, 2001
God Bless Gordon England! In the new Secretary of the Navy's first noteworthy decision, he directed the Navy to abandon its weapons range at Vieques within two years and find a new place to train. In doing so, he got the Navy off a horribly foul course-- any good from the training was getting swamped by the bad blood it generated.
The Navy's presence at Vieques has become a festering sore with Puerto Rican Americans (a quick civics lesson: all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth).
So why are these citizens fired up? They know that a stray munition killed a guard last year.
They believe reports that U.S. sailors are guilty of brutal, thug-like treatment of protesters, who included national figures and at least one congressman.
They hold as truth that the bombardment harms the environment around the range.
They believe their economy would benefit greatly if the U.S. Navy moved out and developers moved in.
And because the Navy wouldn't listen, wouldn't bend, they've come to hate the Navy. These American citizens hate our Navy! I thought we were supposed to be the good guys....
Secretary England quickly saw that this was not a scrap about ranges and land use, but about the role and image of the U.S. Navy. He also saw that the deep distrust and dislike the Navy had created by digging in its heels at Vieques had metastasized throughout our nation's entire Hispanic community.
Wow! Our Navy has done something few thought possible-- it united the nation's Hispanic citizens in a common cause. Our country's Hispanic population is highly diverse. The image of a monolithic bloc of opinion is wildly wrong. But on Vieques , there is unanimity: most Hispanics share the opinion that the Navy, in its arrogant, racist, colonial attitude, has gone to war against its own people.
Does this adversely affect recruiting? You bet it does. It also affects the attitudes of Hispanic sailors now serving. The Navy's leadership B.E. (Before England) saw Vieques as a tiny issue on a tiny island far away. The Secretary of the Navy acted because this had become a cause celebre with 12% of our population. To 33 million Hispanic Americans,
Vieques is a big deal.
Ah, but you say the decision to leave Vieques was political; it came from the White House; it was all about future votes and shifts in the tectonic plates of politics. Frankly, it's all true. Leaving Vieques is a political decision. But that's praise, not condemnation.
Our Founding Fathers created a wise system in which rewards accrue to those who please the people-actions by elected officials who earn votes are the goal of our democracy. It's built into our Constitution, the same one that makes the President the military's commander-in-chief. Civilian control of the military is the cornerstone of our military's role in society.
The correct military response to this political decision is clear: Aye aye, sir. Yes, military professionals should fight for their opinions while the debate is open and always give civilian leaders their best advice, but when the decision is made, military professionals should salute smartly and march off to obey the order. That's tradition, and that's also the law.
Our current military's gravest failure is the belief of some senior officers that military values should function independently of political influence.
Persistent press reports (three on CNN alone) tell us that senior uniformed leaders of the Navy remain opposed to Secretary England's decision to leave Vieques . Aside from what it tells us of the source of our Vieques woes, we must be concerned that we have military leaders who think that obeying orders is optional.
The scariest thing about the continued pushback on this decision from officers serving on active duty is the proof therein that the military's dislike of civilian control has persisted through the change in administrations. Many in the senior officer corps hated Bill Clinton, no question. But now, on Vieques (and perhaps too on budget priorities, military reform, and a host of other military issues before the new administration), many senior military leaders seem ready to continue in open opposition to civilian leadership past the decision point.
Despite the fact that it was the right thing to do for the Navy's image, that it was the political thing to do to satisfy a big chunk of our society, Vieques challenges the military's loyalty. Shifting to a new range is a small thing-if the Navy can't buy in on this, its ability to function in its constitutional role is in doubt.
Thus, Vieques is a test. Our military leaders risk failing it, and we should be concerned.
By Captain John L. Byron, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Captain Byron served 37 years on active duty. He now works in international business.