Friday, December 30, 2011

Behind the Curtain at the Historic First Kiss

“Historic First Kiss” screamed the headlines.  For most people that alone conjured up images of Prince William and Kate Middleton on the balcony.  The follow-up banner “the kiss heard round the world” again takes the mind back to Jolly Olde England.  But not so fast. 

The accompanying picture is of a female Navy Sailor (Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta (22) of Placerville, Calif.) kissing another woman (Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell (23) of Los Angeles, Calif.) on the pier in front of the amphibious landing ship USS Oak Hill, her shipmates, their friends and family, and, of course, the local media.

This tender moment brought to you courtesy of an old Navy tradition and the vagaries of the random lottery.  The papers explain that the officers and Sailors coming home from long deployments purchase raffle tickets for the chance to be the one in that tender moment.  Proceeds from the raffle benefit some charitable organization from CFC (the combined federal campaign fundraiser), Navy Relief or Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR).  Who actually benefits from a particular raffle is up to the captain.  After reading several articles I came to the conclusion that, in this case, the winner was also predetermined.

So soon after the president repealed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell prohibition on gays serving openly in the military we have this contrived moment where a young woman with poster-girl looks beats the 20,000:1 odds of the raffle the first time out and winds up on the front cover of every California newspaper and in every LGBT blog, publication and website across the country.

The fact that Petty Officer Gaeta bought 50 dollars’ worth of tickets is irrelevant.  Buying large lots of tickets is common after deployments; particularly among the lower ranks.  When a ship docks in the homeport the crew is released in order of rank with the officers leaving first and the lowly seaman leaving last – sometimes nearly an hour after the first officer disembarks. The raffle offers one of them a chance to get off early, before even the top tier officers (below the captain, of course).  That is worth buying 20, 50 or 100 tickets with the money you have left after spending weeks or months at sea with nowhere but the ship’s stores to spend it.  Too bad no one told the men and straight women that they didn’t have a chance of winning.

If I sound skeptical it is because I am.  I spent too many years manning too many rails on surface ships to believe this event was the luck of the draw.  The clues I picked up on are in the planned responses delivered to the media.  The one that stands out most is, "It's going to happen and the crew's going to enjoy it. We're going to move on and it won't overshadow the great things that this crew has accomplished over the past three months," David Bauer, the commanding officer of the USS Oak Hill, said.1 That sound more like an order and less like an observation.  I take it to mean the crew has been told in no uncertain terms to hold their opinions on this issue; including to friends, family, their personal blogs, and yes, to the media.  Freedom of speech does not apply to enlisted male members of the Navy—trust me on that.

The US Navy is excessively sensitive to political influence due to its unique command structure.  Officers live, work and dine in isolation from the men and women under them. There is some contact but nothing like the intimate life-or-death environment of the Army or Marine Corps.  Ships on the east coast are especially sensitive as their commands are almost directly under the eyes of the Washington Navy Yard, the Pentagon and Congress.  Competition for promotion is most intense at the Norfolk pier and other nearby locations. One slight misstep by a crewman can spell doom for a captain’s career.  Nothing is left to chance – not even the results of a ship’s raffle.

Takeaways for the Writer

This stage managed event provides a lot of insight for the military writer.  Whether reporting on events in the current military, writing historical accounts or creating fictional stories of any era past, present, or future, look for currents and culture left out of the official records.

·         Do not underestimate the coercive efforts of command influence on crew activities.  The Navy is more conscious of public perception because its influence and reputation carries enormous public power.  Victories are spectacular but failures are equally glaring.

·         What is called a Navy tradition might not be a tradition.  Navy traditions come and go like the tradewinds.  The Chief of Naval Operations decides what is an acceptable tradition and the fleet lines up behind it.  Admiral Zumwalt thought the traditional “crackerjack” uniform was demeaning and unprofessional.  He changed all enlisted dress uniforms to what we called the “dinner jacket.” This is my boot camp graduation photo from the end of the Zumwalt era.

The next admiral to take charge immediately switched back to the crackerjacks. Not two years later the same CNO decided the round white “Dixie cup” hats looked bad with the working uniform and moved to add baseball style caps to the sea bag. Tradition is a flexible term in the military.
·         Cultivate at least three relationships with members of the military.  If you are not a veteran of the service you are writing about you need to know at least two enlisted people from that branch and at least one older veteran from the past.  The VFW and American Legion posts are excellent sources of historical experience and anecdotes to punch up any story.  I met a Tuskegee airman, Ulysses Theard, at my Legion Post 4 in Olongapo City, Philippines.  You will be amazed what you can learn for the price of a few drinks and a few hours of time.

·         Finally, do not take official reports at face value.  I stress this again because it is important to understand that what you are told is not often accurate.  Official reports are first influenced by the desire to control perceptions.  Either someone is covering their posterior, or someone is seeking advantageous attention.  Both skew the report’s veracity. 

Bear in mind that failure to control public information caused the public to see military victories in Vietnam as defeat.  Conversely, the combat reporting of Desert Storm was over-managed and resulted in a later “Truth Gap” that resulted in conflicting versions of whether Sadaam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. 

I cannot say if there were or were not WMDs in Iraq.  What I can say is I saw official pictures from multiple international sources, including the UN, that were submitted to the world as proof that such weapons did exist.  We are stuck with an official mystery without the ability to determine who is telling the truth.

In every case, the military writer is compelled to do extra work to discover the truth.   The information you need is out there.  Crew interviews are often a challenge and may be reluctantly given.  Depending on the force of the command influence, it might not be accessible at all.  But someone is always willing to talk off the record, and things are often recorded without permission; especially in this age of electronic media.

The military writer can then decide how best to use this information.  Let it influence your fiction or let it lead to more productive investigations of nonfiction sources.  No matter the end use, look beneath the headlines for the real story, the untold story behind the Kiss.

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