Ex-Navy secretary says top officers lack 'moral courage' Webb's Annapolis speech provokes angry exchange

April 26, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

The Navy's top officers have lost their "moral courage," abandoning their battle-tested comrades to Tailhook and "political correctness" and standing silently by while the fleet has been shrunk, former Navy Secretary James H. Webb charged yesterday.

In a speech before the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis that provoked an angry exchange and a tug of war over the microphone with a former Navy undersecretary, Mr. Webb drew a scathing portrait of Navy leadership.

Some admirals -- including the current and former chiefs of naval operations -- would rather preserve or promote their careers and curry favor with politicians than support the service, he said.

The effect is "killing morale down the chain of command and building up resentment not only against the leadership but politically protected sub-groups," he said before hundreds of active duty and retired officers and Naval Academy midshipmen, who sat in rapt silence.

Although Mr. Webb did not mention by name Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, the current chief of naval operations, or his predecessor, Adm. Frank B. Kelso, his charges landed squarely on their watch.

Among the charges:

Admiral Boorda two years ago forced into retirement Adm. Stanley Arthur, a Vietnam and Persian Gulf war veteran who was in line to command U.S. forces in the Pacific, after a senator asked on behalf of a constituent why Admiral Arthur "simply approved a report upholding a decision to wash out a female officer from flight school," Mr. Webb said. He went on to ask: "Who fought this? Who condemned it?"

Admiral Kelso dismissed Adm. Jack Snyder, "the Navy's outstanding fighter pilot," for failing to quickly investigate charges that his aide, Lt. Paula Coughlin, was attacked by drunken Navy aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention. The admiral "was relieved of command based on a letter she wrote, without being given so much as five minutes to explain his own actions in her case to the admiral who summarily dismissed him," Mr. Webb said. "Who dared risk his career by taking Jack Snyder's side?"

Admiral Kelso stood at the side of an acting Navy secretary, who "never spent a day in uniform," while the acting Navy secretary complained that the drunken antics of Navy aviators at the 1991 Tailhook convention reflected a "cultural problem" with the Navy. "How could the chief of naval operations stand next to him and fail to defend the way of life he has spent a career helping to shape?" Mr. Webb asked.

Dan Howard, a Marine veteran and acting secretary of the Navy during the Bush administration, strode to the podium after the speech and complained about Mr. Webb's "fiction" and "half-truths," adding, "You said I never spent one day in uniform."

"The acting secretary of the Navy was a different individual," Mr. Webb replied as the two tried to out-talk each other and struggled with the microphone to shouts of "Sit down!"

"You want a rebuttal, write an article!" Mr. Webb snapped, as the crowd applauded, and Mr. Howard stalked back to his seat.

Mr. Howard said later he was the one who ordered a one-day Navy "stand-down" on sexual harassment after Tailhook and criticized the Navy and Marine "culture," as Admiral Kelso and then Marine Commandant Carl Mundy stood at his side.

"It was me, it wasn't Mr. O'Keefe," said Mr. Howard, referring to Sean O'Keefe, his successor as acting Navy secretary. "You tell me who was the leader in that situation."

Admiral Boorda had no comment on the speech since he has yet to read it, said a spokesman.

"I'm not going to argue with Jim Webb," said retired Admiral Kelso, in a phone interview. "In my judgment, Jack Snyder got a fair hearing in that case." And the admiral said he didn't shape his career "for the kind of conduct that was a problem at Tailhook."

"Perhaps over time moral courage became less important as a promotional criterion than political correctness," said Mr. Webb, who was Navy secretary under President Reagan and resigned over budget cuts. "Many of the most capable simply did not get promoted in the first place, could not make the cut in an environment where politicians more and more frequently played favorites."

Yesterday, Mr. Webb said those found guilty of "outrageous conduct" at the Tailhook convention should have been disciplined and those "who were not to blame should have been vigorously defended, along with the culture and mores of the naval service."

Navy Capt. Florence Beatty, who furiously scribbled notes, said later she differs with Mr. Webb's views on women in the military but praised his speech.

"I thought his remarks about leadership were on the money," said the officer, who is stationed in Washington.

"I thought it was a good speech," said retired Admiral Arthur. But unlike Mr. Webb, the admiral said he blames Congress, not the Navy's leadership, for his early retirement. "I was treated unfairly by the Hill," he said.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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