By Capt. John Byron (USN, Ret.)
Best Defense nautical correspondent
The United States Naval Institute has been around for 137 years, serving the nation and the naval profession with honor and accomplishment. Its Naval Institute Press and Naval History Magazine perform well for the academic community. Its defense conferences are top-notch. But the crown jewel is Proceedings, the internationally renowned naval professional journal. (Full disclosure: I've written around 100 pieces for Proceedings and am a life member of the Institute.)
I'm worried about the Institute.
Some years ago it was headed for bankruptcy, the bounty from publishing The Hunt For Red October and Flight Of the Intruder gone, its journals no longer fueled by Cold War advertising, its leadership - good, honorable - perhaps over their heads in the economic world it found itself. The CEO was asked to resign and a new leader, Major General Tom Wilkerson, USMC (ret.) named for the top job. Tom put the Institute on sound footing, though not without pain and retrenchments. But he succeeded and it now has a good balance sheet and strong sponsorship, editorial excellence, and continued contribution to those who take warships to war, all credit to General Wilkerson's leadership and the staff's wonderful performance.
So what's the worry? This: the Institute's Board wants to wreck all that. New players on the Institute's Board of Directors -- retired Navy flag officers and Board civilians who they've taken in -- are proposing to drop the Institute's stated mission and timeless role as the
"Independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense"
in favor of a new statement saying that the Institute exist to be
"An Independent Forum advocating the necessity of global sea power for national security and economic prosperity."
Rephrased: "Let's forget about the Institute as it has been for 137 years and turn it into a lobbying organization like the Navy League." Now I love the Navy League...and the Air Force Association and the Association of the US Army. But none of these outfits have the depth, credibility, and independent excellence of the Institute. None would let 'gently outspoken' guys like me and serving sailors and officers of all ranks write and publish the sharp criticisms and cranky new ideas that sparkle in Proceedings, driving forward our nation's Navy.
How's this grand scheme playing out? In the naval blogosphere the comments are universally against; I've yet to see anyone in favor. And the community is getting fired up to fire the Board, at least those pushing this harmful initiative. I hope we do show them the door.
I join my fellow officers who urge members of the Naval Institute to vote down the proposed change to the organization's bylaws. And the Board members who dreamed this up? Check six.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.