By Capt. John Byron, U.S. Navy (ret.)
Best Defense chief maritime correspondent
In the final pages of Tom's marvelous book, he recommends the Army take a look at the Navy's stricter standards on command accountability...and start firing those who can't do the job. Good advice.
But then he says the Army should avoid the "unforgiving approach the Navy takes, in which relief from command usually results in leaving the service and often a kind of isolation and disgrace." With this I take issue.
There's no over-arching ‘Navy' practice or policy separating officers fired from their jobs for disciplinary or performance issues. All the services are governed by the same legal procedures of Title 10 of U.S. Code. Aside from instances of moral turpitude, most command reliefs in the Navy don't even rise to the level of consideration for separation, and those that do often decide in favor of retention. So...not ‘unforgiving' and not in any way unique to the Navy.
Yes, a fair number of Navy officers who've gotten across the breakers do leave service. But it's their choice, their decision. Those within striking distance of retirement usually choose to put in their twenty. But a significant number stay longer, often to the full tenure allowed by law. Navy, as the other services, has many arcane byways and cul-de-sacs that need specialized officer leadership. While it won't profit a front-runner to stay in one of these jobs long enough to become expert, those in a terminal pay grade often do homestead as key role-players in important technical and non-traditional billets, to the Navy's and the nation's benefit.
Thus a friend who had a rocky tour as a destroyer executive officer served for many years after as the Navy expert on large-bore rapid-fire guns. Another who left command early after a drunken episode sobered up and became a valuable long-time liaison to the British Trident Program. Another couldn't make it as a surface warfare officer but did make huge contributions as an expert on personnel management systems. Another, a submariner who didn't even get to command, continued on through a series of procurement jobs and ended his service as a successful commanding officer of a major Navy test unit. And many (most) of the Navy students I meet in their visit to The Nation of Florida (final training to be a defense attaché) got there after being dead-ended in their warfare community...but have many years' good and useful service ahead of them as foreign-area specialists. Etc. etc. etc.
The Navy accommodates and desires continued service even from officers who don't make it all the way on their first career path. Soylent Green is a work of fiction.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.