Outlook: He was fired over his videos, but Capt. Owen Honors did the right thing

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Bruce Fleming
Monday, January 10, 2011; 11:00 AM

Bruce Fleming, an English instructor at the U.S. Naval Academy and author of 'Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide: What Each Side Must Know About the Other - And About Itself,' discusses his Outlook article titled 'He was fired over his videos, but Capt. Owen Honors did the right thing.'

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Bruce Fleming: Bruce Fleming here (titles for the record: Professor, Dr., but Bruce works) here to talk about my Outlook piece. Look forward to your questions and interacting with you.R/

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Dallas, Tx: This is a great article as you speak to the dangers of armchair quarterbacking our military. I hope, in the end, we don't impact our military in the event that we really need it. I'm a Marine, my brother was a sailor and I could not imagine being couped up on a ship for 9 months. Thanks.

Bruce Fleming: It gets claustrophobic, from what I've seen and heard.BF

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USNA Graduate in DC: Prof. Fleming, your op-editorial was ill-advised. Impressionable and often-incompetent junior officers may take away the message that this really should be encouraged as Command-conduct. The truth is, CAPT Honors may in some respects be a gifted officer, but he exhibits conspicuous character flaws and self-control deficiencies, that would be dangerous in an active engagement. He is no role model.

Bruce Fleming: Others of my former students, including those who have served on the Enterprise under Honors (some are female) disagree. And the expression of backed-up opinion in a public forum isn't "ill-advised," it's what professors do.BF

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Navy cultural change: In 2002,the Navy changed its bow jack from the traditional Jack of the Union to the "Don't tread on Me" jack of 1775 Delaware river profiteer. Do you think there is a change in its culture from the Navy of the Union to that of an isolated profiteer and opportunist service?

Bruce Fleming: I do not believe the Navy is opportunistic. It exists to serve civilians, and usually it's very very aware of that.BF

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CAPT Honors: Is there any background on the people or persons responsible for leaking this media and ruining this man's career. This was without a doubt one of the best articles I have read on the this topic. I joint this Navy to defend our freedom, and would like to thank you for putting this matter in into it's correct context.

Bruce Fleming: I don't know. However I have to say I have no problem with the leak--only the lack of context and the response. I say visitors are always welcome in my classroom--everything I do and say is for the record. Transparency is the way to go, but civilians have to understand what they see.BF

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Capt. Honors Commander: Honors was the XO. Where was the CO while Honors made these videos? Wasn't the CO in the loop?

Bruce Fleming: I'd imagine this was one of those deals where the XO had authority for this, i.e. not everything gets run by the top guy.BF

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Fleming's Defense of Capt. Own Honors: Mr. Fleming, do you believe that having had a gay brother entitles you to lecture all gay men what we may or may not appropriately find offensive?

Bruce Fleming: You're welcome to find anything offensive you find offensive.BF

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Fleming's Defense of Capt. Own Honors: Why does Mr. Fleming stubbornly refuse to concede that, while the videos in general might have been acceptable, the use of a sexual, gender, racial, or religious slur by a captain never is?

Bruce Fleming: Since you're talking about me rather than to me, I don't think I need respond.BF

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CAPT. Honors' Relief: Honors' actions of "over familiarity" were not inappropriate to recognized pronciples of command and leadership?

Bruce Fleming: No one to my knowledge has accused the CAPT of "over-familiarity" and I understand that as, say, a midshipman calling me "Bruce" rather than "Professor."BF

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Captain Honors: My understanding is that the Captain's superiors were aware of these videos years ago and they counseled him then that they were inapropriate. Captain Honors stopped making the videos and went on to be promoted to commend the Enterprise.If this is correct then weren't Captain Honors superiors merely making him a scapegoat and shouldn't the superiors who failed to remove him from his post at that time resign from the Service in light of their bad judgement.In fact, shouldn't the people who made him a scapegoat be courtmartialed for hanging a subordinate out to dry this way?

Bruce Fleming: This is not court-martial material!BF

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Captain Honors: My son has served on the Big E since early 07 and was on that years deployment and is leaving next week on this years. The Big E is an old carrier and does not have as many amenities as the Nimitz Class ones. Captain Honors videos were one of the few highlights that he talked about during that dreary deployment. Your article is spot on and the question comes down to intent. His was to make light of certain subjects in a self effacing way, not to harrass or intimidate junior members of the crew. We civilians can never appreciate the long hours and close quarters that they must endure day after day. I don't think this is a victory for DADT, it further divides and polarizes the issue. A sad day for the U.S. Navy and our Armed Forces in general.

Bruce Fleming: I've heard from former students who served on the E to this effect, too.BF

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Laurel, MD: A friend's daughter was thinking about joining the Navy but these videos gave her pause. After Adm. Owens was fired, she was reconsidering; but now your article may have killed the deal. I'm retired Navy and when she asked me if others felt like you do, I was compelled to say, yes. Of course homophobia and sexism are rampant in many places, but the military does seem to be the worst. Maybe my as yet unborn grandchildren will see a different world, but I'm not sure that's going to happen.

Bruce Fleming: To repeat my point, military culture isn't office culture. And probably can't be. Clarity about what it is, is a good thing.BF

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Retired Navy Captain (female): You need to distinguish between sex per se and homophobic, misogynistic slurs, which are never appropriate in any setting. If you can't see the difference, you have a major problem.

Bruce Fleming: CAPTwhat makes you think it's proper to write in such a disdainful and hectoring way to a tenured professor with 23.5 years service? Not a very good example of what we're saying, are we?Dr. Bruce E. FlemingProfessor, US Naval Academy

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navy videos: Capt. Honors may have done the right thing but why was this " instructional " technique not cleared with higher ups before implemented.?unfortunately, this approach will never get any traction with the general public(who know or care little about the military)

Bruce Fleming: Officers are supposed to make decisions at their level, and rarely get clearance for this sort of thing.BF

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Suitable for different audiences: I just want to state that I agree with your insights. What would have a different level of sensitivity in a general public crowd should not have the same sensitivity in a military setting. We have to realize the intended argument and, yes, it may be crude, but even the general public has its own levels of acceptable crudity. I think we should not be in the business of censorship, especially when the intended audience was not insulted by the content. Were they many within the intended audience who felt offended when they viewed it? What was the general reaction of those who saw the film who were on the ship?

Bruce Fleming: A former student, female LT, wrote to say that she was there and had no problems.BF

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Instructors are Professors?: Do you have a doctorate? if so, then why an "instructor?"

Bruce Fleming: BA HaverfordMA U of CHicagoPhD VanderbiltAnd I'm a full tenured Professor. Yes, I wrote to the Post to complain! Thanks for feeling my pain! The CAPT would be upset if he were referred to as an LT...Dr. BF

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Rocci Fisch: He was fired over his videos, but Capt. Owen Honors did the right thing

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Wrong Stuff: Mr. Fleming, your assertion that Capt. Honors did the right thing is troubling coming from a Naval Academy instructor. You, like a number of military personnel, defend the videos as being "funny" and just right for the audience. What kind of leadership example does Capt. Honors set for his ship? What about the apparent minority who were not his intended audience? Did you ever consider that Capt. Honors is in fact telling his underlings "this is how you should behave?"

Bruce Fleming: Oh gosh, NO, I NEVER considered that possibility! Not even given that I wrote this article to discuss it!Dr. BF

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Leadership in the U.S. Navy: Professor Fleming, you raised hackles in the athletic and minority communities at USNA a couple years ago by suggesting that academic scores should trump any other qualities in USNA candidates for admission. In your piece yesterday, you appear to contradict yourself by suggesting that indeed, the Navy is not same as the civilian world and has different priorites for leadership. Isn't that exactly what your detractors said to you when you downplayed the importance of sports and diversity at USNA?

Bruce Fleming: You have incorrectly summarized my position re. our flawed admissions policies. If you are willing to find out what my position in fact IS, see my Web site www.brucefleming.netBF

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Capt O.P. Honors: Bruce,By far the best analysis I've seen on this topic so far and as a 14 year (and counting) Navy vet, I can say that you hit the nail on the head. From a larger perspective, have you or anybody else done an analysis of the recent uptick in the firing of Navy CO's? My fear (which is only supported by anecdotal evidence so far) is that we are breeding a generation of Military Officers who are afraid to take risks, and will end up making decisions out of fear that the wrong decision will end up on CNN. It has long been apparent to me that high ranking officers, such as the Joint Chiefs must be in lockstep with the current presidential administration or they'll be given their walking papers (see Pete Pace), and I believe this attitude has since permeated the mid-grade and junior officers as well.

Bruce Fleming:

Bruce Fleming: Follow the threads on military blogs like CDR Salamander to see that others feel this is so.BF

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Viewers: While I admit it is wrong to use offensive humor, it happens, and often we laugh. While we pretend to be offended at Howard Stern, Don Imus, Saturday Night Live, etc. for their sexual references, would you agree we still find a lot of those criticizing faithfully watching?

Bruce Fleming: More to the point is that the sailors use them. Officers can guide by example and good-humored hectoring ("not on my watch") but if they show themselves to be SHOCKED and APPALLED and swing into high punishment gear, stuff only goes underground.BF

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Rocci Fisch: Bruce Fleming web site.

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why so defensive?: Why take such a combative and defensive tone? The people who pay for the Navy are entitled to express their concern without being brushed off as ignorant annoyances.Our taxes pay your salary. This is not a vacuum.

Bruce Fleming: Speaking/writing respectfully begets respect.BF

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Leadership v. Example: Dr. Fleming:I am asking this question out of ignorance, not with any alterior motives. It is my understanding that Captain Honors, like all military officers is commissioned as an "Officer and a Gentleman." Where it the line between team-building and leadership on an operational level (which I believe Captain Honors was trying to do in his own way) and in setting an example of behavior and conduct for his sailors, many of whom are 19 or 20 years old and still maturing. I'm wondering if it isn't (long-term) better to try to raise the level of discourse and lose a few leadership points rather than go for the short term gain.

Bruce Fleming: I've said his ways are not mine, and I never call ANYBODY a "f@g," even if it's not meant to mean homosexual. However the sailors DO. You don't chop off their head, you say why it's not ok.Similarly, the CAPT needed some "counseling." Not the boot. He got the boot because people got so upset. Maybe they shouldn't have.BF

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Capt Honors Commander: I have a problem with your contention that the top guy doesn't run everything. As a former carrier sailor, I think I can safely say that while it's true the CO doesn't fuel the jets, he's nevertheless responsible for them being fueled correctly. If the videos were broadcast on the ships television service it would be impossible for the CO to be unaware of their content. His aquiesence amounted to his approval.

Bruce Fleming: It's his watch, so in that sense he's responsible. But if he micro-managed his staff they would shut down and not produce for him. You have to delegate responsibility.BF

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Arlington: I can't imagine putting my life in the hands of a man I know thinks my life as a woman or a gay man is less valuable than a straight man's.

Bruce Fleming: I don't think we're talking about the same person or videos.BF

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Wrong Stuff Again: Dr. BF, you are ducking questions and your article did the same. Please defend why Capt. Honors is in the right in addressing issues with slang and bigotry that deeply offend a minority both on and off the ship.

Bruce Fleming: Many universities have positions in "Queer Studies." Rappers use the "n-word." Woody Allen makes fun of Jews. All epithets have a context; I'm gathering you're registering "fxg" and that's the end of it for you. You're what politicians call a single-issue voter. There are other issues too.BF

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Captain Honors: I've got mixed feelings about the videos. Sailors and soldiers do need commanders who are willing to, and interested in, interact with them during off-duty hours. Some of the video did seem inappropriate or "guy humor", but it honestly didn't seem to be any different than what some people watch in movies or on TV, or what the media 'feeds' us on a daily basis.Do you know the status of the Navy's "Investigation" into this matter? Especially as to who released the videos now, and why they chose to do so now? It seems so inappropriate to 'fire' Captain Honors for something that was stopped four years ago.

Bruce Fleming: Nobody seems to know who is all over them, or why now.Or whether anybody at the time was offended.BF

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Respect does go both ways: "Speaking/writing respectfully begets respect"Yes, it does. Dr. Fleming, this is the problem. The XO spoke in a manner that was insulting and mean and through a medium that suggested that being insulting and mean to female and gay service members was acceptable. I think dismissing him was over the top, but his behavior certainty wasn't correct. 'Raunchy' humor does include bathroom and sex jokes, but it doesn't need to include epithets. He needed to apologize and it would have been nice to see him lead a discussion of why the apology was necessary among those who saw the videos.

Bruce Fleming: As I said, his ways are not mine. And I agree that a discussion INCLUDING him would be a great idea, but only if he were allowed to do other things than just eat crow. Civil discussion is the name of the game. But humor, esp on a carrier on deployment, may have other rules than a public forum of (say) an international conference.BFBF

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Leadership v. Example (again): I never said that Captain Honors way is yours, I asked whether it was more appropriate as an officer and a commander for him to sink to the level of a 19 or 20 year old or to remain above it as an example. As an instructor of future naval leaders, if one of your students were to ask which is the better approach, what would you say?

Bruce Fleming: Answered in the op-ed.BF

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Rockville, MD: If Honors's conduct is okay because it is in the military environment, then military people with his attitude should not go into government or the civilian work sector after retirement. This conduct wouldn't be condoned. People with his "sense of humor" demonstrate why there will be problems with implementing repealing DADT. I wonder at the Naval Academy permitting people with your attitudes to be teaching there. This is the 21st Century and conduct demonstrated by Honors and condoned by you does not reflect well on the military.

Bruce Fleming: I think people can change gears. I wonder if you've ever heard an athletic team in the locker room? Do they talk that way at an official presentation? People are complex, and it's appropriate to adapt to different circumstances.BF

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objectification: While this may be a bit off topic, you seem to touch on it in your piece. This "fear" that all of these military people have about taking showers with gay guys is bizarre to me. In such male dominated culture objectification of women seems to run rampant. Yet the hint of POSSIBLE objectification of themselves throws all of these big strong men into a tizzy. Of course it also assumes that every gay guy is gonna put the moves on any guy (especially if he gets to see him naked), which is clearly not the case. Your piece didn't resonate at all with me. I could never envision myself in a military setting. But doesn't the fact that members of the crew were bothered by these videos mean anything? Shouldn't a leader find a way to communicate expectations without making sophomoric videos that seem to present him as "one of the guys" rather than the commander? Isn't this sort of education/blowing off steam best addressed by the leaders closer to the sailors (NCOs, etc)?

Bruce Fleming: Not sure what the Q is here. I've written a book called "Sexual Ethics" (see Web site for pub etc, www.brucefleming.net) that tackles this topic. Of course men objectify women, and are not eager themselves to be objectified. And a straight guy isn't necessarily an attractive male, to anybody. These are facts; they can be addressed and molded, but only through rather kind guidance, not shutting down the conversation (as the reaction to the videos did).BF

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Justifying this issue: Am not sure why this video is being compared to TV and radio programs which are just rude, crude and yes funny. Isn't Navy a professional and disciplined organization and that's what sets it apart? Why are you comparing the Navy to the lowest common denominator in society and justifying this issue?

Bruce Fleming: The sailors are 18-28 and grew up on "coarse" stuff. Besides, they're young (mostly) guys. They ARE coarse. Can they be cleaned up? Sure. But you can't pretend it's the garden club.BF

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Capt. Honors Commander: I concur that Honors can be assigned to perform certain tasks on behalf of his CO, but the contention that responsibility can be delegated seems to me incorrect. The responsibility remains always with the ship's commander and can never be delegated. I suppose my real point is obvious. If anyone is to be punished for the conduct of Capt. Honors, the ship's commander, at the time of the alleged misbehavior, should be included on that list. Personally I agree that counseling would have been more appropriate than a reassignment or a curtailed career. Thanks for your responses, and good luck down at the USNA.

Bruce Fleming: The military usually finds a fall guy when it gets bad press. Usually they go for the lowest-level guy/gal they can find.Thanks for the good luck wishes. Classes start tomorrow. OOHRAH! Year 23.5 and counting!BF

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CAPT Honors: Bravo Zulu - if only you, and MANY others, had spoken sooner...

Bruce Fleming: is that most journalists see the military from the outside. And as my new book, Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide, argues, the military doesn't do a good job of making itself clear.BF

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Religion and the MIlitary: Sorry, just one more thing. This is a bit off topic, but I was wondering if you would care to comment on the controversy at the Air Force Academy regarding uninvited proselytization of cadets at that school by fundamentalist protestant churches. My understanding is the Academy leadership may have been somehow complicit in this activity, and that military leadership in general seems rather dismissive of anyone who sees these activites as problematic.

Bruce Fleming: Don't know the particulars at USAFA, but as I write in my book--again, Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide--the military is "structurally" like religion (basically, the bottom line is belief: just do it) so it's clear why they like each other. In brief, I wouldn't be surprised (yes, I believe it to be un-Constitutional).BF

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Reality vs. opinion: Mr. Fleming, Do you feel your position might convey a confusing message to the Academy students you instruct? No matter how you feel personally about humor or putting issues out there a la George Carlin, how does this reconcile with doing the right thing when that supposed right thing led to Honors losing command of an aircraft carrier after decades of hard work and sacrifice, after months of difficult courses required to command that nuclear carrier? Even if you don't agree with this outcome, the reality your students will face in their military career is that a very distinguished career can come to an abrupt, unceremonious end if they engage in these kinds of antics (Tailhook is another example).

Bruce Fleming: I think if you poll my students or read my evals you'd have to agree that I do not give a confusing message. My message is always: look at a situation from all angles, weigh the options, decide on the best thing (NB: frequently there IS no "right" thing) and be able to justify it once you do it.BF

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Wrong Stuff: I guess you are lucky to be tenured. There are many offensive comments in the video. While I agree having a leader talk like the sailors can help bridge a communications gap, that sort of comment is best done in a private, limited audience setting. While XO, Honors went beyond the setting with vidoes streamed to the entire ship (and now the world). Bad judgment! Also, he has stereotyped women and homosexuals in the videos. It was truly difficult to find anything instructional about them, except that the XO aspires to have a night club act. Now he has his chance.

Bruce Fleming: I earned tenure. And my job is to interact with people who disagree with me and each other.BF

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Thanks for your view: While I agree with your main point of cautioning civilians to beware of their lack of perspective on this issue, I find the making of the videos to be "conduct unbecoming an officer" at least beneath an Executive Officer. I'd have no problem with these videos if they had been made by someone else and Capt Honors had simply OK'ed the videos based on your argument about the power of humor. Still, if the USN ordered them stopped, I would rather Honors had not been relieved of duty. Thanks for your thoughts and perspective.

Bruce Fleming: Sailors and officers from the E who have written say they thought they were super (some are gay, some female) and knew of no objections. Anybody can do something somebody will find offensive. The second party SPEAKS UP (which no one did, apparently), the XO is supposed to change unless he can convince them they've misunderstood (always a poss.) You can't assume the offended person is always right--a lot can be resolved by discussion/apology. That's what the Navy teaches its people to do.BF

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Delegating Responsibility: In an earlier response, you noted that responsibility must be delegated. Are you aware that in military command, responsibility is never delegated? Responsibility for all that occurs on the watch of the commander is the commander's alone, and that may well explain the apparent blurring of command authority, responsibility, and professional propriety for CAPT. Honors in his videos, and is very likely the reason for his relief as CO now -- lack of confidence in his understanding the difference.

Bruce Fleming: Duties are delegated, responsibility is not. Roger.BF

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Washington, DC: I found your essay helpful and enlightening. It really gave me a different perspective on the videos. Sadly, though, your responses on this to chat to anyone who disagrees with you have been snarky and disrespectful. It's a real disappointment. I had thought this chat would offer room for a further airing of viewpoints, but that apparently is not to be.

Bruce Fleming: Check out the questions for "are you aware that..." and "has it ever occurred to you that" and the like.BF

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My Prior Service: I served extensively as a Marine officer for 29 years, including a year deployed at sea, and I've never witnessed or understood such a level of impropriety by a senior officer. To his credit, CAPT. Honors was obviously concerned for the welfare of his sailors as would be any commander, but the coarseness and crudity of his videos certainly serves to undermine the dignity of his command authority, and presents more of an "Animal House" setting . Do you have military experience as part of the equation in your discussion/study of civilian/military relationships? Have you studied command and leadership principles?

Bruce Fleming: I have further argued that "leadership" cannot be taught, that it's the "snake oil" of the 20th and now 21st century--it can only be modeled. And I know you're not saying that civilians are incapable of exhibiting or modeling good leadership.BF

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Teen guys: Your point about the necessity of appealing to (very) young men who are under pressure and without many tensional outlets is a good one.But I have yet to see why *joining* them in using f%g or the dreaded c-word (for lady parts) needs to be done.A mature man can lead them away, not shrug and step into the toilet (talk.)We all stopped saying "Negro" and "colored" back in the day, even though those terms were often used in a civil way. They grew outdated. That does happen with language, agreed?

Bruce Fleming: Yes but check out rap songs for the n-word, any locker room for c-- or p---, and the 7th grade playground for the gay slurs. The sailors come in with these; you can't legislate them away. Please see my article for a way of dealing with this that is not CAPT Honors's.BF

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Defensive: You seem to be both defensive and dismissive in your repsonses to those who disagree or question your POV. I was hoping for a more informed debate and exploration of the issue.

Bruce Fleming: Can't make everybody happy. My student evals are about 90% "I love this guy" and 10% "I hated this guy." As one response said, good thing I'm tenured, eh? But the problem comes when 90% (99.99%?) of CAPT Honors's people, say, love him. Do the l % single-issue voters get to determine his actions? Nowadays we say "yes." I say that's not combat-effective.BF

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I was in the Army in Vietnam: and later on I stayed in Military Areas in Vietnam and saw Army leadership from a civilian point of view. I think Honors was doing a good job. Perhaps some of the details went too far, but that was his call. I was not there. It takes a lot of time and effort to identify leaders and train them for the job. Why throw the good ones away?

Bruce Fleming: I personally think the removal, while inevitable, was an over-reaction.BF

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Rocci Fisch:

Bruce Fleming: Our time is running out. Can't keep everybody happy; the pt. of an exchange like this is to throw a few punches and see where they go. Happy New Year.BF


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