Captain Queeg is nothing but a strict guy who likes to have his own way, and there are a thousand skippers more or less like him. Okay, he rolls little balls... Everybody is a screwball in their own way.
Steve Maryk in The Caine Mutiny
THERE IS NEVER quite as much fun in the U.S. Navy as during a debate about the screwball habits and ways of the skipper. These Queeg questions also pose important leadership and management issues. Are the actions of the skipper, the little and large personality twists, the demands, frequently the rage, all just techniques of control? Of having and holding the upper hand? Of strictness and having one's way? Of a drive to a grander purpose and mission?
The Queeg questions run loud and heavy through the remarkable 63-year career of Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickoer. And Rickover by Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen goes an impressive distance toward answering these questions about the admiral, who, at 81, is father of the nuclear navy and about to be retired by the Reagan administration.
The Queeg questions about Rickover are important because of what the answers say about the modern military bureaucracy. Rickover himself is the first of a new and important breed of technocratic admiral. An argument can be made that in order to change and improve the military and naval establishment -- to beat the inertia -- Rickover behavior may be necessary.
This book presents a picture, not a verdict. It shows how every Rickover statement, rudeness, tirade, letter, order, deception or occasional kindness to his permanent staff fits his design -- the sanctification of the professional goal. For him that was building, maintaining and expanding the nuclear Navy, his nuclear Navy.
Rickover, a crude dissident, the outsider, perhaps understood the Navy and the leadership mystique as well as anyone -- the need for the boss to be demanding, a kind of cult screwball. Cold, unrelenting, heartless, Rickover perfected a style of leadership that may have been cheerless but which made him a subject of wonder. As the authors note, former president Jimmy Carter, who was partially trained in the Rickover system during his Navy years, "tried to explain in Why Not the Best? that the lack of a relationship was, in some way, the bond" with Rickover.
This biography then can also be read as a management text, a guide to getting things done in an organization at any cost. The Rickover method might be summarized in the following lessons which are repeated themes throughout:
1. Organize the mail and paperwork; systematize everything; inspect, test and train; re-inspect, re-test and re-train. Rickover read the copies, called "pinks," of everything that each secretary in his office typed. This is a tool for gaining and holding control, a triumph of bookkeeping and distrustfulness in his nearghoulish delight for order.
2. Tolerate no mistakes; work harder than anyone and sacrifice personal life to the profession.
3. Most important of all, establish and cultivate a constitutency. For Rickover this was the Congress. The significance of a congressional-military-industrial complex is shown in great detail.
4. Hammer at your superiors with bad news, problems and complaints; keep them on the defensive.
5. Have two bosses. Rickover wore two hats, one in the Atomic Energy Commission (later in the Energy Department), the other in the Navy. He effectively played the two organizations against each other, becoming what the authors call "The Unaccountable Man."
6. Have a vision, an obsession, and use the media as your propaganda ministry to circulate it.
7. Carefully slant and select facts. Rickover shows convincingly that the admiral frequently left out facts or just deceived many people, including his beloved Congress. For example, the authors reveal how Rickover was able to sustain the myth that he created the nuclear submarine force over great opposition within the Navy. Citing testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on April 18, 1967. Rickover is quoted as saying:
"We have got somehow to drag the Navy into the Twentieth Century. From the beginning the Navy has opposed nuclear power."
Polmar and Allen contend that they looked everywhere and "could not find any opposition to the construction of nuclear-powered submarines." They found one vice admiral who had attempted to restrain development at first, and added, "No other Navy opposition can be found. Questions? Yes. But opposition? No." Self-delusion on Rickover's part? Listen to the rest of his testimony in 1967. "Were it not for this committee, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the Senate and House Appropriations Committees and the Senate Armed Services Committee, we would not have nuclear submarines."
This book deserves greatest praise for its balance, for admirable, dispassionate evenhandedness. Rickover is slammed but also given immense credit, the authors concluding that "another officer could not have done what Rickover accomplished" in creating the nuclear Navy.
Not just a biography, Rickover is also a history of the post-World War II Navy. Polmar and Allen have good material on how Rickover changed from the visionary to the conservative, especially as he put great distance between himself and the 1963 disaster when 129 men died aboard the Thresher nuclear submarine.
Despite its many virtues, the book nonetheless has three failings. It will be tough for the general reader; at least one third of the material and asides could have been cut out. Where 20 words might do the authors use 100. It is also encyclopedic in the worst and best sense. For instance, a naval officer named John Fluke helped the authors with his recollections of Rickover. Fluke's gripes against the aloofness of Naval Aacademy graduates get noted because they were also Rickover's. One other officer apparently told Fluke that "a bunch of shoe clerks couldn't stand up to an academy graduate."
There follows this paragraph: "The remark was particularly grating for there was a shoe clerk in the reserve battalion that Fluke commanded in Bridgeport, Connecticut. [!] He was Chief Machinist Mate James S. MacBridge who had a distinguished seagoing career in World War I and then returned to duty for action in World War II. [!!] Two of his children, George and Muriel, also served in the Navy. [!!!]" (Exclamations marks added for emphasis.) This would be unfair if there weren't so many such detailed irrelevancies.
The second criticism is the failure to keep the story moving chronologically. At one point the discussion of early submarines goes from 1917 to 1930 then back to 1920, then ahead to 1925, back to 1922, then to 1925 and 1930. There seems to be no organizational principle and many things get repeated several times.
Third, the book lacks intimacy. This is largely because Rickover declined to speak with the authors or help them in any manner. The personality portrayed is the Rickover of the congressional testimony, not one who gives his views on his entire career, its evolution, ups and downs.
But in the end Polmar and Allen seem to be saying that Rickover and the Rickover system -- his theories, his notoriously harsh interviews of applicants for nuclear training, his feuds, his skirmishes, his compulsion -- these were all a good thing for the Navy.
Drawing on many fine interviews from the bitter and worshipful, the authors are at their best in explaining Rickover as a leader. Many of the interviews remain unattributed because, as the authors note, many of those knowledgeable about Rickover are still accountable to him in one way or another. One Navy captain identified as a 1954 graduate of the Naval Academy and a graduate of the nuclear training program says that Rickover's contribution to the Navy was not just in management and engineering, considerable though that was.
"His real genius, I believe, lies elsewhere," the captain is quoted as saying. "He infused into the Navy the idea of excellence. He had to. You don't just fool around with nuclear energy. He said that the standard would be excellence and he made that happen.
"Look around. Do you see excellence anywhere? In medicine? In law? religion? Anywhere? We have abandoned excellence.... But he was te genius who gave a generation of naval officers the idea that excellence was the standard."