To Be Or To Do – A Naval Career In The Wake Of The USS Fitzgerald & McCain

To Be or To Do

Colonel John Boyd, USAF
Colonel John Boyd, USAF

By Captain John Konrad (gCaptain) Memorialized in bronze by the United States Marine Corps and actively ignored by the general officers in his own service, Colonel John Boyd was a polarizing figure. He was also a genius who is credited with changing the face of warfare forever. 

During the past two months, I’ve been hitting the books, trying to understand problems which may have resulted in the fatal collision between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal. My research has included a dozen of government reports, U.S. Navy manuals, and books about American Naval operations as well as studies and reports on error chains and risk management. Through all this, one name keeps surfacing in these sources of research that are not connected with the Navy or Merchant Marine and one name is conspicuously absent from those that do: Colonel John Boyd.

Why this name is important in order to understand human factors related to collision avoidance and how Boyd’s teachings could revolutionize Bridge Resource Management will be the subject of an upcoming series of gCaptain articles, but I am posting this article today for two specific reasons:

Looking For the Fightership Mafia

If the name John Boyd means nothing to you, then scroll down to the next section. But if you know of a group (or reading material) that relates the teachings of John Boyd to Naval Operations, Naval Procurement or Maneuver Warfare at sea, then please contact me ([email protected] – +1.805.456.8644). The editors at gCaptain are interested in learning more.

(We don’t normally publish such requests, or my personal contact info, but such a group, if one exists, would operate under the radar).

To Be or To Do – A Message From John Boyd

Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War
Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

Dozens of active duty navy personnel have contacted us to share information or ideas that might help the Navy improve and prevent future incidents.  Some also have shared troubling information from inside the Navy. Some of this information has been shared in more recent articles but most of it remains unpublished.

Why? We can’t publish off the record information that is uncorroborated no matter how reliable the source and nearly all the Navy officers who contacted us asked to be off the record. None were willing to share additional sources within the Navy who would be willing to talk to us about troubling problems. 

The most common question we receive (from both Naval officers and maritime industry insiders) is: How do I share this information – or how do I take steps to fix the problems myself – without ruining my career?

My answer is: you can’t. 

The next question is more difficult to answer: why not?  

I have still not developed an answer that I’m happy with but, during my research on military procedure, I did find a direct answer that resonates deeply.

The answer comes from John Boyd and I will share his words because they are important. They are also at the heart of gCaptain’s success in the last 10 years. They are the reason we have testified to congress,  why I was a whistleblower in the offshore industry, why we became an early adopter of Social Media, why I wrote the best selling book on the largest man made environmental disaster in history and why my alma mater made me SUNY Maritime College’s Alumni Of The Year 2016. But it is also the reason I have been fired from two ships, why I was expelled from the US Naval Academy, why gCaptain once turned down a $6 million buyout offer, and why I received death threats after publishing my book. All of this is a result of the fact we at gCaptain are, and we publish articles written by, people who do

What does that mean? We’ll let John Boyd explain:

“Tiger,” Boyd would say to young Air Force officers faced with a difficult choice, “one day you will come to a fork in the road:”

“And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.”

Then he raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”

Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed in the another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?

So which will It Be?

I am posting this now, days after the USS John S. McCain collided with a product tanker, because many smart and motivated and patriotic naval officers now have contacted looking to expose problems.  Dozens more commissioned officers aboard US Navy ships, as well as civilian officers aboard Military Sealift Command vessels, are sitting on information or are frustrated by Naval Leadership and bureaucracy or want to do something to help prevent ships from colliding.

Most will choose to do nothing and some will read Boyd’s words and choose “To Be”- I do not judge those who choose the path I often wish I had taken –  but a select few will choose I do and they need encouragement for the choice they are about to make. A choice that will ruin their career and make life harder for themselves and their family… but a choice that will also give then a great sense of accomplishment and allow them to sleep like a baby at night.

Take my word for it or take John Boyd’s or find someone you trust that does good things at personal expense…. but either way don’t let time pass by because time is the only resource the world does not have in abundance. And those who choose to do nothing will end up with the worst of both worlds.

So how do you share this problematic information or work within the Navy to fix systemic problems without ruining your career? You don’t. You can’t. All you can do is choose: To Be or To Do