Systemic Failure

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-23-2023
One of the greatest lines ever uttered by any human being ever belongs to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who greeted another Navy POW (I believe it was Doug Hegdahl) when  Hegdahl arrived in Hanoi, with the line: “Welcome to the US Navy Det, Hanoi. It’s not great duty, but it’s shore duty.”
The point is that duty on a ship has a long list of challenges that simply are not found anywhere else, no matter how bad “anyplace else” is. Obviously, Hanoi was much worse, but Stockdale’s real point was to show the "new guy" that there was organization, leadership, support, that the “command” cared about him and that they were going to do what they could to look out for him. Stockdale was engaging in a bit of leadership - of which he had bucket loads - to maintain morale. Stockdale’s magic was that he could do all that with a simple, wise-guy line. Leadership and Morale… Hmmmm...
But language is a funny thing; words come in and out of fashion (groovy), meanings change or are "added to” (mouse, gay) or develop a very specific connotation (“nuance” - used by the self-important to signal that they are now lecturing you on something you can't possibly comprehend; you should probably take notes). In that last category we now find the word “systemic.”
Systemic means that there are regular actions or processes inside whatever it is that you are talking about - a government, a company, a military command structure - that lead to certain outcomes. While something could be systemic and quite good, the word is now more commonly used in a negative sense, that there are negative outcomes as a result of built in processes, a result of the system itself; there had been some error in the design of the system, and thus a systemic problem arose.
In modern usage, if there is a systemic problem it means two things at the same time: to fix the problem will require changing the system itself, and also, the people currently in the system are not to blame. After all, it was already there. In our feel good, "pass out medals" world, discovering that there was a systemic problem is probably cause to pass out more medals. So, if you were to discover that your organization has systemic issues that have grown into being a major problem, you should get a medal for this discovery!
Isn’t that great?
This is what the Navy just determined in their investigation of low moral on several ships that resulted in a spike in the number of suicides. It’s so very fortunate that they have realized it was systemic. 
It is of course, utter and complete nonsense.
They tell us that life in a shipyard is awful… This is, of course, news to anyone who has never been anywhere near a shipyard. To everyone else, this is like telling you that sleeping naked under a cold, wet blanket is uncomfortable. As Admiral Stockdale would have been able to tell you, there are all sorts of things that are uncomfortable in the Navy. Being on a ship on a good day can be uncomfortable. With the exception of senior officers, there is zero privacy. There is no quiet - ever. (One might note that if a ship is completely silent, that’s probably a very bad sign.) There are always sweaty and smelly shipmates. Sometimes the food is good, often not so. 
And there is work - lots of it. And in a shipyard it’s worse: very loud, very crowded, either very hot or very cold, always very humid. The power is cut frequently, there is no water, etc., etc., etc.
Everyone knows this, from the Chief of Naval Operations down through the most junior sailor who has spent time in a yard. Good leadership demands that actions be taken to take care of the crew - at the very least, a clear demonstration of understanding and of some degree of suffering with the sailors. Communicating with the crew - by all the officers and chiefs - staying on top of living conditions and all the associated issues - there is no possible laundry list, it’s everything all the time. Of course, good crews don’t need to be coddled, they need to be led. And good leaders make good crews. But good leadership requires time and constant effort, delegation of authority and the concomitant acceptance of responsibility. There is a very old adage, which probably predates Odysseus, that a good captain takes care of his crew, the crew takes care of the ship.
And then we have the Navy.
The Navy conducted this investigation into suicides and determined that no one is to blame, that it is a systemic issue, and "it’s really about money.”
Well, here’s a thought: it really is systemic: it’s about the system the Navy has used for too long to pick our senior officers and we now have a majority of senior officers who know remarkably little about leadership and virtually nothing about taking responsibility. About a Navy staff that has sat on its hands for years and watched ships take far too long to make their way through periods in shipyards and done nothing to fix the problem, who are incapable not only of implementing any solutions, but also of communicating the issues to Congress and offering long-term fixes. We have senior officers who let situations on capital ships and in our shipyards erode to the point that not only are ships not being fixed on time, the crews are demoralized and undoubtedly provided less training time than they should be.
We have ships being repaired that are months and months behind schedule, ships under construction with no hope of picking up the pace of construction, ships routinely coming off the ways or out of the yards late and over budget; we didn’t even have enough amphibious ships to evacuate US citizens from Sudan.
And no one has been fired, and no one resigned in acceptance of their failure. 
There’s a word for that: Systemic.