Out of Sight

Screen Shot 2019-05-30 at 7.55.52 AMYesterday’s story about the Navy attempting to hide the USS John S. McCain* during Trump’s visit to Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan is still unfolding … affirming my resolve to avoid commenting on breaking news until the dust has settled.

This story tests my resolve, but the dust has at least begun to settle, so here goes:

This is what was initially reported: White House staff, coordinating Trump’s trip, told the Navy that the “USS John McCain needs to be out of sight” during the visit. Navy officials at Yokosuka draped the stern of the destroyer with a tarp to cover its name, then took the additional step of placing a barge between the McCain and the USS Wasp, from whose deck Trump would address sailors. Sailors assigned to the McCain were “given the day off.”

The Navy, through Chief of Information Rear Admiral Charlie Brown, denies it, saying the ship’s name was fully visible during Trump’s visit. Well, yes, a tarp had been draped over the McCain’s stern, but senior Navy officers ordered it removed and it was no longer there during Trump’s visit on Tuesday. Yes, the barge had been placed between the McCain and the Wasp, but it too was gone by Tuesday.

So far, though, no one has denied the part of the story where sailors assigned to the USS McCain, wearing their McCain caps, were not allowed to board the USS Wasp and attend Trump’s speech. Which is an interesting interpretation of “given the day off.”

What does Trump say? “I would not have done that. I was not a big fan of John McCain in any way shape or form. To me John McCain, I wasn’t a fan. But I would never do a thing like that. Now, someone did it because they thought I didn’t like him. They were well-meaning, I will say. But I wouldn’t have.”

Here’s the emerging storyline, as of this morning:

  • Overzealous West Wing underlings asked the Navy to keep the USS John S. McCain out of sight during Trump’s visit, presumably to avoid upsetting the boss and triggering an embarrassing public tantrum.
  • Overzealous Navy officers at Yokosuka complied, covering the name of the ship with a tarp, giving its sailors the day off, and anchoring a barge between the McCain and the Wasp to further hide it.
  • Senior Navy officers in the 7th Fleet and US Indo-Pacific Command, upon hearing what had been done by overzealous underlings, ordered it undone, and the tarp and barge were gone by the time Trump arrived.

“Overzealous underlings” are to blame. Senior officers, in their mature wisdom, undid the damage in the nick of time. The most senior officer of all, the commander in chief, is wholly innocent, above the fray.

I’m astounded by people’s willingness to believe in, and blame, overzealous underlings. If my 24 years in the military … which included two tours on the joint staff and ample exposure to four-star generals and admirals as well as senior DoD officials … taught me anything, it’s that the truly petty shit always comes from the top. Sure, underlings deliver the message, but they’re not the ones who wrote it.

When a colonel sidled up to me in the officers’ club bar and tugged on the leg of my flight suit to check that my socks were regulation black, he did it at a general’s specific behest. When the base commander had all the palm trees chopped down before the USAF chief of staff’s visit, he did it because the chief of staff specifically said he “didn’t want to see another fucking palm tree.” When thousands of USAF officers and NCOs wasted two years replacing the word “regulation” with “instruction” in every regulation … oops, instruction … written since the Air Force’s formation in 1947, it was because General McPeak didn’t like the word.

We are all underlings, some of us more zealous than others, but we don’t hide ships’ names on our own.

I’m calling bullshit. This goes right to the top of the chain of command. Trump is elbow-deep in what happened at Yokosuka. I know it.

*The USS John S. McCain is named for three seagoing McCains: Admiral John McCain Sr, his son Admiral John ‘Jack’ McCain Jr, and his son (only recently officially added to the ship’s list of namesakes), Captain John McCain III.

© 2019, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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2 comments to Out of Sight

  • Gopher

    My experience with underlings is quite different.

    For years all we heard was “The Admiral wants…” but when I finally asked the Admiral what he really wanted (feigning a need for clarification) his response was: “Lieutenant, what the hell are you talking about? And what are you doing anyway?” As a senior officer, going in to brief the 4-Star, his 1-Star minion told me there was no way I’d be allowed to present my brief as the .ppt was not formatted the way the 4-Star wanted it and I’d be tossed out at my first slide. 60 minutes and 9 slides later I was told that was probably the most informative presentation he’d seen since he assumed that office.

    Political underlings tend to be much worse (in my opinion) although I’ve never dealt with a White House aide. The worst I ever had to deal with was some Senator’s minion insistent I reverse my ruling in a Summary Courts Martial proceeding. I smiled, told him to fuck off and if the Senator was seriously interested he could call me.

    That said, I expect 45’s minions are a mix of complete zealots and hand wringers concerned with containing the next outburst.

    Just my $0.02

  • Gopher, my experiences are the opposite of yours. I’ve been in the room on several occasions when 3- and 4-star generals have issued unbelievably petty orders. I’m sure there are overzealous underlings on Trump’s staff, but they’re mostly toadies doing exactly what the boss wants.

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