Unwritten Laws Ground Star Navy Pilot

The Romans had a proverb. Of all our laws, some are written and some are not.

As is often the case with proverbs, their surface simplicity conceals deeper truths. In this instance, at least two.

First, written law can’t do it all. There must be other sources of value and discipline and mercy: religion, morality, honor, tradition and common sense.

Second, these “unwritten laws” are just that–laws. They too can become unjust, oppressive, insane.

Latest American example: The case of Commander Robert E. Stumpf, United States Navy. The particulars concern his career. But his situation should be a warning, a clear signal that the “unwritten laws” of the civilian political processes are corrupting the military, just as they’ve tainted politics. And the growing bipartisan support for Cmdr. Stumpf should also be read as a sign. The American people are beginning to say, enough. Cmdr.

Stumpf is, by all standard measurements, a man on the fast track to the stars. An accomplished fighter pilot, he flew with distinction in the Gulf War, commanded the Navy’s elite Blue Angels precision flying team and enjoys a fine reputation within the service. The Navy selected him for promotion to captain in 1994; the Senate confirmed him. He was then selected for future assignment as an aircraft carrier group commander, perhaps the most coveted flying job in the Navy.

Now, what’s wrong with this picture? For starters, three things: Cmdr. Stumpf’s presence at the notorious Tailhook ’91 convention; a Navy clerical error, and the judgment of some people in very high places. Cmdr.

Stumpf attended Tailhook under orders to receive an award for the squadron he commanded. He flew there in an F/A-18, logged as a training mission – a totally acceptable practice, when such training missions have to be flown anyway and other forms of transportation are either inconvenient or costly. Cmdr. Stumpf was present in one of the “hospitality suites” and witnessed a hired stripper’s performance; tacky, but hardly illegal. He left and retired for the night before some reprehensible but consensual activities took place. No assaults occurred in this particular suite. .

Stumpf was later investigated by the Navy, along with everybody else swept up in that botched inquisitorial frenzy. He was completely exonerated and returned to duty.

His second ordeal began a few months ago, after the Senate had confirmed the promotion list on which his name appeared. Apparently, the Navy had violated Senate instructions to “flag” the name of anyone connected with Tailhook. The Navy informed the Senate Armed Services Committee of the error. It seems senatorial pique at having been “deceived” coincided with an anonymous phone-accusation campaign directed at the committee. Last October, apparently at a non-quorum meeting, the committee voted to oppose the promotion. The result was a letter so indicating to Navy Secretary John Dalton, signed by committee chairman Strom Thurmond and ranking Democrat Sam Nunn. The letter noted that, since, the full Senate had already acted, rescinding the promotion was the Navy’s job.

Secretary Dalton complied.

As of this writing Cmdr. Stumpf has been informed neither of the “accusation” against him nor the identity of his “accusers.” He has been refused permission to meet with the committee, or to defend himself in writing. Mr. Dalton defends the reversal by citing the need to maintain the “integrity of the process.” Also as of this writing, the Navy is considering a new policy to let promotion boards view “potentially adverse” information on officers that would not be contained in an individual’s official file–such as anonymous accusations. The Marines have already adopted this policy.

Let’s dispose of the obvious first. Tailhook was abhorrent. So was the Navy’s response. The guilty walked. The innocent bled. The service humiliated itself twice over.

Also obvious is the fact that the Navy needs to change its “unwritten laws” governing treatment of female service members, perhaps its attitude toward women in general. However, the Navy and the Pentagon, need to start standing up to the shrill minority of feminists for whom no sacrificial expiation will ever be enough. How ironic it is that service women have more in common with their male “oppressors” than with their anti-military “defenders” in The Sisterhood. And how sad it is that military women now complain that they can’t get the kind of counseling and mentoring they need from their male superiors. The guys are afraid to be alone with them.

Now to the less obvious but vital fact. The handling of Cmdr. Stumpf’s case reflects what is now the unwritten law of the United States. While the “written” legal system stands ready to excuse almost anything (remember O.J.?), the unwritten system is always ready to convict. Accusation now equates to guilt, perpetual guilt. Punishment is automatic and severe. And those who are persecuted become not deterrent examples of evil, but warnings to “good people” to stay away.

Men and women are leaving the service in disgust, their numbers lost amid the statistics of the personnel drawdown. Others, whose names will never be known, are simply refusing to enter. The same is happening in civilian public life.

Who needs it? When a hero’s career can be destroyed for simply being in a room where somebody else later did something; when a woman can lose a Cabinet appointment because she didn’t pay her nanny’s Social Security; when a man can win a Supreme Court seat yet remain pilloried for life on the basis of He Said/She Said, this is no longer a partisan issue. This is not the upholding of any moral standard remotely related to reality. This is a vicious, pharisaical, ex post facto, pseudo-moral McCarthyism, and worse.

Cmdr. Stumpf should be the symbol around which can rally everyone–Democrat, Republican, civilian, military, male, female–who wants this way of doing things stopped.

Let the inquisitions end here.

Philip Gold is director of defense and aerospace studies at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and a lecturer at Georgetown University.

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.