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Officers hold divergent views on Honors scandal

Jan. 15, 2011 - 10:30AM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 15, 2011 - 10:30AM  |  
Capt. Owen Honors: XO movie night 1
Capt. Owen Honors: XO movie night 1: WARNING, MATURE CONTENT: Video provided to Navy Times shows Capt. Owen Honors during one of his now- infamous "XO movie night" videos. Capt. Honors was fired from command January 4, 2011. (Navy Times, January 4, 2011)
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A screen shot from one of the films shown during Enterprise's "XO Movie Nights." Clips from the videos were obtained by Military Times. ()

XO movie night

Warning: These videos are unedited and contain mature content.
XO Movie Night I
XO Movie Night II
XO Movie Night III

In one view, echoed online by thousands of angry supporters, the risqué aspect of Capt. Owen Honors' videos simply reflected shipboard life and were funny escapes from the often-tedious routine of deployment; offended crew members of the carrier Enterprise could simply look away. Honors was an excellent leader, they say, and became the victim of political correctness gone amok.

Others, including several former commanding officers who spoke with Navy Times, largely disagree. Honors should have realized how far he'd climbed out on a limb, regardless of whether those videos would be viewed outside the ship.

"I know the pros and cons," said a retired captain and former warship commander who felt the videos were harmless and that many in the crew apparently responded to them positively. "I also hate the fact that the oven tops are hot. I hate the fact that electricity sometimes shocks you. But I know better than to put my hand on a hot stove. The issue of political correctness is real, it's here, it's now."

"I don't think it's political correctness," countered a former ballistic-missile submarine commander who asked not to be named so he could speak candidly. "I'm in the camp that says the activity was wrong, and he shouldn't have done it. I think the punishment was correct. … It's been the right thing that we've evolved to this."

Even if the content wasn't considered offensive by any in the crew — and Honors, in one video, acknowledged receiving complaints — the former sub commander said round-the-clock cable news is a factor that leaders know about.

"We all knew the CNN test," he said. "If you're making a judgment on whether something's appropriate or not, think how you'd feel if that event was seen on CNN. If you would be embarrassed by it, then it probably shouldn't be done. Period."

The issue, said a former fast-attack submarine commander who asked not to be named because he works for a contractor with close ties to the Navy, goes to fairness and opportunity to serve and advance.

"What I was always taught was that the American people lend us — the officer corps — their sons and daughters," the commander said. "In some sense, we are the custodians of the apparatus — the ships, the systems, the reactors. But we're also charged with providing a good mentoring, safe, secure — to the extent that we can in combat — environment for their precious children to serve in.

"So for him to go down the path of the words, the sexual expressions, the slurs against homosexuals … that part of it is what crossed the line for me."

Public image is important as well, said retired Capt. Jan van Tol, who commanded the minesweeper Gallant, the destroyer O'Brien and the amphibious assault ship Essex before retiring in 2007; he's now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

"A U.S. Navy warship going overseas is not the same thing as going outside in some U.S. town or city," he said. "They're just different cultures. Recognizing that maybe works for the country. So, we also have to take into account in the Navy of certain things that, if they become widely known, do not conduce to the good of the service.

"A judgment about those sorts of things has to come from senior leadership, like the CO, the [executive officer], master chief of the command — basically, any khaki," van Tol said.

All of the former leaders said they recognized Honors' intent. The problem, most said, was the content — as well as the starring role that Honors played.

A former surface XO who asked that his name not be used because he's still on active duty called it the "whole ‘officer and a gentleman' thing. When you're a younger officer, you're first getting started, you're given some latitude. When you get to be the XO, you're part of the triad: the CO-XO-CMC. If you're not living the standard, if you're not the walking, talking personification of the standard, then who is?"

The proper comportment of an executive officer isn't spelled out in formal Navy guidance on duties, responsibilities and authority. But it's made clear in a book on the desk of nearly every CO — "Command at Sea," by now-Adm. James Stavridis and retired Vice Adm. William P. Mack.

"Command presence may be one quality an officer is born with, but it can be enhanced by careful attention to personal detail," the authors wrote. For one, they say, "the appearance, conduct and language of the commanding and executive officer should be the standard for the ship."

This is where Honors fell short, the former executive officer said. "He kind of made a spectacle of himself," he said.

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