Navy's Influence on Rise Among Military Brass

With the recent recommendation to elevate Adm. Michael Mullen to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy could take over yet another key military command. Naval officers now hold three of the military's five major commands.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, the next steps in Iraq and Afghanistan will be influenced in part by admirals. An admiral is now in charge of the region that includes both wars. And the President has chosen another admiral as his top military adviser. In fact, naval officers now hold three of the military's five major commands around the world.

For NPR's Guy Raz, it's a sign of the influence of a service that is sometimes overlooked.

GUY RAZ: So in March 1998, Homer Simpson, Barney, Moe the Bartender and Apu, joined the Navy. And they're assigned to a nuclear submarine. The sub commander is called Captain Tenille. And on the first day out to sea, the captain chomps on a cigar as he looks out on the open waters, and he tells Homer...

(Soundbite of "The Simpsons")

Mr. ROD STEIGER (Actor): (As Captain Tenille) The Navy has a fine sense of tradition. Whenever an American vessel leaves port, the crew sings this ancient sea chantey. A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four...

(Soundbite of "In the Navy")

VILLAGE PEOPLE (Band): (Singing) In the Navy, you can sail the seven seas, in the Navy...

RAZ: The last time any major studio made a film about the Navy, it starred Tom Arnold. And then there's this video making the rounds on the Internet.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: If you join the Army, you'll get an education unlike any other. Every single day, people will try and kill you; that's why there's never been a better time to enlist in the Navy. Oh yeah. Yeah. While them poor grunts are eating sand in the 130-degree heat, we're catching cool breezes on the big ships. Out here with the big guns, we can practically guarantee you won't die, unless you party too hard.

(Soundbite of shouting)

RAZ: Okay, you get the idea. The Navy doesn't always get the respect it deserves. But consider something one retired general told me. Right now, he said, the Navy has the best bench of senior officers in the military, which is why Admiral Michael Mullen, the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is described as...

General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): The best guy available to do that job.

RAZ: And the decision to nominate Mullen and to elevate admiral William Fallon to oversee two ground wars as commander of CENTCOM is called...

General BARRY McCAFFREY (U.S. Army, Retired): A good move.

RAZ: The voices you just heard are from Army men, retired general Jack Keane and retired general Barry McCaffrey. Now, the Army is the biggest of the four service branches or, as general McCaffrey describes it...

Gen. McCAFFREY: The primary load-bearing institution of American security.

RAZ: And for a long time the Army has dominated the senior joint command posts in the military. But over the past decade, and even more so under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Navy developed a reputation for producing innovative, nimble and creative flag officers, which is a fancy way of saying admirals.

The new guy who's about to become the top overall military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, has his own podcast. It's not appointment listening but it's a window into how he's thinking. Here's a sample.

Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (U.S. Navy): I use an iPod myself. I have some feeling for its flexibility. It's simple, easy and quick to communicate what's on somebody's mind.

RAZ: Now, the last major naval battle was fought in 1944. And out of more than 3,500 fatal casualties in Iraq, 76 have come from the Navy. So you might wonder how is it that Naval officers are getting such prominent command roles over ground wars. Well, it all starts with something called the Goldwater-Nickels Act of 1986. It was a law that required the four military branches to start working together.

RAZ: And what it meant for junior officers coming up the ranks at the time was they'd be spending a lot more time with their counterparts from the other service branches. So for example, during the early 1990s, Army General Jack Keane was in charge of war ships.

Gen. KEANE: I had the privilege to have two different carrier battle groups underneath me and it was a tremendous experience, plus the number of force air wings and thousands of Marines as well.

RAZ: And Keane's counterparts in the Navy sometimes commanded his soldiers. It's now a pretty common practice, and something general Barry McCaffrey recently saw firsthand.

Gen. McCAFFREY: In the battlefield area, I've never seen better joint cooperation in our country's history than you can routinely encounter right now on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

RAZ: So even with a Navy man overseeing the whole thing, the ground commanders, General David Petraeus in Iraq and General Dan McNeill in Afghanistan, are both Army men. And so at least at that level the Army still has its own bragging rights.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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