Small Wars Journal

Speaking of the Long War

Mon, 02/03/2014 - 5:37am

Speaking of the Long War: CNO Speech Transcripts from 2001 to 2011, and the Contemporary Myth of U.S. Sea Power

J. Overton

The first decade of the conflict triggered by the attacks of September 11, 2001, whether called the “Global War on Terror,” the “War on Islamic Fascism,” or simply “The Long War,” coincided with the time when the Internet went mainstream. The ease of digitally producing, storing, and disseminating information resulted in countless official documents, news products, still and video imagery, and audio files, from the Pentagon to the battlefield, available to everyone with internet access instantaneously and inexpensively. Millions of pages of resources on every U.S. military service and nearly every operation, from counter-piracy to domestic firefighting to urban combat, are and will be available to the historian.  Even many classified [1] documents have been made publicly available much more quickly than they would have been prior to World Wide Web ubiquity.

Tucked among this vast load of material are the speech transcripts of the three Chiefs of Naval Operations that served from 2001 to mid-2011, most of which are publicly available on official Navy Web sites. While the transcribed speeches of military commanders provide much, and sometimes all, of the historical sources available for ancient military conflicts, these recent speeches amount to a tiny, biased percentage of the resources available to anyone attempting to understand what the Navy was doing, and becoming, during the first decade of the “Long War.” They do not have the historical and artistic value found in the speeches quoted by Thucydides, from the words of Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower, in operations reports, in interviews with warfighters and decision makers, in the various Strategies from the DoD to the Maritime to the Homeland Security. These speeches taken together are, however, the U.S. Navy’s contemporary myth, the story it was telling itself it was during these 10 uncertain years.

The more than 200 CNO speeches transcribed and studied for this time period began with remarks by Admiral Vern Clark in October, 2001, and ended with a talk by Admiral Gary Roughead in May, 2011, just after the killing of Osama bin Laden. About half of the speeches were given to internal, or at least choir, audiences: Changes of Command, Navy League Councils, ROTC units, military academies and war colleges. Others were to various civic groups and for particular events…Chambers of Commerce, think tanks, and occasionally foreign congregations.  Very few could be categorized as the “Battle Speech” variety given to troops in the field or prior to operations.

While written and delivered for specific audiences, these speeches are available to anyone with internet access. During these past ten years, when a leader such as the CNO spoke publicly, he was aware that his words had the potential to go far beyond his immediate audience.

These speeches usually fell into very standardized formats. Be they from Admirals Clark, Mullen, or Roughead, they generally begin with warm-hearted filler, making the audience feel comfortable and familiar, talking up the greatness of whoever the previous speaker was, the splendor of their location, and the wonders of the person who is being retired, being promoted, or being buried. These mostly confer the “Lake Wobegon” message - everyone’s good looking, strong, and above average.

There is then the recitation of current events, quotes from political and military leaders and historical figures, anecdotes of specific operations and statistics.  While the missions or statistics mentioned can usually be found in other sources, the particular type mentioned, and particular statistic cited from the thousands one could emphasize, show what Navy leadership believed it was doing that was most important at the time.  CNO may also mention some specific want or need that would solve a current problem or be helpful in the future…usually a platform or system. Mixed into the narrative are what I’ll call ‘religious verbs’ that are rarely found in other official government documents other than speeches – phrases such as “I believe…, “I am convinced…,” “My conviction is…” And statements of being such as “We are…”  What follows these are the shiny, hard, worthwhile nuggets that transcend the immediate event - the myth of contemporary Sea Power. Reading the speeches chronologically, one sees how this myth evolved over time, how, over the course of these ten years of persistent conflict, the U.S. Navy was answering the “…old question, What do we need a Navy for?” [2]

In October of 2001, CNO Admiral Vern Clark portrayed the Navy as functioning in its traditional military role in war. In a speech to Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, he is asked how the Navy changed due to the recent terrorist attacks of September 11. Clark answered, “The President said we have to root him out and keep him on the run.  The challenge for me is figuring out how to  take this force and cover as broad an area as I can as fast as I can.  As I stated, day in and day out, we have two carrier battle groups out there. Today instead of two we have four.  The challenge is how we're going to sustain this presence globally.  We need to go where the ocean allows us to go and our systems today have more reach…the challenge [will be to ensure we can go] wherever the National Command Authority asks us to be.  I expect there will also be new technology that will be introduced.” [3]

Although Clark mentioned people, his Navy’s mission and reason for being are to provide Aircraft Carrier Groups to the President. He almost wistfully said that new technology will happen to somehow change the Navy. The relevance of the Navy to the upcoming operations is a given, and will come in the same manner that is has since early 1942.

Speaking the next month about operations in Afghanistan, he began expanding that definition of Sea Power, and making the case for naval relevance to a Nation at war with a very landlocked country. He said, “My conviction is that the Sea Power part of this is all about operating from the maritime domain.  It is about being able to project power and to get a foothold in somebody's nation so that you can influence events.  What I believe is that one of the reasons that September the 11th is going to reinforce the requirement for forces in the maritime domain is because of their mobility, speed and agility.  It is about the ability to take the sovereignty of our nation [to the far corners of this earth].” [4]

While in these early stages of the war, CNO is asking big questions about “Sea Power,” in effect about what the Navy is and can do, his answer is still very equipment and combat-focused. Clark’s speeches talk about people being his number one priority, but most specifics involve ships. One year into the war in Afghanistan he was talking about a 360 ship Navy, and about his “Sea Power 21” concept being the future… still almost exclusively focused on equipment, systems, and future capabilities. [5]

In late 2003, speaking at a conference on security and strategy after Iraqi Freedom, he said, “…Our most importance asymmetric advantage is the genius of our people.  And I'm absolutely convinced that the heart of what we have to do is that we have to win that battle for them.  I'm convinced that we are laden with a Cold War human resource system. …And the reason it's important, that I'm focusing on this, is that… how will the nation pay for the things that we dream about in creating the military capability of the future?”  [6]

In the War’s first years, Sailors existed to man the equipment, and Navy’s relevance to the fight would come from how good the equipment was and how cheaply it could be manned. Speaking to the Naval War College in 2004, Clark says about the United States citizenry, and hence the Navy Sailor, “We are also a people who value growth and development and we speak about that frequently because it is our conviction that while one of the great advantages that our nation possesses - and that advantage is the ability to field incredible technology - that that advantage diminishes rapidly unless we have human beings who are able to leverage that technology for the benefit of the nation.” [7]

In one of his final speeches as CNO, after four years of ground war and the possibility of quick, decisive victory long passed, Clark spoke of a trip to Iraq, and then barely mentioned ships at all.  “…we've got several thousand people in the Navy in Iraq,” said Clark. “All of the medics (sic), you know, with the Marine Corps are ours, all the Seabees, but we also in the last rotation… we sent a whole bunch of Navy people up and they're working with the Army.” [8]

Navy’s role had evolved, and its argument for relevance to the nation and the war was becoming more human-focused. That relevance, however, was based on Sailors on the ground working in fairly tradition roles - Corpsmen, Seabees - again, not a significant change since World War II.

After becoming CNO in July, 2005, Admiral Mike Mullen wastes little time in explaining that his Navy is going to be more expansive. The next month he spoke to the National Defense University, and while the “Cooperative Strategy for 21st Seapower” would not be released for another two years, many of its themes were present in this speech.

Mullen’s messages were that U.S. Sea Power must be very broad to remain relevant, must be about more than the current wars, and that our Navy’s strength must be based on people’s abilities rather than equipment.  He brought the Marine Corps and Coast Guard into his talks…services known for their multi-mission capabilities, agility, efficiency, and for not being as reliant as the Navy on hardware.

“I believe,” said Mullen,” that to be effective in this uncertain environment, our Navy needs tools that are not only instruments of war, but implements for peace – to become a strong partner for a stable global community.” [9]

He continued, “Today, I think Americans realize that the best way to defend freedom at home is to defend freedom around the world, and that means the capability to work with any nation, and to work from any shore. American Sea Power in this age must, therefore, be capable of a set of operational effects… global effects unique to a truly decisive naval force.” [10]

Navy leadership was at this point putting words in the American public’s mouth. Within the next two years, the Naval War College would be instituting “Conversations with the Country” community forums, ostensibly to get insight from the public on the development of a new Maritime Strategy. [11] But from this particular speech it’s obvious that much of the foundation of that Strategy was already in place.

In 2005, the U.S. Navy was telling itself what it believes the American people want it to be, and what it must do to be a decisive force, but one which will no time soon be part of any action on the scale of a Battle of Midway, an invasion of Normandy , or a landing at Vera Cruz.

Mullen mixed the concepts of “Sea Power,” “peace,”  “hope,” and “relevance” several times during the remainder of this speech. He then gave declarations of what he said Americans expect from their Navy. “[They] expect a Navy capable of safeguarding their sources of energy, which empowers their way of life. They expect their Navy to leverage their collective moral conscience as well, by extending a helping hand to victims of natural disaster and human cruelty.” [12] Here the U.S. Navy, its power and operations have become manifestations of the “collective moral conscious” of America.

In a preview of the then-unpenned new Maritime Strategy, Mullen continued, “They expect a Navy that can work seamlessly with the Army, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard – as well as with every other governmental agency.” [13]  “American Sea Power is, at the same time, about hope and empowerment, as well as convincing deterrence, and relentless lethality,” he said. [14]

Mullen drew on the principle political and military ideologues of America’s global Navy from a century before. “One lesson we still learn today is the worth of naval engagement,” he said. “Many extol Theodore Roosevelt for his reading of Alfred Thayer Mahan and advocacy of a strong Navy.  Yet few remember his strenuous diplomacy in helping to resolve the Russo-Japanese War, as well as other maritime conflicts, for which he earned the Nobel Peace Prize.  There is no shame in praising vigor.  Yet, vigor in the name of naval strength need not always be offensive.”  He added “…the real meaning, the real potential of Sea Power.  It is the power of the sea to empower and to heal.  It is the power of the sea to reach and to feed.  It is the power of the sea to aid and to understand, it is the power of the sea to share and unite, it is the power of the sea to protect and to endure.” [15]

Those attributes that Mullen gave to the sea, and to Sea Power, are extremely human, personal ones…and they also at times reach into the realm of the spiritual.  Official Navy is here giving the sea itself a power to do what we would normally ascribe to supernatural beings, even gods.  Some of these spiritual themes, and essentially the metanarrative of this talk to the National Defense University, would make their way into the Maritime Strategy.

In a follow-up speech, Mullen gives the Naval Surface Warfare Association more of his insight of what constitutes Sea Power. He said, “For too long it's been centered in my view on one of two things: programs and blue water.  Building big things and putting them to sea.

We have almost 4,000 Sailors on the ground there [Iraq] and in Afghanistan right now, and over 10,000 on the ground in the CENTCOM AOR.  That number is going to climb to more like 7,000 and 12,000, respectively. That's not the way we have traditionally thought of Sea Power, but it is a dimension of Sea Power for this new century and the joint arena we are going to harness it.” [16]

He also talked about Navy involvement in Earthquake relief operations in Pakistan, saying

All of this is a part of Sea Power, a noble force for good,” previewing the recruitment campaign that would define the U.S. Navy as “A Global Force for Good.” [17]

By October of 2006, we have concrete examples of what the Navy is doing for the Long War, examples that will nearly mimic the capabilities set forth in the Maritime Strategy. The more than 12,000 U.S. Sailors on the ground in the Middle East are described as “teaching people about freedom in countries that have known only tyranny,” rather than fighting a war. Referring to this and aid efforts after the Indonesian Tsunami, Mullen told the audience of the Navy Birthday Ball in Oklahoma City “An editorial in the Boston Globe called it [these operations] Stethoscope Diplomacy. It argued that these types of missions are exactly what are needed to help win this war.” [18]

In remarks to the New York Council Navy League in 2007, Mullen further distills the Navy myth personalization – no longer is U.S. Sea Power a capitol ship or fleet. Speaking of the actions of a Navy Reserve Lieutenant, who , Mullen said,  believes his personal mission in Afghanistan goes well beyond supporting a Global War on Terror, he said, “These are but a few of the new faces of American Sea Power -- a new generation of heroes, agents of change bridging the gap between war and peace.” [19]

By early in 2008, after the new Maritime Strategy has been codified and was being promoted, new CNO Admiral Gary Roughead said at the Surface Navy Association Symposium. “…I believe sailors are the ones who realize our traditional and expanded capabilities; Sailors are at the end of the day, the ones who forge relationships and partnerships. Sailors will make the Strategy a reality.” [20]

Equipment concerns leave the existential arguments completely in a 2009 speech regarding the rescue of a U.S. merchant marine captain from Somali pirates. Roughead said, “Indeed, the most lethal weapon onboard [USS] Bainbridge at the time [of the rescue] …was the team of US Navy SEALs...” [21]

The guided missile destroyer he is referring to has one of the most advanced and expensive weapons systems available to a Navy ship, but those don’t contribute to what is as decisive a Naval action is one can take during this conflict. [22]

While the United States was engaged in constant conflict during these 10 years, Naval operations, and Naval units, would fare poorly in public consciousness. Arguably the only well-known Navy commands from this time period were the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, known for her ill-timed “Mission Accomplished” banner, and ironically, the secretive SEAL teams involved in the above-mentioned rescue, and in the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

CNO speeches during the decade were giving answers to the question, “What do we need a Navy for?” To do this with some chance of success in this time of such uncertainty for both the civilization and culture of the United States the United States Navy required that the answers take on a quality bordering more on religious sermon than informational briefing.   From the thousands of transcript pages available for this time period, four salient themes emerge. Between 2001 and 2011:

  • Naval operations and were usually leading Naval strategy
  • Navy became significantly less focused on equipment and more on personnel and the very nature of the maritime domain as a measure of capability
  • As that focus changed, the U.S. Navy adjusted the fundamental myth of itself
  • That myth was that United States Sea Power is a benefit to all mankind, and that Sea Power is whatever United States Sailors, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are doing.

A final point one could perhaps take away is that this revised myth of the Navy, by its own admission, did not attract the following sought by its evangelists. In January, 2011, Admiral Roughead was lamenting that still, after 10 years and hundreds of addresses to thousands of Americans, “…for many of our citizens, the benefits of a strong Navy aren’t readily apparent.”[23]

End Notes

1 Except for citing the Maritime Strategy, I use the words Sea Power rather than Seapower.

[2]  Baer, George W. One Hundred Years of Sea Power (Stanford:  Stanford University Press, 1994) 445.

[3] Admiral Vern Clark speaking to the NJROTC George H.W. High School, Houston, Texas on October 19, 2001. Available at  Accessed on 23 May 2011.

[4] Admiral Vern Clark at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA on November 21, 2001. Available at   Accessed on 5 Jun 2011.

[5] For an overview of the organization envisioned by this concept, see Clark, Vern “Sea Power 21: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities.” Proceedings, Oct 2002. Pp. 32-41. Also available at

[6]Admiral Vern. Clark. remarks at the 34th IFPA-Fletcher Conference on National Security Strategy and Policy Security Planning and Military Transformation after Iraqi Freedom, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Washington, D.C., December 3, 2003. Available at Accessed on 19 May 2011.

[7] Admiral Vern Clark, edited remarks at the Change of Command, Naval War College, Newport, R.I. August 12, 2004. Available at  Accessed on 23 May 2011.

[8] Admiral Vern Clark, edited remarks, at the Armed Force Communications and 
Electronics Association and U.S. Naval Institute Western Conference and Exposition. San Diego, Calif. 1 February 2005. Available at  Accessed on 23 May 2011.

[9]  Admiral Mike Mullen, remarks at the National Defense University
Fort McNair, Washington, D.C, 16 August 2005.  Available at  Accessed on 20 May 2011.

[10] Ibid

[11]  For an example, see “Sea Service Leaders Engage Public in ‘Conversation with the Country’” available at   Accessed on 18 Jun 2011. Also see the preface to “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” Available at   Accessed on 18 Jun 2011.

[12] Admiral Mike Mullen, remarks as delivered, at the National Defense University, Fort McNair, Washington, D.C, 16 August 2005.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid

[16] Admiral Mike Mullen edited remarks as delivered by at the Surface Navy Association National Symposium, Hyatt Regency, Arlington, Va., 10 January 2006. Available at 

[17] Ibid. To the Submarine Ball soon after, Mullen also gave notice to a traditional Navy Community that things would be changing. “We face tough challenges in this new war. Challenges that will require a vision of Sea Power that is much broader and larger than it was in the Cold War. ..But none can be won without the unhesitant willingness to innovate, grasp of the technical fundamentals, impeccable training, and an unshakeable confidence in our people that Admiral Rickover so aptly demanded.” Remarks as delivered by Admiral Michael G. Mullen, 106th Submarine Birthday Ball Crystal Gateway Marriot 22 April 2006 Accessed on 18 May 2011.

[18]Admiral Mike Mullen, remarks as delivered, at the Oklahoma City Area Navy Birthday Ball, 28 October 2006. Available at Accessed on 23 May 2011.

[19]  Admiral Mike Mullen, remarks as delivered at the 104th U.S. Navy league New York Council Anniversary Dinner, 14 March 2007. Available at on 1 May 2011.

[20] Admiral Gary Roughead, Surface Navy Association Symposium Keynote Address, 15 January 2008. Available at   Accessed on 23 May 2011. Also see Admiral Gary Roughead remarks as delivered at the USS Constitution 211th Anniversary Celebration. Available at   Accessed on 25 Jun 2011. “But we’ve also deployed our Navy in very, very different ways. We are forward deployed with our submarines, our aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, logistic ships.  But since 9-11, your Sailors have done something that we have never done before. As we are all here tonight in Boston, there are 15,000 U.S. Navy Sailors on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the Horn of Africa. Since 9-11, we have deployed individually 72,000 Sailors into the fight in those countries. But we also have a little bit of a softer hand. About two years ago when we produced our maritime strategy, we talked about conducting some proactive humanitarian assistance missions. We went out to look at a new school that was being built, and that school had a dormitory, it had a school house, it had a learning center and it had a mosque. And the commander said, “I’d like you to meet the person that is in charge of this project.” There were a lot of Afghani workers there, laborers and then obviously some foremen. And he took me up to a young man, 25 years old, coincidentally, another U.S. Navy second class petty officer. That was his project. All alone, the only American on that hillside, building a school with a group of Afghanis. That is the nature of the Sailor that we have today...who can go from the high end of warfare to turning that soft hand and giving people hope and help in some desperate times. They know how to do it and they have exactly the right touch.”

[21] Admiral Gary Roughead remarks delivered at Nauticus Theater- Norfolk, Va. Celebration in Honor of Capt Richard Phillips, Staff and Crew of USS BAINBRIDGE November 19, 2009. Available at Accessed on 2 Jun 2011.

[22] USS Bainbridge official Web site, available at  Accessed 26 June 2011.

[23]  See Admiral Gary Roughead remarks as delivered at the SNA National Symposium Banquet

January 13, 2011. Available at Accessed on 23 May 2011. “Our Navy provides the nation offshore options for an uncertain future, where we can expect sovereignty concerns to increase American reliance on credible Sea Power. Yet, for many of our citizens, the benefits of a strong Navy aren’t readily apparent. Although we are a maritime nation, we do suffer nationally from…sea blindness.” Also see Admiral Gary Roughead remarks as delivered at FAPAC Conference, Seattle WA May 10, 2011. Available   Accessed on 11 June 2011.

“You are all well aware the Navy is in high demand today – as evidenced by recent operations as varied and dispersed as Libya, Afghanistan, and Japan. While we were all very proud of our SEALS and the rest of the team that saw to the demise of Osama Bin Laden, there are many other contributions the Navy makes day in and day out.”


About the Author(s)

J. Overton is the Internal Relations Manager for Navy Region Northwest. He has also been an adjunct instructor for the USMC Command and Staff College, a historian for the Army, and served in the U.S. Coast Guard. A version of this paper was originally presented at the 2011 Naval History Symposium. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its Components.