Arguing, or Not, Around the Wardroom Or, Keeping the Conversation Civil

Posted on May 14, 2014


As young officers on a ship, we learned certain unwritten rules and codes. All institutions have them, all the way from the highest officials in government to the guys digging in deep coal seams in Walker County, Alabama.
These usually have to do with maintaining common courtesies and regulating our work and play spaces in keeping with traditions most everyone agrees are helpful, safe, and even civil.
The wardrooms on U. S. Navy ships are where the officers gather to eat and socialize. At least this was true in the 1960s when I lived aboard a warship, the USS Donner (LSD 20), for two years.
We cruised in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, carried Underwater Demolition Teams (frogmen), Marines, helicopters, landing craft, and were a general amphibious warfare utility kind of ship. The young officers aboard, mostly reservists on active duty, enjoyed each other’s company, and we learned Navy habits and unwritten rules from the older, more senior officers, some of them who had come into the officer ranks from the enlisted ranks.
The only Annapolis graduate aboard was the “old man,” the captain, who was, in fact, a Commander, not a Captain, but, at sea, in the Navy, whoever was in command—regardless of his rank–was the “captain.” He ate alone or with invited guests in his cabin. The rest of us ate and socialized in the wardroom when we weren’t on duty.

All young officers, mostly newly minted Ensigns like me, learned that there were three subjects not appropriate to discuss in the Wardroom: anything to do with religion, politics, or sex.
This made for pretty boring conversation. Weather could be interesting.

“Sure heavy seas tonight,” as we pitched and rolled in a mistral wind blowing wildly off the Alps and throwing us around the Mediterranean.
Combat readiness sometimes could enliven the conversation.
“Are we having another GQ (General Quarters) this afternoon?” maybe said in the second or third week of refresher training at Gitmo (Guantanamo Naval Station, Cuba).
“I can do this crap in my sleep.”
“Maybe that’s the point. Pass the potatoes please.”

As time passed, I realized the unwritten rule in wardrooms had a good result. We didn’t argue about some of the subjects that will get most Americans riled up, contentious, and fighting mad.

We needed to work together, night and day, for weeks and months at a time, in closed quarters, and we needed to learn to depend on each other, to respect each other, to be, in fact, an effective team. Then the captain could ensure that his ship was ready, whether it was to launch helicopters or land help, medicines, and supplies where people needed them.

As I thought about what people fight about today, what talking heads yell about on television, what columnists rant about in weekly columns–politics, religion, and sex rise to the top of the list.

It is hard to have a civil discussion in the media or in any public, and very many private spaces I would guess, in our country today because we don’t respect each other. Rather than a dialogue, on let’s take any hot button issue–like same sex marriages, separation of church and state, abortion, socialism, racism, freedoms, liberty, entitlements, taxes, global warming– and you can add your own categories, all we hear are monologues. Dialogues, of course, are between two or more people. Monologues are one person expressing a thought or point of view or anything else for that matter, usually without due regard for a contrary opinion.

And, if you don’t like to hear what someone has to say, you quickly label them a a. racist, b. redneck, c. one-percenter, d. right to lifer, e. religious fanatic, f. communist or socialist g. Christian fundamentalist, h. Muslim fundamentalist i. survivalist, or anything else to undermine their argument and question their right to even be in the forum of a debate or argument.

What seems to be lacking is a basic civility. I am not arguing that we embrace wardroom etiquette. In the presidential election of 1800, slurs and insults between the two candidates, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, or their surrogates, flew like dung flies.

Jefferson’s people accused Adams of a being “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman,” while Adams’s men called Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was labeled a fool, hypocrite, criminal and tyrant while Jefferson was described as a weakling, atheist, libertine, and coward. This is hardly the stuff of civil discourse, but it was, after all, an American presidential election, and we put a high value on liberty of expression. And that campaign is not considered the dirtiest in American history.

One of Jefferson’s mouthpieces, James Callendar, did serve some time for slander, and later got back at Jefferson by revealing his long affair with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

Jefferson and Adams later made up. They were, after all, patriots and had been allies in the American Revolution. Both died on Independence Day, July 4, 1826.

Neither Jefferson nor Adams denied the right of the other to speak, or speak their mind, unless it stepped over the boundary of slander. Their nastiest exchanges covered, BTW, religion, sex and politics, all taboo in the wardroom. But reading their mud a lot more entertaining than conversations I remember about the weather or combat readiness.

Where does this lead us? I don’t have a solution to the intemperate or holier-than-thou atmosphere which pervades discourse today, when one side or the other basically questions the other side’s very right to speak openly and freely.

I think we have lost something as education has eroded and our kids learn that intemperance and violence are legitimate ways to express dissent and disagreement. The kids grow up and soon are “packing” and Annie get your gun, the old Wild West comes alive in places like the urban schools of Connecticut or Colorado.


But I can’t blame the schools, for learning starts at home. Take a look at home life in our country today, and I think you will find both the problems and the solutions to roaring incivility in the nation.


This column published as Arguing, or Not, Around the Wardroom in my column The Port Rail in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday May 3, 2014.