Admiral Boorda’s Navy

by | May 24, 2012 | Book Reviews

Admiral Jeremy Michael (“Mike”) Boorda held the highest post in the United States Navy, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). A high school dropout, Mike Boorda’s enlistment in the
Navy as a 16-year-old seaman recruit and his eventual achievement of top rank is a great American story. His death by suicide at the age of 57 is an American tragedy. Never before had a former enlisted man, a “mustang officer,” achieved the position of CNO. Admiral Boorda was Jewish; never before had a Jew achieved the position of CNO.

Michael Steinberg, a retired civil engineer who served in the Navy as an enlisted man, found the story of Mike Boorda engaging. He became interested in the Navy of that era, a Navy that promoted a Jew to the rank of CNO. Steinberg’s technical background is reflected in the thoroughness of his research and his dogged pursuit of commentary by Boorda’s seniors, juniors
and peers. Therein lies both the strength and weakness of Steinberg’s book.

Readers who served in the Navy during the four decades of Boorda’s service may cringe a bit when Steinberg stumbles over some minutiae of Navy practice or parlance. But they’re more than likely to enjoy the detailed listing of ships, staffs, operations and issues Steinberg assiduously provides. Conversely, general readers may be overwhelmed at times by the Navy jargon and organizational maze through which the author navigates.

Admiral Boorda was considered an innovator in a direct line from two of his most famous CNO predecessors, Admiral Arleigh (“31 Knot”) Burke and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt. It is said that Burke and Zumwalt brought the Navy into the 20th century and Boorda prepared it for the 21st.

Four issues weighed sorely on Mike Boorda while he was CNO and, collectively, are thought to have contributed to his suicide. First was the controversy over his display of the “Combat V” on one of his decorations (an indication that the decoration was awarded for actual combat). Second was the lingering impact of the infamous “Tail Hook” incident amid the growing matter of sexual harassment in a “new” Navy that put women on ships at sea. Third were budgetary issues and, finally, Boorda had to deal with a cheating scandal at the Naval Academy and the improper behavior (of a non-sexual nature) of several senior officers, including admirals.

The “Combat V” matter had supposedly been resolved (Boorda was entitled to wear it but had not been officially authorized to do so). A year earlier he had removed the “V” from his Vietnam decoration. The “Tail Hook” humiliation, in which a reunion of fighter pilots in Las Vegas culminated in a series of drunken parties at which female officers were groped and molested, just wouldn’t go away. In the aftermath of the scandal, CNO Admiral Frank B. Kelso, had been forced to retire (followed by Boorda’s elevation to that office) and numerous investigations of harassment and rape were ongoing, including several at the Naval Academy. But perhaps the final straw was a blistering condemnation of Boorda’s leadership by former Secretary of the Navy, now Virginia Senator Jim Webb.

Mike Boorda was loved and respected by the men and women he commanded. Politicians admired him as a military man who gave straight answers and made no attempt at cover ups. Neither Boorda’s peers nor personal friends (including some Norfolkians) suspected at any time that he was contemplating taking his own life. In fact, on the morning of his death he made lunch appointments for the following week. That he chose to drive himself home from the Pentagon to his quarters at the Navy Yard was not particularly unusual. If Mike Boorda suffered from clinical depression, it was not publicly known. When an active duty military officer of Boorda’s era needed psychological assistance, the stigma was so great that he would have had to find help outside the service.

Mike Boorda was a Bar Mitzvah; a Star of David is carved on his tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery. However, his wife was not Jewish and his children were raised in the Christian faith. Many of his closest associates were not aware that he was Jewish. Peripheral as he may have been to the organized Jewish community, Boorda’s genuine consideration for lower ranks and for minority officers and sailors reflect the values of his people.

We learn repeatedly where Mike Boorda was, what he did, and with whom he did it. However, aside from a few speeches and articles, we don’t hear from Admiral Boorda himself. If any trove of the Admiral’s private papers or letters actually exists, Steinberg was apparently not privy to them. The greatest shortcoming of Admiral Boorda’s Navy is the absence of Mike Boorda.

By: Hal Sacks