Bligh, Queeg and Graf

Capt. Holly Graf, commander of the USS Cowpens, a guided-missile cruiser, was relieved of duty Jan. 13 after an investigation found she cursed so much at her 400-member crew that even the sailors — no strangers to four-letter words — were intimidated. According to the Navy inspector general's report released this week, officers complained that their captain humiliated them in front of the rest of the crew by calling them "idiots" and "stupid" as she spat a stream of obscenities. One noncommissioned officer said Graf treated him like a toddler, forcing him to take a "time out" by standing alone in an empty watch room.

Although verbal abuse would hardly put Graf among the worst tyrants ever to command a ship at sea, her former crew members have been exacting mutinous revenge in recent weeks by posting hundreds of anonymous comments on the Internet that describe her as "Horrible Holly," as well as a modern-day Captain Bligh.

Graf's has been highlighted in much of the criticism. One Web site,, called her "an incompetent and unstable 'politically correct' poster girl for all the super feminists at the Pentagon and the U.S. Naval Academy."  Washpost


DanM and I had an exchange of views the other day on the subject of military leadership and/or the lack of it.  Here you have a perfect example of a total lack of it.  You can be sure that the US Navy, having selected this woman captain (O-6) for a deep draft command (big ship) did not want to have to fire her.  That would be about the last thing they would want to do.  But, as with Rumsfeld and the digital cameras at Abu Ghraib, she seems to have forgotten that the internet is everywhere.  I suppose that she thought that gender would protect her from relief for cause.  She is, of course, finished in the navy and ought to retire as soon as possible.  She should reflect on this and that she might have gone for a swim at midnight if the ship's company had not been better people than she.  pl,8599,1969602,00.html

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30 Responses to Bligh, Queeg and Graf

  1. ked says:

    “I suppose that she thought that gender would protect her from relief for cause.”
    I, on the other hand, suppose she has an overweening sense of power & authority – like many sea captains both great & terrible through history. Perhaps she was overcompensating, responding to a perception about weak-women-in-command sensed among those under her command (would be curious to know how women on board assessed her style). Of course, explaining things does not excuse them.
    I see the case as one of women having truly “arrived” in the USN, since now we have a poor commander, just like we’ve had bad manly ship’s Captains. Anyway, I’m curious… when’s the last time an incompetent male USN ship’s Captain took the dip you suggest?

  2. Patrick Lang says:

    This is not a case of incompetence. It is a case of grossly bad leadership.
    As for swimming lessons in Davy Jones’ territory, I did not suggest it. I mentioned it as a possibility that a martinet aboard ship should think about, just as tyrannical ground officers should think about the consequences of driving soldiers to despair. pl

  3. batondor says:

    I am curious about this situation in more general terms, so may I ask your opinion (and that of your readers with command experience) on a few specific aspects?
    1- How frequent are situations such as this? (and for that matter, how many officers with some level of command are truly ‘great’ leaders?)
    2- Is there any propensity for such behavior that differentiates the services?
    3- Does the abusive behavior of this individual officer find parallels in both exceptionally bad and good behavior as other social groups entered the officer corps (and while I’m obviously thinking of African-Americans and Asian-Americans, I can say with great confidence that my late Jewish-American father had to deal with some unseemly humor and bigotry when he joined the 101st Airborne as a 1st Lt. in 1942… but I can also say with certainty that he gained the respect of nearly all of his fellow paratroopers).
    This matter is quite obviously going to be an issue if and when DADT is ended and your run-of-the-mill homosexual man or woman will be able to serve openly and without official prejudice. There will be bad leaders among them, just as there will (and have been) great ones – as well as just ordinary ones…

  4. Jose says:

    I’m curious, does anybody know why senior NCO’s did not intervene against the abuse?
    Also, no Chaplains on board?
    This would not have been tolerated when I was in the Army, but things have a way to change for the “better”.

  5. Green Zone Cafe says:

    Having served in the surface Navy, I can say there is a reason why The Caine Mutiny and Mr. Roberts were written and made into movies, not to mention Moby Dick and Melville’s overlooked book about the Navy, Whitejacket.
    The sea and the responsibilities of command have driven quite a few officers nuts. We would often speak of giving the captain a couple of ball bearings to roll around in his hands.
    This is not “gender-specific.” Look at Rear Admiral Michelle Howard (who I knew in a much junior rank, but she was a star then)
    I’d take her as a CO over all but a couple of the officers I served with.

  6. Patrick Lang says:

    I don’t think that gender or ethnic origin have much to do with this. American culture tends to produce a certain kind of leader, a person acceptable to the enlisted people, but beyond that, individual variation is not linked to that kind of grop origin. As we discussed earlier, some young people who are made officers direct from college programs whether military or civil seem to have a hard time understanding the troops as other than tools, but the great majority of these learn better eventually. pl

  7. walrus says:

    Plain and simple Narcissistic personality disorder. It happens a lot. My guess is that her schoolmates and colleagues would have know she had a poisonous personality, however in business it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of “character” these days. One assumes that this same wilful politically correct blindness has spread to the Defence Forces with predictable results.
    I also note in passing that the Washington Post reporter has also fallen for the popular but incorrect belief that Capt. Bligh was a tyrannical ships Captain.

  8. alnval says:

    Col. Lang:
    Not quite sure what it means for issues of morale, training, leadership and the like, but the new home page of USS Cowpens website notes for all to see that the Sailor of the Week program has been “reintroduced.”
    A quick scan of other ships’ websites suggests that this is an important vehicle for the positive recognition of enlisted personnel.
    I wonder why it had been “discontinued” on USS Cowpens? A symptom of the more general problem with the CO?

  9. The Twisted Genius says:

    One of the smartest things the Army did in the 70’s was to place a Special Forces NCO in almost every Army ROTC program. I was honored to be under the of tutelage of Master Sargeant Albert H. Rivers. He served several tours in CCN before coming to our ROTC program. He taught me more about military leadership than I learned in any formal leadership course.
    Another great learning experience was during Ranger School. Our class was roughly half second lieutenants fresh out of IOBC and half young enlisted soldiers out of the 2d Ranger Battalion. The School Cadre matched each young officer with an enlisted Ranger buddy.
    By the time I reached my rifle platoon in the 1/35th Inf, I already had a healthy respect for NCOs and enlisted soldiers. Besides, I knew better than be an asshole to an armed group of soldiers, many who grew up in very tough neighbotrhoods, when I would be spending a lot of nights out in the middle of nowhere with them.

  10. Patrick Lang says:

    I agree, a stroke of genius. BTW everyone, “CCN” (Command and Control North)was the code name for one of the major cross border recon tssk forces in MACVSOG. pl

  11. Cold War Zoomie says:

    …but the great majority of these learn better eventually.
    TTG beat me to it – the senior enlisted “Top Three” have a way of teaching those butter bars.

  12. Bob Bernard says:

    The discipline which makes the soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an army. It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey. The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.
    Major General John M. Schofield
    Address to the Corps of Cadets
    August 11, 1879

  13. Jackie says:

    The lesson here is just because you can swear like a sailor that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. A “time out” for an adult, what an insult. I’m surprised she thought this was acceptable behaviour. Didn’t anyone in the Navy notice this dictatorial tendency before this assignment?
    She is lucky the crew didn’t do her in. She did herself in.

  14. Not sure of its relevancy to the post except to note that it seems well accepted that the Navy tends to be the least democratic of the services. Nature of the needs of command at sea? Perhaps!

  15. steve says:

    When I was a corpsman in the 70s, we cared for a CO who had an actual psychotic break at sea. He had to be relieved, which was quite a big deal and was kept quiet. Any hints that this is more psychiatric than personality?
    Steve Sisson

  16. HJFJR says:

    There is at least one female Army General Officer who behavior is similar to that of Captain Graf. She was so bad that her staff required new officers to watch “The Devil Wears Prada” in order to know what she was like. She has since been rewarded with Command at the two star level.
    While it is the Navy this time cleaning up the mess this time; another service will soon follow.
    Hank Foresman

  17. Nightsticker says:

    Colonel Lang,
    Actually the official picture of this wretched woman might have given some forewarning. They say the eyes are a mirror into the soul.
    USMC 1965-1972
    FBI 1972-1996

  18. Fred Strack says:

    I would expect that both the XO and the senior NCO’s discussed crew discipline and morale with the CO. As matters continued to decline one or more went to the IG. Probably a few crew members contacted their representative(s) in Congress. From the ship’s website it looks like the Command Master Chief has only been there since July. The new C.O. was slated to take over already and had been aboard since December.
    Just out of curiosity, but how many nuclear weapons are on a guided missile cruiser? Is this the type of leader the US wants to trust to be in command of them? There were many more issues with Captain Graf’s lack of leadership, the Time article is rather damning.,8599,1969602-2,00.html
    Another question is who was the Admiral that recommended promotion after her last command? Looks like the Navy has some more house cleaning to do.

  19. LeaNder says:

    DanM and I had an exchange of views the other day on the subject of military leadership and/or the lack of it.
    I’d appreciate a link or simply more information under what article I can find this discussion. I am very, very interested since this is the one central topic that made me stay on your list.

  20. Redhand says:

    I did some online research about Capt. Graf and note this is the second ship she commanded. Her first command was just as controversial, maybe more, with accounts of her physically assaulting a subordinate officer and using the most insulting and demeaning language imaginable, not to mention breaking one of the ship’s propulsion screws when she used excessive speed exiting from a harbor in Sicily, and then illegally reporting that the ship was traveling at 10 kts. vs the 25 she had ordered.
    It’s scandalous that this harpie was put in command of anything and anyone. She shouldn’t just be relieved of her command. The should be summarily dismissed from the Navy.
    What a disgrace! To me this woman is one step removed from Maj. Hasan, a certifiable nutjob.

  21. @Jackie,
    Didn’t anyone in the Navy notice this dictatorial tendency before this assignment?
    Sadly, her behavior is not completely atypical and often those who least deserve the responsibility of a commanding officer are placed into the position despite known personality defects.

  22. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    I don’t buy into the Hollywood Freud scene — and that’s an understatement — but I always have wondered what Freud would have said about this 34 second scene from the “breakthrough” film, GI Jane. Go ahead take a look:
    I think Freud would have said, ‘You see, I told you so.” It’s as if in this one scene, feminism inverted and then collapsed upon itself, thus proving all that Freud said about women.
    To be fair, I know an infinite number of heroic women. Meet them all the time, including women who work in our system of justice. I am talkin’ heroes. But, from what I can tell, I don’t think they buy into the GI Jane scene either.
    And speaking of heroic women characters…what about that woman in Crazy Heart? Or the lead character in the film Education. And maybe even the lead character in Fish Tank?
    Plus to remain gender neutral, I place Rambo in the same category as GI Jane. Willis and Moore are of the same ilk. Those two deserved each other.
    And, speaking of the US Navy, don’t even get me started on the film Crimson Tide. The proper name for the USS Alabama in that film was the USS Laurel Canyon or the USS Hollywood or the USS West Los Angeles. Once you rename the sub with one of those names, the film begins to make more sense, at least to me.
    Of course, best I can, the US Navy never said a word in protest about the films, so I assume the US Navy is ok with them. Leaves one to wonder. I just thank God I am a civilian. But to each his or her own.

  23. FDRDemocrat says:

    Not sure why gender and feminism are brought into the equation. She sounds like a bad officer justly removed from responsibilities. Was she over-promoted and kept in command too long for “politically correct” reasons? From the Times piece, although she came from a Navy family (two admirals) there didn’t appear evidence her path was greased (as all know, sometimes being perceived as a “legacy” can be a 2-edged sword).
    In any case, for the purposes of argument, lets assume you can say she was protected and sustained by “political correctness” either by being female, by being from a family with 2 admirals, or a combination of both. What of it? White males with various advantages have been the beneficiary of politically correct favortism throughout the history of our nation. Do we invoke white male privilege writ large when such favoritism appears? No.
    The American Civil War is a great example. Union generals like Fremont, Butler, Burnside, McDowell, McClernand and of course McClellan were sustained and protected by political forces despite glaring inadequacies as leaders of men. Their actions led directly or indirectly to the deaths of tens of thousands. You had similar characters on the CSA side, although somewhat fewer. Historians carefully document the reasons why such white men were sustained and promoted to positions they should never have held, in many cases political reasons. But not one, as far as I know, has called them out as the result of “white male privilege.” Of course, back then women were not allowed to vote much less serve in the military. But can we imagine any woman general chosen at random doing much worse than Ben Butler during the 1864 James River campaign?
    Now that women are being given a chance, there will be some bad eggs. But they join a much larger and more infamous club of male bad eggs. So lets keep gender out of this.

  24. Patrick Lang says:

    I applaud your sentiment. The women whom I taught and mentored at WP and later commanded would, I think, vouch for my desire to see fairness. However, I think that we would have to know if Captain Graf was selected for promotion and command on the basis of a “floor” imposed for political reasons before we could judge. pl

  25. scott s. says:

    I was fortunate never having to serve under a “screamer” but that style of CO is well-known on the waterfront. I would say they have varying degrees of success in their tours, but I think invariably they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. I can’t think of anyone who looks back at their time as a JO under a screamer (assuming they stayed in) as beneficial.

  26. Patrick Lang says:

    I had one of these as a lt. He was a ring knocker. He showed up fresh from being relieved in VN in 1961 for conspiring to assassinate the ARVN BN CO he was advising. He thought the man was not aggressive enough. He didn’t have security clearance at the time he arrived and couldn’t read the Bde’s signal instructions. He screamed a lot. My platoon sgt. told me not to worry abt him, that he would get canned soon. and he was. pl

  27. Jan Peter Fladeboe says:

    It has recently surfaced that Captain Graf had ‘drag raced’ her ship with another USN ship. There were photos and that lead to the inquiry. Also, there were numberous reports that she had ‘throttled’ a junior officer. She well could have been court-martialed.

  28. batondor says:

    Pat and FDRDem…
    I’ve been catching up this morning and felt it appropriate to acknowledge that I agree 100% with everything you have said since my post. I apparently misunderstood your original intent, Pat, and now see that the discussion of the potential role of gender bias in your consideration of how Capt. Graf got so far in the USN is far less significant than your substantive discussion of what makes a good leader (esp. in the military, but not uniquely so)…
    Well done and thank you.

  29. confusedponderer says:

    Sir, as for

    I mentioned it as a possibility that a martinet aboard ship should think about,

    Just to give you an idea about the often enlightening secondary value beyond the topics of your blog: I needed to look up martinet, and conveniently found it on Wikipedia. Reading the entry there triggered (no fear, amusing) memories.
    When I was a boy I went with my family to Brittany on a summer holiday. Our landlord’s family used the house themselves for their holidays. Exploring the house, I remember finding what I now, thanks to the reference, know to be a martinet. Two decades later I can also make more of the fact that I found it on a cabinet in the parent’s bedroom.

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