It had been an unpleasant situation. The admirals gathered in the Pentagon office, wondering if the acrimony was about to resume. Their old civilian boss, Navy Secretary John Lehman, had infuriated many of them by meddling with something they were supposed to control: officer promotions. Now the new secretary, a cherubic ex-Marine named James H. Webb Jr., wanted to talk about that same delicate subject.
When the session began, Secretary Webb pointed at the three admirals in charge of Navy subs, ships, and planes. He asked each if they were satisfied with the promotions given their people.
Mr. Webb's message was clear, says an officer who was there: This stuff is your prerogative, not mine. I'm not here to interfere with who makes rear admiral, lower half.
``Such a contrast to Lehman,'' the officer says.
That meeting was almost a year ago. Since then, Webb has worked hard to imbue the Navy with his own ideas of what military leadership should be - while calming some of the waters roiled by his predecessor.
Mr. Lehman, in his seven years in office, tried to be the Lee Iacocca of the Pentagon. Webb, by contrast, seems less a chief executive and more a chief samurai, bent on raising the Navy's warrior consciousness.
Webb is, after all, the first service secretary to have been graduated from the Naval Academy. He led small units in Vietnam combat and still carries metal from wounds.
``I started out with this when I was 17,'' Webb says. He was known as ``Spike'' back then. He boxed, and in his spare time ``managed to give a few haircuts,'' says the 1968 Annapolis yearbook.
Reaching back to those days, he stares at the ceiling of his township-sized office and begins reciting ``The Mission,'' a description of the avowed purpose of academy that he and all other midshipmen had to memorize.
``... growth-in-mind-and-character-to-assume-the-highest-responsibilities-of-command-citizenship-and-government,'' he says. He laughs. Vehemently, he denies a charge that he has simply re-memorized the passage for effect.
``No way,'' he says, ``No way.''
In the early 1970s, memorization of the full mission was abolished. Webb has reinstated the practice. He says the move is related to one of the most important things he has done as secretary: an attempt to ``invigorate'' the service with ``the proper view of what military leadership is.''
In other such initiatives, he says he has instructed promotion boards to take candidates' moral and physical courage into account. He also issued instructions to all Navy and Marine personnel saying each member of the service has to be responsible for his acts and can't buck them up the system.
Webb's emphasis on the individual's qualities and duty may be a reflection of his own military service, muses one analyst. As a young officer in Vietnam, Webb led platoons in combat. He received two Purple Hearts for his wounds, and the Navy Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) for dragging wounded men away from enemy fire.
After the war, Webb left the service and wrote ``Fields of Fire,'' a highly personal and critically acclaimed account of Vietnam service. Two other military novels followed.
Webb's ``background is totally people oriented,'' says the analyst, who has Navy contracts and asked not to be named. ``I'm not sure he's comfortable with budget strategy or hardware.''
Lehman, on the other hand, has been called many things - and ``people oriented'' is surely not one of them. A masterful Horatio Nelson of bureaucratic and political planning, Lehman sailed budget plans through Congress while rewarding those who were loyal to him in the Navy and crushing those who weren't.
For meddling in many areas that were normally an admiral's preserve, such as promotions, Lehman as secretary offended many officers.
Submariners in particular resented him, in part for firing legendary submarine Adm. Hyman Rickover. But at the same time officers reveled in the attention, money, and ships Lehman acquired for the Navy. Many realized he was irritating but invaluable to their continued bureaucratic prosperity.
Navy faces budget scrambling
The problem confronting Lehman's successor is that the military is facing a future of flat or declining funds. Lehman garnered the lion's share of an increasing defense budget; Webb will have the difficult task of scrapping with the other services.
Webb says that preservation of ``the essential elements of our program in Congress'' in this year's budget is another accomplishment of which he is proud. As evidence, he points to money in the fiscal 1988 budget for construction of two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
But Pentagon budget infighting has really just been joined. Frank Carlucci, the new secretary of defense, has ordered $33 billion scrubbed from 1989 plans, and the Army, Air Force, and Navy are scrambling to protect all they can.
Webb says he will make all cuts that his boss, Secretary Carlucci, orders. But he adds that ``I do not believe you should have proportionate force structure reduction among the services.''
Webb criticizes the stationing of large United States ground forces in Europe as an expensive anomaly in US history, saying ``it soaks up a tremendous amount of resources without giving us the direct operational benefit'' of naval patrols.
Navy power projection provides unparalleled flexibility, Webb says. It is a main guarantor of US influence in the Pacific basin, a region vital to American prosperity, he argues.
Webb says that roving aircraft carriers are intrinsically less vulnerable than fixed ground bases. ``No Spetsnaz is going to go take out an aircraft carrier,'' he says, referring to special Soviet sabotage troops.
Use of US warships to escort tankers in the Persian Gulf is a good example of the importance of the Navy in times of peace, Webb says.
But he adds that advising his superiors on the US presence there (the Navy secretary is not in the direct chain of command for the operation) has been the most difficult part of his job so far.
An outspoken philosopher
Last year Webb landed in hot water with his superiors by publicly criticizing the role and size of US forces in the Gulf. He will now say only that for the most part he would oppose broadening the US role in the Gulf, and that he hopes the size of the Navy fleet there can soon be reduced. Fewer ships might be able to do the same military job.
``Force structure is not always force,'' he says.
Reportedly, the US will soon withdraw a helicopter carrier and battleship from the region, without sending in replacement ships of corresponding size.
With a writing background unusual for a professional government official, Webb is a philosopher-bureaucrat who speaks eagerly and at length about the meaning of serving in the military and the use of armed force in peacetime.
The problem the US has, he says, is that for the most part when the military is used, its use is debated while the operation is going on. ``It's a recipe for disaster,'' he says, pointing to the ill-fated deployment of Marines in Beirut as an example.
He has sharp and sometimes controversial views: An article he wrote in 1979 titled ``Women Can't Fight'' still angers some female members of the armed services.
Early last year, Webb says, he was angered by revelations of US arms sales to Iran and was days away from quitting his job as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. He had a choice journalistic assignment from National Geographic all lined up - a long trip to South Africa.
``I really was excited about that,'' he says.
Then Caspar Weinberger called and offered the Navy post. Webb, describing his decision, swings his arm outward in a gesture that encompasses his office and the symbols of the service it contains.
``There was,'' he says, ``no way I could refuse.''