Rationale for Behavior

tailhook '91
During the DOD investigation, officers who engaged in misconduct explained the reasons for their behavior.

The most common reason was this behavior was "expected" of junior officers and Tailhook was replete with "traditions." In one officer's words, "It was condoned early in some of the senior officers' careers...I imagine when this first thing started they were the elite, they thought they could do anything they wanted... and not have to answer the questions that we're answering today."

Gulf War Heroes
Their behavior was justified or at least excusable because they were returning heroes from Desert Storm. Many younger officers viewed Tailhook as a means of celebrating US victory over Iraqi forces.
Through their interviews of aviators, the authors of the report were reminded that naval aviation is among the most dangerous and stressful occupations in the world.
For example, all six of the Gulf War fatalities were aviators. In addition, more than 30 officers died in military aviation accidents during the year following Tailhook '91 . The authors found that the "live for today for tomorrow you may die" attitude expressed by the aviators is in fact a way of life for many of these officers.

Free-Fire Zone
Numerous officers viewed Tailhook as a type of "free-fire zone" where they could celebrate without regard to rank or decorum. Tailhook was perceived as an accepted part of the culture set apart from the mainstream of the Armed Forces. Many likened Tailhook to overseas deployment where months of spartan living give way to excessive partying while in foreign ports. A frequently heard comment, "what happens overseas, stays overseas" was the implicit paradigm applied to Tailhook.

Animosity Towards Women
A female Navy commander explained that the '91 convention was different from other years both because of the Gulf War and recent congressional inquiries about women in combat. Her perspective was:
"This was the woman that was making you, you know, change your ways. This was the woman that was threatening your livelihood. This was the woman that wanted to take your spot in that combat aircraft."
She and others also noted Tailhook took place during a climate of "downsizing" in the military that threatened people's job security. All these elements combined with the presence of women and alcohol were a mix of potentially explosive ingredients.

Top Gun Mentality
Some senior officers blamed the younger men's rowdy behavior on the influence of the movie "Top Gun," which served to glorify naval pilots in the eyes of women and created unrealistic expectations of younger officers.

A Reinforced Imaturity?
Unlike their counterparts in other Armed Services, aviators do not follow a career progression of command. Most do not bear the leadership responsibilities of commanding a unit until the 10-year point in their careers. The authors of the report curiously noted that many senior officers repeatedly referred to the aviation lieutenants and lieutenant commanders as "the kids." "To us, their use of this term symbolized an attitude where irresponsible behavior and conduct were accepted manifestations of high-spirited youth. The attitude is a major departure from the traditions of the ground forces, where newly commissioned second lieutenants control the lives of their platoon members and are expected by their superiors to demonstrate the personal qualities of a leader."

Back to Index

pilots, jets, & the enterprise | tailhook '91 | old navy/new navy | what ails the navy? | readings | reactions | tapes & transcripts | admiral boorda's in basket | chronology of women in the navy | explore frontline | pbs online | wgbh

pbs online