I was mostly off-line this last week. Pretty much dawn to dusk I was part of a site visit with the US Coast Guard. I actually got out of meeting rooms and onto boats.
The purpose of the site visit was research-related. My role is as interviewer, writer, and project ethicist. The project has been going on for about three years. I have interviewed a lot of Coasties over this time. Over the last five days I talked to many more in a wide range of contexts, back to back, day after day.
When the project team met on Thursday night to start working the outbrief the Team Leader asked us to outline our top takeaways. Among my top five was, “The high level of intelligence, knowledge, experience, competence, self-criticism, openness, and passionate commitment that characterizes the force.”
Everyone else on the team enthusiastically agreed.
And we decided not to mention this in our outbrief. The Team Leader noted it would seem gratuitous. He was right.
This suggests something profoundly screwed-up in contemporary culture that even authentic appreciation is usually presumed to be self-interested and manipulative.
While I have generally been impressed with the US Coast Guard, until this week my exposure has been more senior officers and headquarters staff than anyone else. This week I talked to a lot more senior enlisted, ensigns, lieutenants, and Lt. Commanders.
Wow, wow, wow.
If you are a baby-boomer or older (like me) and worried about generational trends in the United States, a week with these folks will make you feel like a whiner and slacker. If you are an intellectual in search of informed, self-correcting, meaningful discussion of important topics, find a bar or lunchroom with Coasties in it. If you are an American worried about the future of the Republic, you will be much less worried after seeing and hearing a rising generation Coast Guard professionals engage their work.
Several times I have heard individual Coasties quote from memory selected lines from Alexander Hamilton’s instructions to the first complement from which the modern Coast Guard has emerged:
[An Officer] will always keep in mind that their countrymen are freemen, and, as such, are impatient of everything that bears the least mark of a domineering spirit. They will, therefore, refrain, with the most guarded circumspection, from whatever has the semblance of haughtiness, rudeness, or insult. If obstacles occur, they will remember that they are under the particular protection of the laws and that they can meet with nothing disagreeable in the execution of their duty which these will not severely reprehend. This reflection, and a regard to the good of the service, will prevent, at all times a spirit of irritation or resentment. They will endeavor to overcome difficulties, if any are experienced, by a cool and temperate perseverance in their duty–by address and moderation, rather than by vehemence or violence.
They know and live these words.
They are also reasonably skeptical of bleeding edge projects such as the one that brings me to them. But even here their skepticism is almost always affirmative. They are critical thinkers, not just critics. What most impresses me is how often they are personally and institutionally self-critical — brilliantly, honestly, and realistically — in front of each other and on-the-record. I am guessing this element of Coast Guard culture is crucial to other attitudes and behaviors observed.
The Latin from which appreciation is derived was a neutral term for assessing value. In both the original and modern meaning: I greatly appreciate the US Coast Guard.