A Book of Words, by Rudyard Kipling

The Spirit of the Navy

IT occurs to me that the reputation to which your Chairman alludes was achieved not by doing anything in particular, but by writing stories — telling tales if you like — about things which other men have done. They say in the Navy, I believe, that a man is often influenced throughout the whole of has career by the events of his first commission. The circumstances of my early training happened to throw me among disciplined men of action — men who belonged to one or other of the Indian Services — men who were therefore accustomed to act under orders, and to live under authority, as the good of their Service required.

My business being to write, I wrote about them and their lives. I did not realise, then, what I realised later, that the men who belong to the Services — disciplined men of action, living under authority — constitute a very small portion of our world, and do not attract much of its attention or its interest. I did not realise then that where men of all ranks work together for aims and objects which are not for their own personal advantage, there arises among them a spirit, a tradition, and an unwritten law, which it is not very easy for the world at large to understand, or to sympathise with.

For instance, I belonged then to a Service where the unwritten law was that if you gave a man twice as much work to do in a day as he could do, he would do it; but if you only gave him as much as he could do, he wouldn’t do half of it. This in itself made me sympathise with the tradition of other Services who have the same unwritten law, and with the spirit which underlies every service on land and sea — specially on the Sea.

But as you yourselves know well, Gentlemen, the spirit of the Navy is too old, too varied, and too subtle, to be adequately interpreted by any outsider, no matter how keen his interest, or how deep his affection. He may paint a more or less truthful picture of externals; he may utter faithfully all that has been given him to say, but the essential soul of the machine — the spirit that makes the Service — will, and must, always elude him. How can it well be otherwise? The life out of which this spirit is born has always been a life more lonely, more apart than any life there is. The forces that mould that life have been forces beyond man’s control; the men who live that life do not, as a rule, discuss the risks that they face every day in the execution of their duty, any more than they talk of that immense and final risk which they are preparing themselves to face at the Day of Armageddon. Even if they did, the world would not believe — would not understand.

So the Navy has been as a rule both inarticulate and unfashionable. Till very recently — till just the other day in fact — when a fleet disappeared under the skyline, it went out into empty space — absolute isolation — with no means visible or invisible of communicating with the shore. It is of course different since Marconi came in, but the tradition of the Navy’s aloofness and separation from the tax-payer world at large still remains.

It is not altogether a bad tradition, d’you think? The Navy represents the man at the wheel in our ship of state, and speaking as a tax-payer, the less the passengers, that is the tax-payers, talk to or about the man at the wheel, the better it will be for all aboard the ship.

Isn’t it possible that the very thoroughness with which the Navy has protected the nation in the past may constitute a source of weakness both for the Navy and the nation? We have been safe for so long, and during all these generations have been so free to follow our own devices, that we tax-payers as a body to-day are utterly ignorant of the facts and the forces on which England depends for her existence. But instead of leaving the Navy alone, as our ancestors did, some of us are now trying to think. And thinking is a highly dangerous performance for amateurs. Some of us are like the monkeys in Brazil. We have sat so long upon the branch that we honestly think we can saw it off and still sit where we were. Some of us think that the Navy does not much matter one way or the other; some of us honestly regard it as a brutal and bloodthirsty anachronism, which if it can’t be openly abolished, ought to be secretly crippled as soon as possible. Such views are not shocking or surprising. After four generations of peace and party politics they are inevitable; but the passengers holding these views need not be encouraged to talk too much to the man at the wheel.

There remain now a few — comparatively very few — of us tax-payers who take an interest in the Navy; but here again our immense ignorance, our utter divorce from the actualities of the Navy or any other Service, handicaps us. Some of us honestly think that navies depend altogether on guns, armour, and machinery, and if we have these better or worse than anyone else, we are mathematically better or worse than anyone else. The battle of Tsu-shima — in the Sea of Japan — has rather upset the calculations; but you know how they are worked out. Multiply the calibre of a ship’s primary armament by the thickness of her average plating in millimetres; add the indicated horse-power of the forward bilge-pumps, and divide it by the temperature of the cordite magazines. Then reduce the result to decimals and point out that what the country needs is more Incredibles or Insupportables, or whatever the latest fancy pattern of war-canoe happens to be. Now nobody wants to undervalue machinery, but surely, Gentlemen, guns and machinery and armour are only ironmongery after all. They may be the best ironmongery in the world, and we must have them, but if talking, and arguing, and recriminating, and taking sides about them is going to react unfavourably on the men who have to handle the guns and sleep behind the armour, and run the machinery, why then, the less talk we have on Service matters outside the Service, the better all round. Silence is what we want.

Isn’t the morale of a Service a thousandfold more important than its material? Can’t we scratch up a fleet of Impossibles or Undockables in a few years for a few millions; but hasn’t it taken thirty generations to develop the spirit of the Navy? And is anything except that spirit going to save the nation in the dark days ahead of us?

I don’t know what has happened since the days of Trafalgar to make us think otherwise. The Navy may bulk larger on paper — or in the papers — than it did in Nelson’s time, but it is more separated from the life of the nation than it was then — for the simple reason that it is more specialised and scientific. In peace it exists under conditions which it takes years of training to understand; in war it will be subjected to mental and physical strains three days of which would make the mere sea-fight of Trafalgar a pleasant change and rest. We have no data to guide us for the future, but in judging by our thousand-year-old past, we can believe, and thank God for it, that whatever man may do, or neglect to do, the spirit of the Navy, which is man-made, but which no body of men can kill, will rise to meet and overcome every burden and every disability that may be imposed upon it — from without or within.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38