Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Navy Abandons All-Capital Letters, Semaphore, and Morse Code

The Navy Times reports that the senior service will discontinue use of all-capital letters in official communication, a policy that has been in place since 1850, apparently due to the inability of the early telecomm systems to accommodate lower-case letters.  That wireless telegraphy has permitted use of lower-case since 1932 was not addressed.  After all, what are eighty-one years to a centuries-old institution?   And don’t GENADMINS (general administration) and MOVREPS (movement report) suggest a certain historical weightiness and grandeur that is not held by their lower-case cousins that have infected social media and non-seagoing brains?

One reason given for this change is that younger sailors think the All-CAPS policy suggests heavy-handedness and sounds as if the entire command structure was shouting at the fleet.  I don’t want to disparage this logic, but that is exactly what the command structure intended.  All-CAPS represented a loosely disguised Pavlovian signal to stand up and salute.  After all, ATTENTION ON DECK worked for me every time. 

Navy brass must be familiar with the Buddhist notion that “you can’t move small enough.”  Or slow enough.  To their credit, Morse code was put on the dustbin of history as far back as 1999.  Though I place myself in the vanguard of progress, I feel a tinge of sadness and regret because I had to learn that alchemical language when I served and am not pleased that others in my specialty aren’t required to master this arcane art.  I can’t tell you how many pleasurable discussions, via flashing light and Morse code, I had with strangers on other ships in the early morning hours in the Gulf of Tonkin about whether it was practical or even desirable to collect a bucket of water line.  To be able to render in Morse, across countless sea miles, to another ship on station, the code ZWC, meaning a personal message to follow, was almost worth the price of enlistment.

Sometimes we were more serious.  It was not uncommon when the ship was “running dark,” especially when we were in joint exercises with other vessels for turn signals, such as “Turn 270 degrees,” to be executed via Morse code delivered on the masthead lights.  I have racked my brain but can’t remember any collisions of note.

Those who refer to Morse code as a “language of distress” must have heard an overweight Steven Segal beating out a desperate SOS on the steel cage of his own making.  But even the critics of this horse and cart technology will acknowledge that a one-hundred-and-sixty-year run was not bad for this 1939 invention. The French Navy, full of Gaelic pomp, said farewell to the code with these immortal words, getting very close to a Hallmark moment: “Calling all.  This is our last cry before our eternal silence.”

In its own, historically-efficient way, the Navy has gradually deep-sixed the technologies and practices that seemed radically old-fashioned, even though it was precisely these practices that made Mister Roberts, Away All Boats, and The Caine Mutiny so popular to another generation.  One of the last vestiges of that romantic past is semaphore, the use of hand flags held in precise positions that represent letters of the alphabet to deliver messages, usually at close quarters, between ships.  This discipline was especially useful during replenishments at sea where close, visual communication is essential.  The first semaphore message was sent in 1867.  I have heard reports that semaphore is still being used during replenishments, but it is also a dying art.  Flags appear now as bunting and ceremonial art, especially when COMSERVPAC comes aboard.  Sorry, Commander Pacific Services.

But there is at least one lining in this cloud.  In 2007, the Semaphore Flag Signaling System (SFSS) was introduced, a proposal to carry Internet Protocol (IP) by semaphore flags.  Sadly, this proposal was made public on April Fool’s Day.  I’m not LOL.

But I’m not fooling.  I have completed and will have in the market by this fall a novel that captures the original ALL-CAP Navy grandeur, based on my service during the Vietnam period.  The Navy is proudly coming back in ALL-CAPS in USS BUNKER KILLS: A SEA STORY.

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