Public Perception of the Coast Guard

Raymond Pritchett, who writes under the pseudonym, Galrahn, over at “Information dissemination” recently wrote a post contrasting the Navy’s poor Gallup poll numbers with the high numbers recorded for the Marine Corp with respect to two metrics:

most important to national defense.gif

most prestigious.gif

(Note: The Coast Guard was not included in the survey in 2001.)

That the Coast Guard is not considered “most important to national defense” is certainly not surprising, but I thought we might have done better with regard to prestige and status.

Pritchett attributes the disparity between perception of the Navy’s failure to tell it’s story in a compelling way, and to take on tasks the public sees as relevant.

“The story must discuss the positive benefits of the US Navy, and by extension actions must align with words. The mismatch of budget, actions, and words by the US Navy is the single most obvious discrepancy the US Navy must overcome if they wish to be seen as more relevant by the American people.”

The Marines seem to do it better and at least part of that is the fact that NCOs rather than officers are most frequently the face of the Marines.

Marines also take on whatever job they are given and do it well, while,

“…the surface fleet refuses to take on the difficult challenges of this era (stuff like piracy and narcotics submersibles) and is instead focused on meeting some enormous threat that may or may not materialize in the decades ahead. The surface fleet is the most distributed, thus visible force in the Navy, and the refusal by leadership to use the surface fleet today in the actual protection of commerce (see piracy) or in coastline defense (see narcotics smuggling) puts the Navy visibly out of step with what they say when explaining their strategic concept – 21st Century Seapower.”

It is an interesting dicussion, and while I recommend the article, it fails to explain the CG numbers. The CG is constantly taking on and dealing with new missions and frequently the “Coast Guard spokesperson” is the enlisted on the scene doing the job.

One thing the discussion over at Information Dissemination did suggest to me, is that, we need to find a way for the Coast Guard enlisted engineers to tell the story of what the Coast Guard’s aging fleet is doing to them.

I do think a lot of the “status” figure is due to public perception of who sacrifices and places themselves in danger on our behalf.

The public knows Marines and Soldiers are getting shot at on a daily basis, so they deserve our respect. Most people still see the Coast Guard as “safe.” For the most part it is, but you could say the same for the Air Force, the Navy, and for large parts of the Army and Marines.

What could elevate perception of the Coast Guard as a profession? The humanitarian and environmental conservation aspects have to be appreciated by some. The degree of authority and autonomy given our junior people is remarkable compared to the other services. Ultimately, the Coast Guard’s small size may make it impossible to communicate as well as the other services have. We simply don’t have as many veterans returning home and telling their stories.

13 thoughts on “Public Perception of the Coast Guard

  1. Obviously you know nothing about the Coast Guard. Were you enlisted at one time and got discharged for being a homosexual or misconduct?

    The Coast Guard is extremely important to the security of America and i bet you wouldn’t say it wasn’t to Petty Officer Nathan Brukenthal’s widow.

    • You’re out of line here. Don’t know what your angle is but Chuck is right. We-CG-do not get our message out. Leadership goes to Congress to expalin our shortcomings. Chairman off the Committee asks what can we do to help? Leadership goes on with the script she was given and completely ignores that the door is open. Our enlisted folks are the best bar none. Never have I worked with such a dedicated bunch of young folks. They aren’t gung ho-just insist upon doing a job above and beyond. Agree with the statement about the Navy. They are close to being irrelevant. Need to step up to the plate as to drug interdiction, AMIO, piracy. OK I’m prejudiced but have worked w/Navy O’s and they have no concept of what CG is about. Don’t trust their enlisted folks to get a job done or make the right decisions. Thank goodness CG O’s appreciate their enlisted folks. Guess it’s because we put responsibility way down the ladder whereas Navy keeps it up high. An E5 in the CG has as much if not more responsibility than a Navy O-3. We all know this but why doesn’t the public?? Therein lies our problem. Drifted around on this just a little.

    • Lowell, please take the time to entirely READ the original post. It’s apparent you are passionate about defending the Coast Guard from a perceived attack, however, you were completely off base and you posted a retort that showed lack of class and maturity. Your intentions were arguably honorable but your lack of understanding of the article posted and your venomous reply were an embarrassment to every Coastie who reads this page. Lock it up shipmate.

  2. Chuck,
    Great find and worth the time to explore. While I may on ocassion turn slightly negative here (sorry Bill), I’ll attribute Lowell’s remrks to a complete misread of your remarks ( I hope). One day on the job and my new XO informed me he was going to re energize my own external communications đŸ™‚

  3. In 1995 Dr. John B. Hattendorf, the eminent naval historian at the Naval War College, edited a 160-page anthology of articles by other notable naval historians, both American and British.

    It is a good read. In the chapter by Nathaniel A. M. Rodger, “Writing a General Naval History,” he explains why naval historians have a difficult time in getting their writings to cross over to general history and this cross over is important for public understanding.

    Rodger notes the problem with naval history and public understand is technology. Navies, unlike the base functions of the Army and Marine Corps, are technical organizations. To write about a navy without involving technology is leaving out 75% of the story. He wrote,

    “It is encouraging that so much good technical history about ships and weapons has been
    published in recent years, advancing our knowledge enormously, and making it possible for the technically illiterate to acquire the essentials of the subject. The importance of mastering the technology of naval history runs well beyond naval history itself. Only when naval historians have mastered this
    essential aspect of their subject wiD they be properly equipped to convey its importance to non-specialists.”

    If current era naval historians are not getting it then no one is.

    The Coast Guard has a different problem. Its history is shallow, consensus and popular based. There is no real history program in the Coast Guard and never has been. The matter of history is related to public affairs since 1943 and before that it was under the statistics branch in CGHQ and before that it did not exist.

    There has been no concerted effort to promote scholarship on the Coast Guard from an official position. Nearly all the work had been done by individuals with private publishers who are, by in large, not keen on Coast Guard topics. The most used books in the Coast Guard today are those written as popular histories that have followed the same consensus path since 1880. There is very little variation on theme and certainly little criticism and analyzing. Coast Guard history is a smooth leveled pathway of 19th century moralizing. Except of Dennis Noble’s Mike Healy book most are nonhuman histories.

    The most popular works are about high events but few delve into the problems and solutions to those problems. All repeat the same events that tell and retell the same myths and half history. In addition, Coast Guard history is targeted to internal functions, whereas, the Navy looks outward. However, because both are generally out of sight they are not viewed in the same light. This is why the tales of the life saving service are still told. They were local and Sumner Kimball was astute enough to hire professional writers to tell those dramatic and hyped-up stories. He did not have history written, he looked to nineteenth century drama. And it worked.

    In most cases, the Coast Guard is its own worst enemy in public acknowledgment. It has missed numerous opportunities over the decades to raise understanding and knowledge in the public view. It still shuns its official service in Vietnam and has yet to create a comprehensive history of its activities in World War II. The most important parts of both wars have never been touched, its relationship with the Navy.

    In 1950, the Coast Guard organized the first meeting of it new public affairs staff with the newly minted Journal and Photographer ratings. (The first Public Affairs warrant officer was a BOSN). The aim of the meeting was to create a combined and concerted effort to “Tell the Coast Guard Story.” A half-century later and it is still trying to get it straight.

    • Probably never. I’ve never been a book writer. I prefer narrowly focused essays. I suppose I could put together an anthology of these. I’ve had a history professor colleague suggest this. Book writing requires a market. There isn’t much for Coast Guard material and the Coast Guard will never support serious scholarship into its history.

      The published list of books in the link are merely those in print. There is no opinion about their quality or their exactness. I’ve read a good number of them and found many wanting in quality. Most are in the popular history mode and as such have only fleeting value to the study of Coast Guard history that would be useful in an applied sense.

      The WWII book was the Willoughby reprint. Willoughby was on the Coast Guard’s staff that put together the WWII monograph series and distilled them into one book. The monographs were also a distillation of the “war” reports. All but one of the monographs were produced by people with no professional historical training. The lack of professionalism is pervasive in many of the books on the list and all the general histories follow the same scheme which is consistency and conformity.

      There are historiographical thoughts on how all the conformity evolved.

      In the introduction to 1953 translation of French Historian Marc Bloch’s _The Historian’s Craft, Joseph R. Strayer wrote what should be the of note to the Coast Guard,
      “. . . the number of historians, both professional and amateur, has greatly increased in recent years, as has the quantity of historical writing-quality is another matter.”

      It is not the quantity of books and other materials but its quality. This is an old maxi am, but it holds the ideal. An ideal that should be used not only in serious scholarship but that of the most basic and general type even if used solely for public affairs work. Too much of Coast Guard public affairs is hacked out of works that did not meet the quality standard.

      The problem is history and as mentioned by Bill Smith the Marine Corps has become the master of skewing its history to its advantage, including in a neat hat trick, the most negative of it. Anyone remember Ribbon Creek?

  4. Seems to me that the numbers for the Coast Guard would have been even worse if they had left it an open ended question instead of listing the Coast Guard, which reminded folks that the CG is one of the Armed Forces.

    I suspect that if the question was more along the likes of “Do you approve or disapprove of the job that the _____ is doing?” with the names of the services rotated through that the CG would probably come out pretty close in general approval to the other services, and perhaps even higher.

  5. The fact is, if you are looking for glory and recognition the Coast Guard is not the place to find it. We definitely SHOULD rank highly for prestige and respect, and I 100% agree that the Coast Guard has some of the most dedicated, skilled, and all around talented people in the world, but we will always be too small and out of the way for the bulk of the Nation to even notice us, especially if they don’t have a maritime involvement somewhere. We still suffer from our reputation of being a place to avoid combat in Vietnam (although we all know many many Coasties served bravely there, the public doesn’t.) Also, the number of Coast Guard veterans is tiny compared to DoD veterans…And we don’t have as many war stories to tell either…..We don’t even teach ourselves our own history, how can we expect the public to know it?

    We know we are the best, we know what we do for the country, but we are also going to have to be content with the satisfaction of a job well done, we will never be the stars of the military show.

  6. The trouble is not history, historians, or authors of naval interest media (books or magazines). The problem is one of political and populist PR. The Marine Corps has (and has had) an influence in popular culture and Congress far out of proportion to it’s size and value to the nation’s overall military defense. This is because of many factors, but darn few (none?) are the fault of them playing on the technical boringness of naval history…

    The USCG at approx. 50,000 personnel is 1/4 the size of the USMC at 200,000 personnel (rough numbers), but the USMC spends some substantially more than four times the money on advertising on TV (ads done slickly too, I might add), as well as PR organizations, such as the silent drill platoon, Marine Band, etc.

    Some of this is also slick political moves. The Marines fly the President in Marine 1. They used to share that duty with the Army, but the Army didn’t want to be bothered with that mission anymore in the 1970s. The CG doesn’t do any of this, and it should. Both the USMC and USCG are small services which historically have been debated about being absorbed into their bigger version (Marines by Army, and CG by Navy). The Marines took this as a serious threat and have continued to work political and public opinion in their favor as a countermeasure. The CG just seems to shrug it’s shoulders and says, “whatever…”

  7. I’ll take a stab at this. In corporate America and often in law enforcement in general – the teams that proactively stop a crisis before it happens are ignored and unintentionally devalued because they work behind the scenes and just are not visible. In fact, they are almost always invisible.

    Now, the “more armed” services, especially in a time of war are out there dealing with a full blown media inflated crisis that has almost, or has already gotten out of control. Explosions make good press. Large crisis solvers usually get all the credit, even if their ignorance let the crisis happen in the first place.

    The USCG and USCGA are so proactive and so effective at protecting the public they get ignored. The CG did get some press out of the Gulf oil spill, but it dwindled quickly in comparison to the political infighting and finger pointing that was featured by the media. To get real and noticeable credit the CG needs a homeland crisis, but it’s pretty darn dishonorable to hope for one…. So, everyone professionally sucks it up and then thanks themselves for the effort they put in to safeguard the country and its citizens every day.

    In closing, thanks USCG and USCGA. I appreciate everything you have done and will do for me and my family, every single day and night.

  8. I think MC Wells brings up excellent points about quality and the lack of official organization concerning CG history (as usual on this topic). But what Bill Smith wrote makes a lot of sense as far as “getting the ball rolling”. Without public interest and media coverage, CG history will remain in port. And the CG can’t sit passively and wait for it to happen. If Saving Private Ryan, which is historical fiction, was never produced would there have been Band of Brothers and the ensuing interest in small unit histories? I don’t know but I think not.

    Also, how many modern thrillers are written by military veterans? How about sci-fi? I don’t expect the CG to start a fiction writer rating but we should at least find unofficial ways of encouraging this. I knew a cook who was trying to write a historical fiction screenplay concerning Douglas Munroe’s action. He made repeated information requests through FOIA and the chain of command. The only response was a few pages of log entries and some award write ups. Nobody knows if his writing would have gone anywhere but maybe with a little support it could have at least turned into a decent book. The guy had a lot of talent.

    And the way we treat the media sometimes reminds me of the way a leper colony is kept isolated. The other services have embedded reporters in a WAR ZONE. We freak out if we know there’s one in a 10 mile radius. Let them come and film at a fairly busy unit for a week. I’m sure local media outlets would be interested. Have them sign the same sorts of agreements the emdeds sign and let them do our PR job for us. I’m sure they’d get enough film from a unit in FL during July for it to be interesting.

    I don’t know if these specific examples are the answer but without something along these lines, there will never be an interest in CG history and, therefore, no effort to systematically record or safeguard it.

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