I joined up at 21 wanting a place in an organisation that did things, changed things, fought battles, and trained its people well. What I found was a glorified rugby club with a passing interest in historical reenactment, limping from one cocktail party to the next in expensive, half-broken ships unlikely to ever be used for their intended military purpose. I found too many bitter, bullying senior officers who I had no wish to emulate or become. Happy for those who love it and have picked up stripes but not for a second do I regret leaving and moving on at the first opportunity.
At least two people that I joined the navy with have been promoted to commander. From what I remember and know of them, they richly deserve it and I’m genuinely pleased for them.
For a moment, though, I had a moment of reflective pause, accompanied by a small pang of something like jealousy: what if I had stayed in general service and not broken myself in submarines? Would that be me today?
Of course, the answer is almost certainly no. I wasn’t quite the world’s worst naval officer, but I wasn’t particularly gifted either. I could never quite fit in. If I had stayed in, at best I would probably have ended up as a dishelved and demoralised passed-over two-and-a-half getting drunk and depressed in the scruffs bar every night.
At least I had the presence of mind to realise this early enough, while there was still time to get out and do something else. I tell myself that submarines is what killed the navy for me, but actually the disillusionment set in before that. I remember one day sitting in a departmental meeting in Faslane. We were talking about washing machine contracts for base accommodation or something equally dull. I looked around the room at the two Lt Cdrs and I thought, ‘wow, in six or eight years I could, if I got lucky and played my cards right, be sitting in their chair’. Then I looked at the ‘Commander S’, and thought, ‘wow, in twelve years I could be sitting in his chair’. And I realised that I’d still be in the same room, having the same conversation, about the same things – more or less.
The prospect terrified me. I wanted, at that time, adventure, excitement and the sense of making a difference, and the reality was all so very dull and pointless. I remember then thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ll be in 2016, but I’ll never be a Commander. I’ve got to get out of this and do something different with my life’.
And here I am now, as a constitutional academic and advisor, and (for the most part) loving it. I no longer have to pretend to be something I’m not.
I neither regret joining the navy, nor leaving it. It was a great foundation and I learned a lot, but it wasn’t for me for the long haul. I think I’ve reached a place of so much peace with this, now, that I could probably read a Douglas Reeman novel and not want to spit.