In the 1995 submarine film Crimson Tide Gene Hackman plays experienced Navy Captain Frank Ramsay assigned to the nuclear missile submarine Alabama. Playing opposite him is the younger, up and coming Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter played by Denzel Washington.
I enjoy the film and constantly find myself watching the battle of wits between “Old School” and “New School” often wondering who will win the upper hand.
Ramsay is from the Old School of Navy warfare and he knows it. Hunter is the new Executive Officer (XO) on the boat and one night at dinner the conversation turns to the glaring difference in style between old and new. Ramsay mentions that the Navy doesn’t want him complicated, but simple. With just a hint of sarcasm the young Hunter replies that Ramsay has the Navy fooled, indicating that he is indeed more complicated than he’d like to let on.
“Be careful there, Mr. Hunter. It’s all I’ve got to rely on, being a simple-minded son of a bitch. Rickover gave me my command, a checklist, a target and a button to push. All I gotta know is how to push it, they tell me when. They seem to want you to know why.”
The conversation continues to explore the reasons for war and the different views on the subject which I won’t go into here, but it’s a great back and forth.
“They seem to want you to know why” sticks in my head though.
I see this conversation all the time in Fire Stations and Hospital ambulance bays. The salty old anchor who is good at what they do questions the up and coming schooled rookie, assured that simply knowing what to do is better than worrying about why. The rookie, educated and trained far beyond the salty anchor lacks experience and needs to find a balance.
Cut off from command, their last message was cryptic and incomplete. Nuclear war is feared and the two schools are pitted against one another. Old school sees it as an order to fire while the new school sees it as a chance to get more information. The What vs the Why. Ramsay orders a launch, Hunter refuses and the battle of wits has begun. Old school bends the rules to meet their ends and new school tries to outwit him at every turn.
Throughout Crimson Tide we see a struggle between old school and new school during a crisis situation as each of the leads falls back to their comfort zones for support. Ramsay leans on loyalty while Hunter seeks out new members to join him in opposing the Captain’s actions.
Don’t get me wrong, knowing what to do is important, but I think you know I’m a bigger fan of knowing Why.
One of my instructors used to say “I can teach a cat to intubate, but I can’t teach him when not to.” He was the same instructor that, when faced with a scenario in lab and someone would initiate a treatment he would always ask “Why?”
BP is low, start a line.
“Why does their blood pressure bother you?”
We’re here to fight.
“Why do we fight wars?”
Pulse is 50, hand me the atropine.
“Why is Atropine indicated here and why will giving it make things worse?”
I don’t think this is a good idea.
“Why can’t you just do what you’re told?”
In the end of the film, we discover that Why wins the day as the information was incomplete. Had What been victorious a bad decision would have been flawlessly executed. You can perfectly intubate every time, I get it, you’re a salty dog, but the last 4 you got were completely unnecessary.
Let me show you Why.
Which one are you?