Incidents put focus on Navy command

Some fear an erosion of standards that set officers' responsibility

March 05, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the pre-dawn darkness of July 30, 1945, two Japanese torpedoes slammed into the USS Indianapolis, which quickly slipped under the Pacific waters. Over the next four days, the captain and his crew bobbed in the churning seas, scouring the skies and peering toward the horizon for signs of rescue. Hundreds drowned or were torn apart by sharks.

The ship's skipper, Capt. Charles Butler McVay III, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate and scion of a proud Navy family, was court-martialed soon after the survivors reached land. The charge was that he failed to take sufficient evasive action. Although many officers and crewmen said he was blameless, McVay disagreed.

"I was in command of the ship," he declared, "and I am responsible for its fate."

Now some officers and military analysts believe that this bedrock tenet of naval command is fast eroding, along with similar strictures that have long governed commanding officers in all the services.

The captain of the USS Cole was not punished after his ship was attacked by terrorists in October, even though investigators found that he failed to take a number of prescribed safety precautions.

And similar questions of responsibility are swirling around the skipper of the USS Greeneville, the submarine that slammed into a Japanese fishing trawler last month, leaving nine students and crew members missing and presumed dead.

Today in Hawaii, a Navy court of inquiry will begin trying to sort out what happened aboard the Greeneville in the minutes before it shot to the surface and rammed the trawler.

While some active-duty and retired officers say the Cole and Greeneville disasters are merely isolated incidents, others see a worrisome trend. The military, they say, is getting away from the time-honored standards by which the commander accepts blame when things go wrong or the service officially finds fault with the actions the commander took or failed to take.

Others say it is not so simple. They point out that the murky new world of terrorism and peacekeeping missions has made command a far more complex and ambiguous undertaking. As a result, a commander's once-unquestioned authority has been fragmented, its pieces in the hands of more senior officers, who usually are not on the scene, or civilians, such as State Department officials.

"There's been an erosion in the tradition that says a captain is responsible for his ship," asserted Mackubin Thomas Owens, a retired Marine colonel and a professor at the Naval War College. "If you're going to have a disciplined, no-nonsense military, you can't start with the assumption that you're going to be able to make an excuse."

In civilian society, Owens said, making excuses when things go wrong has become more pervasive, "and it's carried over to the military." A Marine general in the Pentagon agreed, saying: "Americans don't accept responsibility for anything. I think a little of that is bleeding over into our military culture."

Capt. James A. Campbell, who commanded two submarines and is director of character development at the Naval Academy, said his job is more difficult than it was in an earlier era. The future Navy and Marine officers he teaches now come from a society where the first reaction to trouble is, "It's not my fault," he said.

"We have to work harder at trying to convey to them, `This is your responsibility,'" he said.

Owens said that the role of a commander today is far more complicated than in the black-and-white era of World War II, when the enemy was well-defined and the circumstances in which deadly force could be used - known in the military as rules of engagement - were clear-cut.

Many of today's overseas missions are considered peacekeeping or humanitarian efforts, collectively known in Pentagon parlance as "Operations Other than War." In these instances, the rules controlling the use of deadly force often are not clear or are purposefully left vague. Officers said State Department officials many times bristle when a military commander wants to impose tight security, to include sentries carrying loaded weapons, fearing that such a suspicious posture will upset the foreign hosts.

Some officers question why the Cole was ordered into Aden harbor in Yemen, a well-known crossroads for terrorists, without a stronger security plan in place, possibly including armed sailors in small boats circling the destroyer to ward off intruders.

Retired Adm. Carlisle Trost, former chief of naval operations, said that ships like the Cole are often sent into ports where unworkable rules of engagement or inadequate security measures are in effect. "The equivalent of having your hands tied behind your back," Trost said.

The military has often been criticized by the State Department for "looking too militaristic" overseas, said retired Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney, former head of the Atlantic Command. The message, Edney said, was, "Back off; you always look like there's a war around the corner."

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