Sub collision outcome far from justice for all

Reprimand: Light penalty for deaths is for good of the Navy, not national interest or victims' kin.

April 26, 2001

CMDR. SCOTT Waddle was loyal to the Navy.

He testified voluntarily to a board of inquiry. He said civilians aboard the USS Greeneville did not contribute to the submarine's ramming the trawler Ehime Maru on Feb. 9, which resulted in the death of nine Japanese civilians. This was what the Navy wanted to hear: It was not the Navy's fault.

The Navy, in turn, was loyal to the career officer. The commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet reprimanded the skipper, forcing retirement after his imminent 20th anniversary, allowing an honorable discharge with full pension.

Had Commander Waddle not absolved the Navy policy of blame, he might have faced court-martial and prison. In that eventuality, his civilian lawyer made clear, the defense would have been that the policy of thrill trips for benefactors had compromised safety. The Navy would have been on trial.

The admiral's mast procedure served the Navy. It kept morale and recruitment as high as possible. It leaves a policy the brass consider essential unscrutinized. It lets everyone sigh that the abrupt end of a shining career is heavy punishment indeed.

For the good of the service narrowly defined, this was the best outcome. It is not to be confused with justice in a civilian sense, being far more sensitive.

Imagine if the Greeneville had been a bus in which procedures had not been followed, resulting in nine deaths on the highway. A criminal trial would be expected.

The outcome is also not to be confused with the national interest in a broad sense. Although Japan's government is officially satisfied, Japanese people are not. The welcome for U.S. forces in Japan, whose presence and missions are essential to world peace and stability, is undermined by one more troubling incident.

Such political damage might be assuaged, up to a point, through speedy and generous compensation to the aggrieved. The inevitable cost will be borne by U.S. taxpayers, not the skipper, crew members or Navy.

The truths that surfaced are that the skipper, believing it was what the Navy wanted, took the submarine on an unjustified cruise with inadequate crew, sloppy procedures and broken equipment, cutting corners with tragic consequences -- and that everything is in place for this to happen again.

That is, unless the Pentagon intervenes or Congress investigates. More is at stake than the good of the Navy narrowly defined.

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