Military more interested in blame than long-term solutions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The whole story hasn’t been told yet.

Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The whole story hasn’t been told yet. There were civilians on board the USS Greenville, but why were they there? Was a ride on a submarine some sort of publicity stunt? Were the civilians being rewarded for loyalty to the military or were they just tourists, out for a day trip? It would seem that our enemies spend way too much money on satellites and other high-tech surveillance systems; all they really have to do is become friends with a retired admiral and then hitching a ride on a nuclear sub is no problem.

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The captain of the sub in question used the periscope, we’ve been told. But somehow he didn’t see a 192-foot-long ship that was on the surface just above him. Did they use other means of exploring the area, to see if vessels were too close? Did they turn on their active sonar? What exactly are the procedures involved with testing the emergency lift capabilities of a submarine? It’s unclear how much we will be allowed to find out. Submarines, we’re told, are top-secret vessels, and national security must be protected.

Some facts we do know. A Japanese fishing vessel lies at the bottom, under 2,000 feet of water. Nine people are missing, among them some high school students. It is presumed that all nine were trapped in the ship as it sank, and are dead. After the accident the submarine did not stay in the area or make any attempt to rescue the survivors. The Japanese people are upset, and the Japanese government politely protests the actions of the submarine and its crew.

This has all the hallmarks of an accident that could have been avoided. But what’s done is done. The living are left to try to explain the loss of life. And the admirals at the top of the great chain of command obfuscate, make excuses and conduct damage control. They just want the problem and the attention it brings to go away. Justice for the Japanese families is not high on the agenda. Neither is a clear picture of what went wrong.

With such a public incident, though, it’s likely that some people will have to be punished, among them the captain. In the US Navy, because the captains of vessels are ultimately responsible for everything that happens on board, they often become convenient scapegoats whenever something unpleasant happens and public outcry forces the government to act. It’s easier to pick someone to blame than to admit that policies were wrong and need to be changed. The example of what the Navy hierarchy did to the captain of the USS Indianapolis after that ship was torpedoed in WWII is a particularly vivid one, but he’s not the only captain in history who had to take the blame for problems that were not their fault. And officers are not the only personnel sacrificed to protect the system. The enlisted man who was accused of sabotage when the gun turret on the USS Missouri blew up died in the explosion, but that didn’t keep the Navy from messing with his reputation. Never mind that the ship and its weapon systems were over 50 years old. Once an &uot;incident&uot; becomes a news item, once it won’t go away, someone will be dragged out, tried and then thrown away.

Once upon a time my father, who was an officer in the US Navy from 1959 until 1970, had a role to play in a scandal involving mistakes and accidents. But because the accident was during wartime and only enlisted men were killed or injured, the Admirals wanted things cleared up quickly and quietly. A court martial was held for appearances, but there was no expectation that anyone would get into real trouble. The problem was, standard safety procedures were not being followed and the commanding officer, my father’s superior, had ordered their suspension. My father had to tell the truth. It’s the way he was brought up. The judges didn’t like what they heard and the guilty officer suffered. The admirals didn’t like what they heard, and my father’s career suffered. When his own promotion to captain was denied without explanation, he resigned his commission and became a lawyer.

I am no fan of the U.S. military. I say this despite the fact that they are without a doubt the most powerful military force in our solar system right now. Our soldiers have accomplished many mighty and marvelous deeds. Our veterans, or most of them anyway, have earned our respect and gratitude. But the admirals and generals in the Pentagon have an ethic based on covering their butts and keeping bad news contained. Their ways are not always fair or just. Their ways often directly contradict the democratic principles they are sworn to protect. Real reform is needed, has been needed for a long time, but I grow less and less hopeful that it will ever happen. Complicated, high tech weapons continue to be the focus of the Pentagon and most politicians. The human part of the military machine just doesn’t seem to matter, until something bad happens.

David Behling’s is a rural Albert Lea

resident. His column appears Tuesdays