The USS Fitzgerald collided with a freighter off Japan early Saturday
Seven US sailors were killed
Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense Departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
There is – at this writing – a lot we do not know about how the destroyer USS Fitzgerald came to collide with a heavily-laden freighter in the waters off Japan in the middle of the night.
We do not know whether the warship’s radars were operating sufficiently. We do not know what decisions the men and women who were standing watch aboard the destroyer made – or failed to make – that could have averted the danger. We do not know what actions, if any, were taken by the crew of the freighter to either cause or avoid this tragedy.
But this much we do know:
First, we know the crew fought heroically to save their ship and the lives of their shipmates. We know that from early reports by Navy officials but also from the images that flashed across our screens, our tablets and our phones after the incident happened early Saturday.
One look at the crushed, twisted starboard side, the hoses flaked about, the water being discharged, the frantic work being done tells you all you need to know about the stuff you can’t see in those same images: a fiercely brave crew working together to staunch the flooding, to rescue their shipmates and to save their ship.
You can be certain they ended up drenched, exhausted, scraped and bruised – but not broken. They kept that ship from foundering for 16 brutal hours. And they brought her back into port.
I don’t care who you are, but you have to respect that kind of teamwork.
Any sailor will tell you how long and how hard they train to get good at damage control. It’s pounded into them from the time they set foot at boot camp or the Naval Academy or a hundred other schools they must attend throughout their career.
Fire and flood are enemies at sea, same as an adversary’s fleet. Except that fire and flood can be the results of accidents, mishaps or even your own mistakes.
And that’s the second thing we know for certain today: that the Navy is going to find out exactly what happened. The investigation has already begun. It will be thorough. It will be clear. It will be definitive.
Investigators will document minute-by-minute how these two ships came to occupy the same piece of water – how they approached one another, at what speeds, courses and angles. They will interview every possible witness, examine every relevant piece of equipment, pore over every kilobyte of recorded data.
In the end, they will be able to reconstruct the entire event in time and space and determine precisely what lapses in judgment, seamanship and leadership occurred.
And then they will make that investigation public. They will lay it out there for all to see and for all to learn from. Reporters won’t have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests or rely on leakers to find out what investigators discover. The Navy will tell them. They’ll probably even hold a news conference.
After that, Navy leaders will incorporate the lessons they learn from this tragedy into those navigation, damage control and leadership courses, in the hopes that something like this doesn’t happen again.
The Navy will not be afraid to hold itself to account for this.
That leads us to the third thing we can safely know: accountability. It won’t be just the Navy that gets the lash here. Careers will be dashed. People will be punished. Short of battle at sea, Navy warships are not supposed to hit anything – not the ground, not each other, and certainly not container ships in the middle of the night.
The commanding officer, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, will almost certainly be the first to go.
“Anyone who has ever commanded a ship knows that you are inescapably responsible for everything that happens on your watch,” wrote my friend and colleague, Bryan McGrath, himself a former destroyer captain. “There is no such thing as ‘I was asleep’ or ‘I was ashore.’”
The Navy won’t need to complete its findings to hold Cmdr. Benson responsible. He will surely lose his command forthwith. But there will no doubt be others whose performance during the incident will be found wanting, maybe even negligent. They will also be held to account. There may even be courts-martial that result.
That’s the way it’s always been. It’s the way it has to be. Because the American people must have trust and confidence in the men and women who command their sons and daughters, who lead them into harm’s way. If they don’t – or they can’t – have that trust and confidence, well, we can’t man the ships we put to sea. And the Navy can’t defend the nation.
In the same blog post, Bryan cited an editorial from The Wall Street Journal that was written after a 1952 collision between two US Navy warships, which resulted in the loss of 176 lives.
It sums this whole ugly business up beautifully and mercilessly:
“On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.”
It continues: “It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end of responsibility and finally as the cruel scene has taught, an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do.
“And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts.”
I never commanded a ship, never fired a shot in anger or had one fired at me. I remain in awe of those who willingly assume the burden of command, the crushing weight of that responsibility. I am not their equal.
Therefore, I am unqualified to hazard a guess at the personal distress Cmdr. Benson and the rest of his crew feel right now. Nor can I imagine the grief of the families now mourning the loss of the seven sailors.
All I can do is offer my prayers and take some comfort in knowing that whatever more we learn about this tragedy, whatever wounds must yet heal, the Navy will not let this “cruel scene” diminish from our eyes without first holding itself and its people to account – that it will not permit disintegration into chaos and that it will not shirk from its duty to preserve the trust and confidence placed in it by our elected leaders and the American people.
Navy leaders sometimes fail. The Navy as an institution sometimes suffers as a result. But neither those leaders nor that institution will prove afraid and unwilling to answer for that.