The Navy's just-concluded inquiry into the deadly collision of a US submarine and a Japanese trawler seems straightforward enough. The sub obviously was at fault. The commanding officer has taken full responsibility. All that's left is to decide on proper punishment for the skipper and perhaps a few other crew members.
But there's much more to it than that, according to those who have commanded ships at sea or been part of the military justice system.
The final outcome still hinges on such highly delicate subjects as US-Japanese relations, the extent to which senior Navy officials may bear some responsibility for the accident, and whether or not the role of the 16 civilians crowded aboard the USS Greeneville that day will ever be fully investigated.
The stakes are higher than they may appear to be as well.
It's not just the armed services' VIP program, designed to bolster public support, that is under sharp scrutiny. The future of the submarine service - always a bit separate from the rest of the Navy and in the position of having to redefine its role in the post-cold-war world - may be examined more closely as well. And at a time when accountability for military mistakes involving loss of life seems to be getting more diffuse, the tradition of the sea captain bearing the full burden of responsibility is also being debated.
That the case has gotten so much exposure relates to the loss of the fishing trawler and nine people, including four Japanese high school students. "What a different case this is because of Japanese-US relations," says David Sheldon, a former Navy lawyer now in private practice in Washington.
The outcome (still to be decided by the three admirals who heard the inquiry and then the four-star admiral who commands the Pacific Fleet) could be affected by two things: the presence of a Japanese admiral as a nonvoting member of the panel and the decision by the Greeneville's commanding officer, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, to testify, even though it may well have increased the chances that he will be court-martialed.
Battle for public opinion
"A very major current here is the battle for public opinion - both domestic public opinion and Japanese public opinion," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice in Alexandria, Va., and a former Coast Guard lawyer.
Related to this is the role of the civilians, whose presence initially brought much public criticism, particularly from the families of the Japanese victims.
Navy officials, from officers on the Greeneville to the highest levels of the Pentagon, were quick to say that those VIPs had no role in the accident. But other experts do not find that credible, especially since none of the civilians was called as a witness.
"I find that a remarkable conclusion to reach in the absence of any testimony," says Kevin Barry, a retired Coast Guard lawyer who now practices law in Chantilly, Va. At the least, others suggest, the civilians were a distraction to the captain and his crew.
"We need to remember that the only reason that the submarine was under way was to take out the civilians," says Larry Seaquist, a retired Navy captain who commanded four warships, including the USS Iowa.
Can the Navy be counted on to fully investigate the chain of command here? Can congressional committees, whose members frequently enjoy VIP tours themselves? Mr. Fidell suggests that a more objective probe of the presence of civilians on the Greeneville might be conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board or the Defense Department's independent inspector general's office.
Even though Commander Waddle has admitted responsibility, it is not clear that he will be severely punished. Recent history indicates this may not be the case. In 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. In 1992, the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga accidentally fired at a Turkish destroyer during a NATO exercise, killing five. More recently, 17 US sailors died when the destroyer USS Cole failed to protect itself from suicide bombers in Yemen. In none of those cases was the ship's captain court-martialed.
"This is no longer the age of sail and steam," says Fidell. "Notions of accountability have changed." So have means of punishment. Instead of criminal sanctions, he says, "We now have administrative actions, career-ending fitness reports, transfers to Nome, Alaska."
'Privilege of accountability'
Still, "the sea services really have come from a different tradition," says Michael Noone, professor of law at The Catholic University of America in Washington and a former Air Force lawyer. It may be hard for civilians to comprehend, but US Navy sea captains (especially those who command warships) typically see this extreme level of personal responsibility as the high point in their lives.
Retired battleship Captain Seaquist calls this "the privilege of accountability."
Waddle has been told that he faces three possible charges: dereliction of duty, negligently hazarding a vessel, and negligent homicide. If court-martialed and found guilty, he could be dismissed from the Navy and lose his retirement benefits. He could also be sentenced to as many as 27 years, three years for each of the nine lives lost.
In any case, says Seaquist, the submarine service will be anxious about its future. This may be especially true since the Bush administration has ordered a thorough review of military forces and missions. For decades, US submarines' principal purpose has been readiness to attack land targets and subs of the former Soviet Union.
"Submariners are paranoid about losing subs," he says. "There's going to be exquisite concern for whether or not they get more ships, whether or not they get their budget."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor