Passing the buck in sub drama

As a rule, we Americans like public officials from the Harry Truman mold. We hope for stand-up leaders who marry their authority to a "buck stops here" sense of personal accountability. Inclined also to doubt officialdom, we are quick to tune in when someone on the public payroll falls short. Military mistakes collect special attention, partly because they often involve death and destruction, partly because the military's crisp hierarchy can pinpoint authority that a civilian bureaucracy will scatter.

One of the latest front-page examples is the sad case of the Navy's nuclear submarine USS Greeneville. In February, the sub rammed a Japanese fishing trawler in the busy waters off Hawaii. Nine crewmen perished as the rammed ship sank in minutes. It was clear that the man in the dock was the submarine's captain. Thus rose the curtain on a three-act saga to fix accountability for the tragedy and correct the problems that caused it.

We are now at a pause in the action, the intermission before the third act. This is a good time to review the case, less as drama critics - military courts are always good theater - than as citizens wondering how well this particular group of public officials is stacking up in the public-accountability ledger. As we go, let's watch especially for where the buck stops.

These military accident-response dramas play out about the same each time, sometimes in private, sometimes with the press reporting every twitch. When the Navy plays the roles, the admirals taking the stage in Act One, "Damage Control," work to get a grip on what happened. They respond to reporters who want to know more than the Navy probably knows itself. They signal the fleet if it seems there might be a defective part or a faulty procedure hazarding others, and they organize an investigation.

How to do that review and who to lead it become important subplots. A private informal review could look like a whitewash; a formal public inquiry can run out of control when the press and civilian hard-ball lawyers enter. In this first quick-look stage, the admirals will often arrive at a private understanding of what really happened. Navy procedures allow them legally to fire the CO, the ship's commanding officer, on the spot.

In the Greeneville accident, the Navy stumbled through this stage, managing to enrage our Japanese allies and trigger public alarm about a cover-up. The CO publicly accepted full responsibility. The Navy removed him, but the press questioned whether the civilian visitors the Navy put aboard the sub had been a factor. The curtain didn't come down until President Bush deputized a top admiral to go to Japan - and the Navy, perhaps instructed by the White House, chartered a formal public inquiry.

At the end of Act One, the buck was still up for grabs. The sub captain seemed to be a Good Guy, honorably shouldering his responsibility for reckless driving. But the performance of the admirals had planted thoughts among the citizen-audience that the sub's bosses ashore might also belong in the dock. Was the ship merely doing what it had been told to do?

Then came Act Two, "Investigation." Excellent drama and more admirals. Three sitting as a Court of Inquiry called witnesses whose lawyers pointed fingers at various Culprits. We learned that some of the captain's subordinates had not done their jobs well. The captain himself adjusted his earlier claim of sole responsibility to suggest that, yes, perhaps his men had let him down. We in the citizens' jury were about to conclude that the reason for their errors had been the disruption from squeezing civilian sightseers into the sub's small spaces. But the sub's admiral boss insisted to the Court the visitors were not a factor. The Court seemed to accept this and rang down the curtain.


Now the three-admiral Court is off-stage reaching its own conclusions. In a few weeks, we'll see Act Three, "Correction." New procedures may be required of all submarines. The sub's mistakemakers will be admonished, the COs may face criminal charges in a court martial. But unless the plot takes a surprise turn, no admirals will touch the buck.

What are we to make of this? We can congratulate ourselves that our military, unlike some others, subjects itself to such scrutiny. We can applaud Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the sub CO, for being a stand-up guy even if he did shade it a bit. But we are left wondering about those admirals. They exonerated themselves even though this tragedy has "command climate" written all over it.

Command climate is the tone, the atmosphere set by one's seniors. Commander Waddle took his submarine full of visitors to sea on behalf of a chain of admirals that picked the wealthy visitors and OK'd the special excursion, a chain of admirals that made such visits a regular program in their submarines, a chain of admirals that knew of and approved hot-dog maneuvers to impress their visitors. Where does the buck find a home among this hierarchy of joy-ride sponsors?

Did the curtain come down on Act Two prematurely?

Reconvened, the Court of Inquiry could question the civilians who were on board and the admirals who put them there. Perhaps it will turn out that the visitors were irrelevant. Or perhaps it will turn out that guest rides and spectacular maneuvers were something the admirals expected of all their submarines, in which case the buck needs to move higher up.

The White House had to reach in during Act One; perhaps that corrective hand will be needed again before the final curtain.

American citizens need to know that the old-fashioned virtues of accountability still apply to our senior-most officials.

A retired Navy captain, Larry Seaquist commanded four warships during his career. He is the founder of The Strategy Group, an international network of peacebuilding professionals.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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