Ladies and gentlemen, this is one of the things I love most about the Navy. The organization holds people accountable like no other (ok, maybe the Communist Party in China is better, but I digress). Anyone who has ever commanded a ship knows that you are inescapably responsible for everything that happens on your watch. There is no such thing as "I was asleep", or "I was ashore". With the benefit of unquestioned authority comes indivisible accountability and ultimate responsibility. It often seems unfair, and I have seen the lives of friends wrenched in the jaws of this harsh sanction. It is however, what distinguishes the Navy from other pursuits, and when on occasion, the Service deviates from this sanction, it weakens itself in an effort to appear more human.
In the early '50's, the USS HOBSON and the USS WASP collided with the loss of 176 lives. The Wall Street Journal offered the editorial below in an effort to explain why the Navy must act as it does. I reproduce it here to remind myself of its stirring words:
"One night past some 30,000 tons of ships went hurtling at each other through the darkness. When they had met, 2,000 tons of ship and 176 men lay at the bottom of the sea in a far off place."
"Now comes the cruel business of accountability. Those who were there, those who are left from those who were there, must answer how it happened and whose was the error that made it happen."
"It is a cruel business because it was no wish to destruction that killed this ship and its 176 men; the accountability lies with good men who erred in judgment under stress so great that it is almost its own excuse. Cruel, because no matter how deep the probe, it cannot change the dead, because it cannot probe deeper than remorse."
"And it is even more cruel still because all around us in other places we see the plea accepted that what is done is done beyond discussion, and that for good men in their human errors there should be afterwards no accountability."
"Everywhere else we are told how inhuman it is to submit men to the ordeal of answering for themselves; to haul them before committees and badger them with questions as to where they were and what they were doing while the ship of state careened from one course to another."
"This probing into the sea seems more merciless because everywhere else we have abandoned accountability. What is done is done and why torture men with asking them afterwards, why?........"
"We are told men should no longer be held accountable for what they do as well as for what they intend. To err is not only human, it absolves responsibility."
"Everywhere else, that is, except on the sea. 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."
"This accountability is not for the intentions but for the deed. The captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done. He cannot escape...."
"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."