Thursday, July 31, 2008

Accountability, Navy Style

News this morning of the firing of the Captain and XO of the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, one of our nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. There was a fire onboard recently, one that caused upward of $70M worth of damage. I know little about the details of this story, only what I've read in the open press. Apparently, poor engineering housekeeping practice (stowage of flammable materials, unauthorized smoking areas) contributed to this fire.

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."


Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. While the circumstances alone, as reported, are sufficient to me to have tripped the threshold of accountability, for those who disagree, consider what was not reported: this is a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with two complete nuclear power plants resident inside its hull. That basic "housekeeping" and basic safety practices for shipboard spaces, especially for engineering spaces, especially for nuclear powered ship spaces were not part of this Commanding Officer's and Executive Officer's ship's culture should be disturbing to anyone listening to CW's repetitions on using nuclear power for our energy needs. There has always been a zero defect mentality in the Navy's nuclear power program. It appears to be deteriorating here. That is something Navy leadership cannot tolerate and there is no better way to send the message to other ships than figuratively to post the heads of the two most senior officers on pikes as an example for others. Still too harsh? Consider that as we decommision the last of our fossil fueled aircraft carriers, we must resort to forward basing our nuclear carriers near our potential hotspots (such as Iran, China, Afghanistan, North Korea, India/Pakistan, etc) and that the best place we currently have to base them is a country upon whom we unleashed two atomic bombs. The Japanese are therefore not particulary keen to have American nuclear anything inside their borders. Nevertheless, we recently negotiated with them to allow a nuclear powered carrier, this one specifically, to "homeport" in Japan. This was despite considerable urging to the contrary from the Japanese populace. If we want to tip the balance of Japanese public opinion decidely in the direction of once again excluding nuclear powered ships, demonstrating a less-than-religious respect for engineering standards is a good first step. If our Navy, our nation, hadn't taken immediate decisive action to exert the accountability about which CW so elegantly writes, I too would have my doubts about the safety of this or any other nuclear powered ship homeporting there or worse yet, near me. I understand when very busy people in very complex and challenging jobs make mistakes. But I am ever so proud when I see leadership hold those good men accountable. It is what makes, in my opinion, Secretary of Defense Gates one of the best SECDEFs in memory. And it would be a better society in which to live if our society could even nudge itself slightly in that direction. I miss that world of accountability.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Nicely put, Shipmate.

SamShapiro said...

CW, what about the officer(s)directly in charge of the department. How are they punished?

The Conservative Wahoo said...

First thing is, that while relieving someone of command is indeed to be thought of as "punishment", there are other more forms of punishment to which the officers are subject; i.e UCMJ violations in Hazarding a Vessel, Dereliction of Duty. These are the actual punitive measures taken, which can result in fines, loss of rank, and imprisonment. Those processes have probably begun, with inquiries as to whether actual criminal charges should be filed.

That said, those "directly in charge" will suffer career ending consequences. They will probably be relieved of their jobs with no hope of further promotion. If criminal charges are called for, they will be filed. The CO and XO get the press because they are the big boys, but don't think the folks below them don't take a punch too.

thsntht said...

I understand Command and I understand accountability. I am not part of the Navy culture. I do have respect for the Navy and the officers I have known have been for the most part responsible. I have read the news, read the wahoo's take, and of course the add by anon. All of which are cause for concern. IT boils down to being lucky rather then being good. (I know I open myself up to criticism & do so knowingly).

No commander can be anywhere 24/7/365, he either inherits or gains new officers and senior NCO's that are charged with responsibilities. If they take their job serious then the commander survives, if however they don't and aren't noticed fast enough the commander doesn't survive & with the Navy accountability philosophy has a quality career ended. I agree that "housekeeping" was lax.

As I know the Navy one does not get command of a carrier without already demonstrating abilities in command and stand out most often as #1 in his peer group. One doesn't become XO of a carrier without having had command once already. Were they lucky before or good?

I question the Navy and those who love the Navy for so easily hanging people with demonstrated leadership and lauding accountability at the same time. A culture such as that should and most likely does create a canabalistic surface & sub surface service.

Nothing suceeds like success and nothing fails like failure...or are the successful just lucky?

Anonymous said...

thisnthat - fully understand your point and, for some time early in my career quite ferevently shared it. I hope you didn't come away from anything any of us said that any of us relishes seeing one of our peers "hang". Not so. You are absolutely correct when you assess that COs of US aircraft carriers are of impeccable professional credentials (accomplished aviators, previously successful ship Commanding Officer, nuclear power qualified, success in complex shore tours and probably holding at least one advanced degree, probably two). He's eligible for an O-6 retirement and he is going to land a very lucrative position in the civilian world if he so chooses. That is why we may appear not to linger too long on what some view as a tragic ending to a career. Also, and this is counterintuitive, but the effect of this seemingly impersonal approach to accountability is that, at least in many cases I have seen and in my own view while in command, because it is impersonal, everyone knows that command may well be his or her last job in the Navy. When you treat your current job as if it may be your last, and assuming that you got to that point in your career through a demonstrated commitment to your responsibilities, I believe you become far more effective in your duties. In other words, rather than worrying about getting fired, I found that it further motivated me to do what I believed to be best for my ship, crew and missions irrespective of the personal consequences because if I'm so exposed to being fired anyway, I might as well get fired for doing what I believed to be "the right thing". There are some Commanding Officers who view it differently but I find they are the exception. So, if this borderline savage approach to accountability results in a significant majority of our fleet's Commanding Officers doing the right thing no matter what, well, that is what we are "celebrating". By the way, your knowledge of the Navy is pretty darned good for not being "a part of the Navy culture". As for luck vs being good, I'll share a bit of advice my first CO told me when I was a young Ensign. He said that when I received my commission, I may not have seen it, but I was handed two tool bags. One was marked "experience", the other "luck". As I served my time at sea, he said I had the opportunity to fill my experience bag with as much experience as would expand to hold as much as I could give it. The luck bag would remain closed because I always had someone above me to keep me from having to draw from that bag. However, on the day that I might someday take command of my own ship, both bags would be open and I would begin drawing on both of them. The fuller my experience bag, the fewer times I would have to draw from the luck bag. I won't tell you how many times I stuck my hand in the luck bag, but I will tell you that my first CO was an extraordinarily prescient man. Very few COs can claim not having had one or two close calls...maybe even four or five. Maybe more. But if any of them had exceeded the circumstance being a "close call", I believe, primarily because of the concept of impersonal ultimate accountability, every one of them would agree that his relief of command was the right thing for the Navy. To the extent that you can believe us, what CW and I are telling you is that you need not worry about the state of your Navy when such accountability is exercised. When you should worry is when it isn't.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Thsntht, thanks for a great opposing view. You have very clearly stated what generally posited as the primary objection to the way the Navy does things.

I think it is incorrect to make the "lucky or good comparison". At some level of abstraction, these are indistinguishable. Case in point. Heading into Norfolk, 288 leg inbound, and in the channel downriver about two miles is a giant oil tanker in the middle of the lane. About five hundred yards ahead of me was a US Coast Guard buoy tender working a buoy. I directed my OOD to hug the starboard side of the channel (our side) but to make sure he gave the buoy tender a wide berth. As time went on and all three ships got closer, things got deathly quiet on my bridge...I was on the starboard side, watching the more immediate danger (the buoy tender), and I though we were in fine position. But my navigator disagreed, and she disagreed vehemently. Both the OOD and I thought we were in fine position, and would give the buoy tender at least 30 feet...Nav finally lost it and yelled out loud "Captain, you need to come left NOW". So I took the conn, fishtailed a bit left, shifted my rudder to the right and resumed my track down the starboard side of the channel, with the big tanker still about 3/4 of a mile from me. It was a pretty nerve-wracking event, and the bridge team was really spent.

We narrowly avoided a collision. I felt very, very lucky. Both the OOD and I to this day believe that we would not have hit the buoy tender, but others on the bridge disagreed. The bottom line though, is that there are ships in the Navy where the Captain's presence on the bridge would have rendered most other watch-standers silent, as "clearly" their judgment would have been inferior to the old man's. This kind of atmosphere, where the Captain is considered infallible or in which the Captain considers himself/herself infallible is a condition in which the luck you point to very, very rarely appears. I was lucky to have someone on my ship who felt that she could YELL out that we needed to come left, and when we passed the tanker to port, I took the opportunity to tell my entire bridge team OUT LOUD how proud I was of the navigator for what she had done.

What does all this prove? I think it says that the Captain...through his or her standards and style...can make his or her own luck. If the Captain has high standards, if he or she does not accept the improper stowage of flammable material, if he or she does not allow smoking in unauthorized areas, and if their example and standards lead average crewmembers to choose to do the right thing EVEN WHEN NO ONE IS LOOKING, then this is NOT luck. This is the result of an atmosphere of standards and success.

Did this CO's luck simply run out? Possibly. Will his relief send a message to every single other CO out there that as he/she is walking around, slapping backs and being everybody's favorite guy, a good look into the various storage cabinets in the engineering spaces is warranted? Absolutely.

This single sanction is harsh and unremitting. Yes, really good leaders do sometimes suffer when they make only ONE mistake. But the Navy is always bigger than one Captain, and the lessons of accountability we learn when one of our colleagues is fired are crucial to sharpening the focus of men whose stamina and judgment are constantly besieged.

thsntht said...

Anon, I thank you for your response & do see yours and the wahoo's points with a little more clarity. I can't say that I fully embrace them, but I do understand them. I understand command and accountability. I've held command and know the difference between "doing the right thing" vice "doing what is politically correct". I do believe the Navy and Marines embrace the right thing with the officers selected for command--the other services do not.

As to my knowledge of the Navy, it was attained mostly as a Joint Officer working for and with the Navy in a couple of positions. Also I supervised both USN officers and enlisted and have a working knowledge of the difference.

I am an advocate of force projection and the power contained in our warships.

Thanks again.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

The incredibly eloquent Anon and I served together once a long time ago. He and his brother race of Titans were a rung above me in the pecking order of that ship, and they were to a man, of the highest caliber.

One night, I ambled into the wardroom for a cup of coffee before heading up to Combat for the mid-watch. As was pretty common, there were a couple of people sitting this case, it was Anon and one of his division officers. They were going over the divo's maintenance schedule for the next quarter...and as I poured my coffee, I heard the unmistakable sound of something that I had rarely heard to that point in my naval career...a senior actually taking the time to calmly TEACH a junior how to do something. Now of course, captains do this all the time on the bridge, etc, but there are a thousand repetitive motions necessary to be a new division officer on a ship, and the job is quite unlike any other a young man or woman has had up to that point. I hung in the background for a bit, listening to Anon's calm and gentle way of ensuring that the DIVO knew how best to schedule certain maintenance checks given the ships employment. On the spot, I had a bolt of lightening that served me well the rest of my career---and that was, one of the jobs of a leader is to ensure that those who work for him know what success looks like. In many cases, performing well on an inspection through which one has never before been, is a fools errand. Leaders have to paint a picture of success, they sometimes need to show their people what it looks and feels like. In surfact warfare, there was an awful lot of "sink or swim" out there, and what I saw Anon doing that night I'm sure was something he continued to do for the 17 years he served AFTER that moment.

I then went on to 17 more years of service too, years in which I held my subordinates ACCOUNTABLE for teaching and guiding their folks, for ensuring that they painted visions of success for their people who may never before have succeeded.

I am lucky to have had that experience in the wardroom that night in 1991, and I am lucky to have Anon as a shipmate.

Smoothfur said...

Experience is the lesson learned from the bad luck caused by ill preperation.

First and foremost, one must ensure that they clearly articulate to all hands what is expected of them and then have them demonstrate that they understand.

Secondly, One must continuously inspect for what you expect. Or, in the words of President Ronald Regan "Trust but verify".

Everybosdy can make excuses that the CO or XO are too busy to be inspecting for things that are rightly the responsibility of the Department Head or the Division Officer and/or Chief, but a culture of poor housekeeping and violations of standing rules, regulations and procedures is readily visable to anybody who takes a few minutes of the day to pracice MBWO ( Management by walking around).

Newer Post Older Post Home