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Two months after the USS Fitzgerald’s June 18 collision with a freighter in the Sea Of Japan, the Navy announced that the ship’s commanding officer, executive officer, and senior enlisted man were being relieved of their positions. It cited “loss of confidence” in them, and released a lengthy report on what happened aboard the ship after the collision. That report, however, contains no hint of accusation of improper or insufficient behavior on anyone’s part. It is silent about what actions on the part of the Fitz led to the collision in the first place, citing “continuing investigation.”
But the indisputable facts about the ship’s courses, speeds, and decisions prior to the collision were in the Navy’s hands the moment that it returned to Yokusuka, if not before. In sum the Navy, by punishing officers whose responsibility was merely formal and by avoiding discussion of who made what actual decisions, suggests to the attentive reader by what it says and by what it withholds, that it is hiding its own corporate responsibility.
Who is responsible for what, and why does the Navy obfuscate the question?
At the time of the collision, the captain was asleep in his cabin, as he had every right to be, having issued “night orders” to the officer of the deck (OOD). That is the name of a position which rotates among any Navy ship’s qualified officers. The person who holds it exercises command over routine matters most of the time. On the bridge of the Fitz, the OOD was in charge.
OODs on duty receive exact, timely, information from the ship’s sensors, including Combat Information Center (CIC) about the location, course, speed, and trajectory of all objects on, above, or below the surface. In 1969, when I was responsible for my ship’s CIC, such reports would take about ten seconds to churn out manually. Nowadays, they are graphed automatically, precisely, instantaneously. In short, the Fitz’s OOD had precise warning, perhaps 45 minutes before the collision happened, that he was on a collision course. Such warnings happen all the time. The OOD either removes the problem by changing course by one or two degrees on his own authority, or, if the captain’s standing orders say so, he notifies the captain who then makes the course adjustment. Surely, this OOD did none of the above.
Staying on course means that, eventually, the Fitz came to close quarters with the freighter. We do not know (though the Navy knows) whether, at that point, the OOD stayed on course and hit the freighter or hit the freighter as result of an incompetent maneuver. But we do know that he did not notify the captain because, at the time of impact, the captain was asleep in his cabin.
The Navy’s report contains a timeline, according to which the “General Quarters” alarm “was sounded” nearly fourteen minutes after the impact. The report uses the passive voice. But the OOD was the only person authorized to sound it. Fourteen seconds would have been almost too long to wait. But fourteen minutes?
The Navy’s report mentions the names of other officers—but not that of the OOD. Who is this officer, and why the Navy’s effort to divert attention from his identity? Is he an admiral’s son, whose misdeeds are being buried as was John McCain’s responsibility in 1967 for starting the fire that killed 137 men on the USS Forrestal by giving his airplane’s engine a flaming “wet” start? Perhaps the Fitz’s OOD is a member of a politically “protected class,” despite incompetence?
Unfortunately, the Navy is giving us one more example of how America’s ruling class deals with its failures: indict formal scapegoats, issue long reports that sidestep the key issues, and close the matter by promising to “continue the investigation.” That is why serious persons assume that official reports are cover-ups.
The Navy’s report gives reason to suspect that the latter suggestion might explain it, by mentioning that the officer in charge of damage control was a woman, and that she managed the damage control parties from the bridge, using the 1MC public address system. This is doubly bizarre. Naval damage control, requiring as it does pulling and pushing and turning and lifting and dragging things and bodies that are heavy and broken, is so demanding of physical strength that, normally, it gets assigned to the strongest officers and men aboard. Since success in damage control depends so heavily on stopping troubles as close to the source as possible, speed of decisions and execution is essential. Like any other officer who has received damage control training I cannot imagine trying to manage a fast moving situation by having someone close to the problem interpret the problem for me and then relay my orders to the men doing the work. Who then judges how well the solution is working? What else to try and where?There is no substitute for responsible eyes and hands on the problem. And so, one vital hatch was closed enough to block anybody escaping through it, but not enough to stop the sea from continuing to rush in.
The Fitz’s damage control fiasco may be a small reflection of the OOD’s failure on the bridge. What was that officer doing before the collision that so diverted his/her judgment, and after the collision that it took him/her 14 minutes to sound General Quarters? Drugs? Sex? What kinds of people and policies are in at the controls in today’s Navy? Unfortunately, the Navy is giving us one more example of how America’s ruling class deals with its failures: indict formal scapegoats, issue long reports that sidestep the key issues, and close the matter by promising to “continue the investigation.” That is why serious persons assume that official reports are cover-ups.
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