The Captain of a ship is a special position. Historically and traditionally, the Captain is granted absolute authority but is also held to a standard of absolute accountability.
The absolute authority began as a necessity in the days of sail when there was no ability to communicate with higher command. The Captain had no choice but to make every decision on his own. This included not only decisions about his own ship but could include interacting with foreign governments, making national policy, and negotiating treaties.
The flip side of this unlimited authority was absolute accountability. The Captain was ultimately responsible for everything that happened on or to his ship, even if the Captain wasn’t on board at the time! If a ship was sunk in action, the Captain was automatically tried by a board. If the ship ran aground, the Captain was held accountable whether he was on deck or asleep in his cabin.
Every Captain has understood this unique arrangement and, by accepting the position, accepted the arrangement and acknowledged the ultimate accountability. The accountability was sometimes not fair but it was understood and accepted. Captains were men who rose to a higher level than ordinary men and accepted the burden of a higher accountability.
Disturbingly, in the last few decades we’ve seen an erosion of the Captain’s unique arrangement. Micro-management, enabled by instantaneous, world-wide communications, has eroded the Captain’s absolute authority. At the same time, we’ve seen more and more Captains refusing to accept the accountability that goes with the position. More Captains are appealing punitive measures rather than accepting the accountability that goes with the position.
We see, now, that the captain (senior officer), Lt. David Nartker, of the riverine boats that were captured by the Iranians, is appealing his punishment (apparently, a punitive letter of reprimand) as determined by an Admiral’s mast proceeding. Let’s think about that a bit.
First, the accusations, forum (Admiral’s mast), and punishment could have been a lot worse. Given their actions, the Lieutenant and his fellow sailors could have been subjected to Courts Martial and charges ranging all the way up to mutiny. That they were not, indicates the desire on the part of the Navy to make this incident go away as quickly as possible and the group was the beneficiary of that ill-considered desire.
Second, that the Lieutenant is appealing his watered down punishment indicates that he has no concept of what it means to be a captain in the Navy. Of course, this is not surprising given the litany of failings he committed both prior to and during the course of, the incident. This man was clearly unfit for command and should not have been in the Navy. For him, the Navy was a job with a paycheck rather than a calling of high responsibility.
Third, the command elements above the Lieutenant had to have known (or, it should have been their responsibility to know) that he was unfit for his rank and yet they took no action. They should be punished even more severely. To be fair, the Navy did relieve the two command levels above the Lieutenant but that was, again, a half-measure. Those commanders should have been kicked out of the Navy.
Finally, this exposes the badly flawed promotion process. We have far too many officers achieving ranks that they are not qualified for. The Navy’s steady and relentless drumbeat of firings of Captains clearly indicates that the Navy is consistently selecting the wrong people for command.
All of this can be summed up by recalling the saying popularized by President Harry Truman,
The Buck Stops Here
Clearly, this Lieutenant did not understand the concept of command and did not accept the ultimate responsibility and accountability that went with his command. In his mind, accountability is a buck to be passed, rather than a responsibility to be accepted. That is the definition of unfit for command. Given that he is an officer, that is also the definition of unfit to serve. He should be kicked out of the Navy.
(1)USNI News website, “UPDATED: Leader of U.S. Sailors Captured by Iran Appeals Punishment”, Sam LaGrone,