Friday, August 12, 2016

The Buck Stops Here

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.



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(1)USNI News website, “UPDATED: Leader of U.S. Sailors Captured by Iran Appeals Punishment”, Sam LaGrone, August 11, 2016,


21 comments:

  1. Good post. Just a side note, Lt. Nartker is a 2011 graduate of the US Naval Academy.

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    1. THAT just makes it worse. If the boat school can't indoctrinate officers with the concept of command authority and accountability, then we are toast!

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    2. Great point. Doesn't look like Annapolis is going to save the Navy...

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  2. Without the authority, I would reject the accountability as well, and would consider myself morally justified to do so.

    "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."

    Thats the key, the Captain here was denied authority required for his mission, and is now being used as a scapegoat to prevent whoever is actually accountable being held accountable.

    Could Nartker have delayed his mission until his ships were in sufficient condition to make the journey?
    Could he have dismissed the crew members he found to be insufficiently competent or aggressive and selected replacements?
    Could he have assigned himself greater assets or supplies if he felt the two ships were insufficient, or insufficiently armed?

    He could've resigned I suppose, but he would have been replaced in 20 minutes, and if every junior officer resigned every time something like this could potentially happen, the forces would be out of officers by September, or be hanging them "for cowardice" to prevent any more resignations.

    The problem here is someone very high up is trying very hard to say "the buck stops over there".

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    1. "Without the authority, I would reject the accountability as well, and would consider myself morally justified to do so."

      Then you should find another job.

      There is a systematic failure of command all the way up to the President. That's beyond dispute. If lower level leaders do not feel they have the authority they need, then they should resign and find another line of work.

      There is a moral/ethical issue, here. A commander takes the responsibility for the lives of those under his command. If the commander does not feel he has the equipment, training, support, whatever, that is necessary for a reasonably safe mission then attempting to execute the mission is a violation of the moral and ethical responsibility that goes with commanding other's lives.

      Refusing a mission due to lack of xxxxx requires moral courage, given the likely consequences but isn't that exactly what we expect from our officers - that they exhibit the highest standard of moral courage rather than none at all?

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    2. TrT;

      Interesting take that completely applies to before the mission got underway.

      However once underway he is responsible for everything that went on. Examples are not following the correct/filed PIM, not knowing where they were, not relieving the coxswain that refused a direct order (I believe technically he could have shot him for Mutiny), and lastly not resisting the boardings,

      For those items he had authority - he was literally at sea with no comms to higher HQ(s), was briefed on the right/need to protect US Assets, and had the means (A .50 looks very big compared to a 7.62mm).

      For those inactions alone he should be punished and accept it. It is very mild for the loss of 2 boats.

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    3. "He could've resigned I suppose, but he would have been replaced in 20 minutes, and if every junior officer resigned every time something like this could potentially happen, the forces would be out of officers by September, or be hanging them "for cowardice" to prevent any more resignations."

      Or, enough resignations would cause change. In this day of modern TV, the people would just love that kind of drama and demand change.

      Even long ago there existed a critical mass of resignations that would trigger change. Recall the Revolt of the Admirals?

      More recently and more mundanely, recall the incident of the non-functioning toilets on one of the carriers? A seemingly small issue went viral when the mothers found out about it and demanded the Navy fix the problem - and they did.

      The reason why we have systematic leadership problems is because too few people have the courage to take a stand, regardless of the consequences, and call out our leadership for their failings.

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    4. CNO
      "If lower level leaders do not feel they have the authority they need, then they should resign and find another line of work."

      I had 6 jobs in the UK Tax year 2015/16, believe me, I walk the walk. But I once walked out of a job, changed my LinkedIn status to looking for work, got an interview for that day before I got to the train station, got off the train a stop early, and started my new job the next day, I was out of work for, 22 hours, 18 of those I knew I had a paycheque coming.
      Yeah, I am that awesome....

      Theres no way a junior officer could do that, and if the Nartkers of the work tried, the Navy would bury them under "resigned in disgrace" references, and unlike me, they cant rely on having second and third offers on the table if offer one gets a hump about it.

      In theory, I agree with you, but in theory, a single AEGIS warship will destroy the entire enemy airforce and all thats left is to drop a few smart bombs and hand out some medals.
      In a half decent world, he would have fought, but he would have have had sea worthy boats to fight from, he would have had well stocked armouries with which to fight, and he would have the unshakable belief that he would fight with the unquestioning support of his superiors.

      The reality is more nuanced, Nartker faced a stark choice, resign and face personal ruin, or roll the dice and hope he doesnt get unlucky, in his position, I'd roll the dice too.
      In an ideal world, he would have said no, but in an ideal world, when he said no, he would have a command structure that would have openly and honestly looked at the case and found he was right to say no, in reality, we have a structure that would have buried him for speaking out, and is now burying him for staying quiet.


      Anon
      "Interesting take that completely applies to before the mission got underway."
      Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance, once he was at sea, there was little he could have done to change the outcome.

      "However once underway he is responsible for everything that went on. Examples are not following the correct/filed PIM, not knowing where they were, not relieving the coxswain that refused a direct order (I believe technically he could have shot him for Mutiny), and lastly not resisting the boardings,"
      Its not a happy reading, but
      He went off course, I doubt hes the only officer to do that, in fact I'd bet my left ball he isnt. Declared courses are a box to be ticked, nothing more, de facto, if no de jure.
      He didnt know where he was, again, I'd bet my right ball he isnt the only officer to have no real idea where his task force is, thats less excusable, but if his navigation gear is all broken, and he cant order the mission delayed until it is fixed, and he cant requisition an additional crewman to act as a paper plotter, what was his option? Plot it himself, whilst commanding his task force and everything else?
      His Coxwain was an insubordinate coward, but was, I believe, on another vessel (?) and not under Nartkers command, in that Nartker couldnt order him off the ship and get a replacement crewman.

      "For those items he had authority - he was literally at sea with no comms to higher HQ(s), was briefed on the right/need to protect US Assets, and had the means (A .50 looks very big compared to a 7.62mm)."
      "was briefed on the right/need to protect US Assets,"

      Was he? Or was he briefed on the need to "avoid escalation", was he briefed on "not provoking Iran during delicate diplomatic discussions"?
      How many rounds of ammunition did he have for those .50cals, how well maintained were they, given the state of repair of the boats, I'd probably trust his ability to throw rocks over the ability of 50s to lay down fire.

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    5. We hold our military officers to a higher standard. We expect moral courage. It's as simple as that.

      Also, he had been in the Navy for several years. He knew the situation and could have opted out at any time with no disgrace and no risk and with every expectation of a civilian job - but he didn't. So, he's complicit in perpetuating a bad situation.

      This situation didn't suddenly arise and blindside him. He knew the unit was messed up. Heck, he contributed to it - he was part of the problem. His actions (and inactions) were indefensible on so many levels. Please don't try to defend him and make him out to be some kind of innocent victim.

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    6. CNO;

      All of what I cited above was from the JAG investigation and are findings of fact.

      But there is a difference between following an arc that goes AROUND Farsi island and taking a straight line that goes through BOTH Saudi and Farsi Island. That isn't I am a little bewildered here, that is let's wing it.

      Check out the JAG report at:
      https://news.usni.org/2016/06/30/document-summary-u-s-navy-investigation-farsi-island-incident

      BTW I am on your side with holding him accountable, I am not sure why you are trying to rebut my comments on his execution errors.

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    7. "This situation didn't suddenly arise and blindside him. He knew the unit was messed up. Heck, he contributed to it - he was part of the problem. His actions (and inactions) were indefensible on so many levels. Please don't try to defend him and make him out to be some kind of innocent victim."

      Okay, lets court martial him, lets even execute him.
      Problem solved?
      Never again will the USN find itself in such a situation?

      Because thats what this whitewash is saying, its the fault of a single junior officer, and once hes gone, all will be well.
      We both know it wont be, so why pretend, why not give the JO the benefit of the doubt and try and lop some heads of people who were actually at fault and whos replacement might actually fix things.

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    8. "BTW I am on your side with holding him accountable, I am not sure why you are trying to rebut my comments on his execution errors."

      My comment was directed to TrT.

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    9. We both understand how punishment works. If severe enough, maybe the next guy won't set out on an ill-advised mission and maybe he'll make better decisions.

      Of course there are higher ranking leaders that also deserve to be punished. The entire chain of command right up through the CNO and SecNav, for instance. However, that won't happen so let's at least get the people we can and I'll keep shining a light on those we can't get. Letting the Lt. off with a slap on the wrist just ensures that the next incident will occur and will be as bad or worse.

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    10. CNO, i agree with TNT's initial post,
      And yours, incidentally. When i am an authority unto myself then i should accept the accountability that goes with it.
      But if I'm so constrained by a micro managing cadre/cpt/admrl countermanding everyone of my decisions, then when the shit hits the fan, why the hell should i be standing front and centre in front of it?
      No, you were right initially. You can't have it both ways. If you give me impossible orders that i tell you are just that, then fail, ill throw it back in your face each time.
      Thats no way to run an army. Or navy for that matter. I've no issue with a junior office being hung out to dry to cover up for incompetent admirals telling them to go shove their cover up court martial as far up their patooties as they can.

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    11. There is absolutely no indication that this officer made any attempt to protest orders, training, or preparations. If he had, I might be inclined to support him. The opposite appears to be the case. All the evidence suggests that he was a willing participant in the overall failure.

      Is it likely that he was a model officer, rightfully protesting poor conditions and unreasonable orders prior to this mission but then making every possible mistake during the mission? That he went from a God-like combination of Rickover and Halsey prior to the mission and then a bumbling, inept fool during the mission? No, the likely (certain) case is that he is, and has always been, what he demonstrated during the mission - inept and unfit for service.

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    12. "There is absolutely no indication that this officer made any attempt to protest orders, training, or preparations. If he had, I might be inclined to support him."

      Probably not, because he has four or five years of experience of those protests he raised being ignored, of his superior officers raising those protests and being ignored, his superior officers raising those protests and being sidelined, or sidelining people who raised those protests and being rewarded.

      "No, the likely (certain) case is that he is, and has always been, what he demonstrated during the mission - inept and unfit for service."
      You're expecting him to behave one way, but the Navy is training and conditioning him to behave in another.

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    13. "You're expecting him to behave one way, but the Navy is training and conditioning him to behave in another."

      Yes, I expect him to behave with honor, integrity, and moral courage. If he can't, or isn't allowed to, he should find another line of work. The same applies to every officer in the Navy, highest to lowest.

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  3. I have a different possible explanation. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, and I generally disbelieve any conspiracy theory. My rule is never to believe a conspiracy theory if there is a plausible alternative. My problem is that any alternative requires the belief of such poor preparation and repeated decision-making as to be unbelievable.

    Here is what I wonder. We had this nuclear agreement with Iran that was catching flak at home because of a widespread belief that Iran cannot be trusted. Suppose somebody at the very top of the chain said, "Here's an idea. Let's have Iran capture some of our troops, promote the story that they were violating Iranian territorial waters, hold them overnight, and then release them. We can then say, see, the Iranians really are reasonable and can be trusted." We sell it to the Iranians, saying, "Look, you get to hold them overnight for propaganda purposes, and you get whatever amount if intel you can extract while the boats are in your possession. We get to make you look reasonable and fade some of the heat back home on the treaty. It's a win-win." Iran agrees, and the event that happened goes down.

    As I say, that's very conspiracy-theorish. But my rule is Sherlock Holmes's, "When you've eliminated the impossible, and all you have left is the improbable, believe the improbable."

    The one thing that seems to against it a bit is the treatment of Lt. Nartker. Why try him at all if it was a setup? But maybe they had to do something for cover. Maybe they figured a slap on the wrist would the care of it. But maybe Mr. Nartker has some evidence that something like this story happened. Maybe he wants a court martial to blow the lid off. If that's where he is headed, my guess is that all charges will get dropped very quietly.

    As I said, it's kinda conspiracy theorish. But I can't make any sense of the story as it has been presented.

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    1. "My problem is that any alternative requires the belief of such poor preparation and repeated decision-making as to be unbelievable."

      Speak to a few serving officers.
      If they are having a bad day they might let slip that time they were ordered to defend a heck point with 5 rounds of rifle ammunition each, or defend a fully loaded marine transport with 2 short range and two 2 long range missiles in their VLS tubes.

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    2. I enjoy a good conspiracy theory but this one doesn't strike me as believable. I think you're simply underestimating the degree of incompetence that has seeped into the US Navy. I know you've been following this blog so the degree of incompetence should be no surprise to you. I've thoroughly documented it.

      Consider the grounding of the Port Royal in broad daylight, good weather, and within a few miles of home port.

      Consider the grounding of the Avenger class MCM in the Philippines.

      Consider the various submarine collisions.

      Consider the firing of around 30 CO's per year.

      Do I need to keep going or have I reminded you of the degree of incompetence that now resides in the Navy?

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    3. No question about a high degree of incompetence as becoming commonplace. This is just incredibly exceptional by even that low standard.

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