The Navy has resolved the court martial case of the Commanding Officer of the USS McCain during the recent fatal collision. As part of a pre-trial plea agreement, the negligent homicide charges were dropped, charges were reduced, and the officer pled guilty to dereliction of duty. Punishment is to be a letter of reprimand, forfeiture of $2000/month pay for 3 months (essentially, a $6000 fine), and requirement that he submit a retirement request which may or may not be accepted. (1)
I’m outraged by this. The Captain is responsible for the safety of his ship and crew. Yes, there was virtually unlimited fault extending all the way up the chain of command to the CNO and SecNav. Who along the chain is most to blame is a debatable point but ALL are guilty of negligent homicide because ALL knew about the problems and DID NOTHING to prevent them. Every one of the officers in that chain should be charged with negligent homicide.
There is one person, however, who is more responsible then any of the others and that is the Captain of the ship. His is the final accountability and final responsibility. His is the decision to risk taking his ship and crew to sea – all sea voyages have risk – or to refuse. Knowing full well all the problems with inadequate manning, lapsed certifications, inadequately trained crew, and so on, he still chose to take his ship and crew to sea. When he did so, he assumed ALL the responsibility for their safety. Therefore, he bears ALL the guilt.
To try him on anything less than negligent homicide is to make a joke of the responsibilities of a Captain.
Yes, refusal to put to sea would likely have ended his career but we expect a ship’s Captain to have the moral courage sufficient to take that step, if needed. His career might have ended but it would have ended without ten deaths on his conscience.
On the other hand, the Navy’s instructor pilots refused to fly due to safety concerns and their careers have not ended. In many circles, they are hailed as heroes who had the courage to stand against unsafe orders. So, the argument that the Captain’s career would have ended is not even supported by recent evidence and is an irrelevant argument anyway. Moral courage is not a matter of career convenience – it is an absolute that must be exercised regardless of circumstances. That it would have entailed risk and possible negative consequences for him, personally, is why the phrase “moral courage” contains the word “courage”.
The prosecutors who accepted (and possibly conceived) the plea deal also exhibited moral cowardice. This was not the crime to plea down. This was the crime to set the example for all ship’s Captains to come.
I am ashamed of my Navy.
(1)Navy Times website, “Former McCain CO sentenced at court-martial for fatal collision”, J.D. Simkins,