Finding fault with the truth

“To find fault is easy; to do better may be difficult.” — Plutarch

I came from a home where no problem was settled before blame was assigned. Regardless of how big or small, when things went wrong someone was at fault and identifying that person was a key part of the process.

Perhaps that’s why I fit into the Navy so well.

The Navy I served in was, in many ways, built on a foundation of finding fault. Long gone were the days when Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz — the Navy’s first five-star admiral and the man who led us to victory in the Pacific in World War II — could survive a court-martial after grounding the ship he commanded.

Audacity? Daring? Damn the torpedoes? The stuff of Naval History lectures during General Military Training.

I somehow avoided being disciplined during my Navy career, although I admit there were a select few times when I probably could have been. Perhaps we’ll save those sea stories for another time, though.

*  *  *  *

The movie A Few Good Men produced several quotable lines, including “You can’t handle the truth” from Jack Nicholson’s character on the stand during a court-martial. I first saw that movie at the base theater in Norfolk, Virginia, and the crowd was very sympathetic to Nicholson’s character, Colonel Jessep.

Jessep had taken direct action to fix a perceived problem, without regard for the legality of the solution, and many in the crowd could relate to that. Mission accomplishment is critical in the military, and “people dying” is indeed a possible outcome when mistakes are made — including the mistake of not taking action.

I served under an officer whose actions would be right in character for Colonel Jessep. One would think an “ends justifies the means” attitude would be tempered by age and experience, but the truth is the pressure to perform increases with seniority.

To this day, I can’t watch A Few Good Men without thinking Jack Nicholson got a bum rap.

*  *  *  *

A very good friend of mine, a man I met at Officer Candidate School and attended Navy Supply Corps School with, ran head-on into Navy fault-finding. He survived it, but that was a tactical win only and in the end he lost the war.

This officer was a prior enlisted submariner, and going back to a boat as a Supply Officer was all he talked about at OCS and Supply Corps School.

Submarine Supply Officer billets were considered choice assignments for two reasons: first because it was independent duty — no older, more experienced Supply Officer to provide guidance and support — and secondly they were department heads, a key step on the career ladder.

Sub duty required a special screening but that was a mere formality for this former-enlisted submariner, and upon graduation from Supply Corps School he was issued orders to an Atlantic Fleet boat.

I lost track of him until one day my ship pulled into Norfolk and moored across the pier from an aircraft carrier. The quarterdeck watch called down to the Supply Office to tell me an officer from the carrier was looking for me, and when I got topside there he was: no longer a submarine department head but now the Wardroom Officer of an aircraft carrier — one of the worst jobs a supply officer could hold.

He told me the officer he relieved was marginal, and the sub’s supply organization had many problems that he set about to fix. He documented the problems and informed the Commanding and Executive Officers, and all parties agreed a comprehensive supply inspection should take place in about one year as a way to check the progress of fixing the problems.

The officer’s annual performance report came due a week before the supply inspection, and he received glowing marks and comments from the boat’s CO. The Supply Officer gladly signed this fitness report, and pocketed a copy.

The supply inspection a week later was a complete disaster, with failing grades in all areas of operation. Shortly after the inspectors left the boat, the Supply Officer was ordered to the Captain’s cabin where he was presented with a new annual performance report filled with failing marks and negative comments. At this time he was also informed that he was being relieved for cause and to pack up his things.

I can’t argue with the CO’s decision — the Supply Officer hung himself by documenting but not fixing mistakes later found by the inspectors — but he screwed up by issuing that earlier, glowing, fitness report. The Supply Officer produced his copy of the report, asked the obvious question of how he could have gotten so bad in just one week to have voided a year’s performance.

The officer succeeded in getting the Relief for Cause and negative fitness report removed from his official record — a tactical victory — but the damage to his career was done. He was decertified from submarine duty and given a terrible billet on an aircraft carrier, effectively ending his Navy career.

*  *  *  *

The Operations Officer and I departed USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) midway through the ship’s inaugural deployment during a port visit in Naples, Italy. Both of us were plankowners, part of the original crew, so we’d served together for about four years — more time than usual for officers to be in the same wardroom.

After hitching a ride from the port to the Naval Support Activity with some British Sailors, we made return flight arrangements, checked into the American Hotel across the street from the NSA and grabbed some dinner. Over dinner we talked about the past four years and a little about our future plans.

For our first couple years on Burke, Ops — in the lingua franca of a ship the officers are known by their billets: I was called Disbo as the Disbursing Officer and then Suppo as Supply Officer — and I weren’t very close. We were in different places career-wise — he was a department head, I a green division officer — although we were about the same age. He was adamantly single and I married with two kids.

When I moved up to the department head slot, Ops helped me with advice on how to deal directly with the Captain and the other department heads — something I didn’t do as a division officer — and although he was one of the busiest officers on the ship he always made time for me.

The day after getting off the ship, we took a bus to Rome and got on a US-bound flight. Our seats were separate — I sat next to an older couple and Ops, the confirmed bachelor, sat next to two pretty coeds from the University of Arkansas — but after landing in New York we shared an 8 a.m. beer before heading our separate ways.

As tends to happen, I didn’t hear about Ops again for quite some time. He completed the Executive Officer tour he was heading to when we left Burke, and then received a surface warfare officer’s most prized assignment: command of a warship. I sent him a congratulatory email after he took over his ship but got no reply.

Sometime after that I heard the news that his ship, USS Cole (DDG 67), had been the subject of a terrorist attack while refueling in Yemen. It is tough to articulate the depth of anger and fear I experienced: not only did I know the ship’s CO, but the location of the attack was roughly the same spot where my office on the Burke would have been and many of the spaces damaged were Supply Department working spaces.

Although I knew the CO to be a hard-working, intelligent and highly professional officer — one of the very best I ever had the opportunity to serve with — I also knew the attack would likely be the end of his career.

Many, including the then Chief of Naval Operations, tried to argue there was little more the CO could have done, that he followed Navy-conceived protocols that were inadequate to the threat, that 10 of the next best officers would have done the same.

But the Commanding Officer of a ship is accountable for everything that happens — one of the oldest traditions of the sea service — and although the Navy selected him for promotion to Captain, Commander Kirk Lippold never put that rank on before retiring roughly six and a half years after the attack.

Like Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep, I think Ops got a bum rap. But at the same time, I understand the how and why of it. Neither is much of a comfort, though.

“Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” —Henry Ford


5 responses to “Finding fault with the truth

  1. Excellent piece, Disbo. Not sure I understand why a commander of a ship would be held accountable for a terrorist attack. Was there an assumption that he disregarded some security protocol that enabled the attack? Terrorists will attack anywhere, any time, and one navy man can’t take the fall for it unless there is clear failure on their part. Unless it’s guilt by association.

    On that note, Jack Nicholson sounds even angrier in Italian!

    • The captain of a US Navy ship is accountable for everything that happens on and to that ship. This is a bedrock principle of military service: command = accountable. The captain could be asleep in their bunk when the ship runs aground, or the mistake could be the result a miscalculation from on high, but the man or woman in command on the spot is still the one getting fired.

      Command is the ultimate goal for “line” officers but of course with the perks of being a sanctioned tyrant there is the knowledge that the mistake of the lowliest Sailor could result in the end of an otherwise stellar career.

      The audience I first saw the movie with was decidedly pro-Jack.As I wrote, I served with many officers who could serve as stand-ins.

  2. This is a very interesting intellectual quagmire. I can bring myself to understand why within the confines of the armed forces it is important to attach accountability to authority. On the front line of combat, the immensity of the accountability would inspire leadership. Is it fair though seen from civilian eyes? Probably not. But then again, the civilian paradigm doesn’t have to deal with matters of life or death, and national security. The quagmire though is this: What if the entire country is attacked? Shouldn’t the same logic of command vs. accountability apply to the commander in chief? Or is it selectively applied with political expedience in mind?

    • Excellent point! How far up the chain of command does the buck stop? This has been a bone of contention in many cases when it appears an officer on the lower rung becomes a scapegoat (or as a line goes in one of Mark Knopfler’s songs “Punish the monkey, let the organ grinder go”)

      In theory a case like that of USS Cole would reverberate to the highest office of the Navy. Perhaps this potential shared culpability is why the Navy leadership in office at the time supported the captain of the ship, leaving it to the Secretary of Defense to block his promotion.

  3. There will always be a need to assign blame elsewhere, and there will always be those weak enough to be used as scapegoats. Thank you for reminding me to watch that excellent scene from a great movie. It’s even better in Italian!

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