- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

There has been much controversy over the Navy's recent decision concerning the issue of accountability by the commanding officer of the USS Cole for the loss of 17 sailors stemming from the terrorist attack on his ship. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Vernon Clark, overruling a Navy investigator's finding of negligence on the part of Cole's commander, said he did not intend to hold the skipper responsible. The commander will remain on active duty and no disciplinary action will be taken against him.
Concerns have been expressed that such a decision will impact on morale as commanders are not held accountable for failing adequately to protect their men. One critic quoted from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's message to Gen. George Patton during World War II cautioning, "You must not retain for any instant any man in a responsible position where you have become doubtful of his ability to do the job."
As a retired Marine, I can well understand such concerns; but I can also understand the rationale for Adm. Clark's decision.
It is a much different risk environment in which a commander operates today than it was in days past. This is an outcrop of the well- recognized constitutional principle that the military is subservient to civilian authority. As such, yesterday's military priorities have often had to give way to today's political concerns as such civilian authority, rightly or wrongly, assesses them.
The result, however, is that the range of actions a commander normally is at liberty to undertake the consequence for which he was once expected to take full responsibility whether success or failure was the final outcome has been drastically tailored.
When our politicians leave our military commanders with such limited options, the commander, therefore, should not be left high and dry to take sole responsibility for the consequences of selecting one of the confining actions so dictated to him.
This, I believe, is what Adm. Clark alluded to in his statement that he would not hold Cole's commander "singularly responsible" for what happened. There were decisions by many others in higher positions of civilian responsibility who contributed to create the ultimate environment which gave rise to the loss of life on board Cole. Those individuals have gotten off easy; like Pontius Pilate, they have washed their hands of responsibility and accountability. Not so Cole's commander. Every day, his friends report, he is haunted by the faces of the 17 sailors who lost their lives that fateful day.
We must keep in mind that accountability in the military does not translate into blind justice. The days in the Navy when a commanding officer was held strictly accountable for damage to ship or injury to crew have passed.
By the measure of accountability some want Cole's commander held, a young Navy ensign who commanded a torpedo boat destroyer in 1907 and was found to have committed nine serious breaches in command responsibility resulting in his ship going aground would never have been allowed to command again. On what was basically a public policy defense at that ensign's court-martial, it was argued that finding him guilty of the charges would have been unfair and unwise the former because four other ships involved in recent groundings resulted in no punitive action being taken; the latter because such ships were made for hazardous service and night cruising so a finding of guilt would have a chilling effect, i.e., cause other commanders to shy away from taking risks.
This defense was accepted. Found guilty on a lesser charge but receiving no reprimand for it, this ensign eventually went on to command the US Pacific Fleet during World War II and was later promoted to chief of naval operations. History now records he was one of the greatest naval leaders America produced one whose ingenuity contributed immensely to the defeat of the Japanese. His name was Chester W. Nimitz.
Any commander who has lost a sailor, or a soldier or a Marine under his command suffers over such a loss. That commander's personal standard of accountability is what generates the anguish which, in and of itself, is punishment enough particularly in the case of the Cole, when there was little more the commander could have done to limit a risk to his men that was forced upon him.
Just as the decision made almost a century ago involving then Ensign Nimitz, the decision made by Adm. Clark to take no disciplinary action against Cole's commander was equally fair and wise.

James G. Zumwalt, a Marine veteran of the Persian Gulf and Vietnam wars, is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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