- - Thursday, June 29, 2017


Give me a fast ship, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” That has been the unofficial motto of the U.S. Navy since the time of John Paul Jones. The Navy demands that those who captain its ships be safe and excellent seamen in peacetime and aggressive and courageous in war, but making that transition can be a challenge. This is particularly true when there are decades between major naval wars. The recent collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship highlights that conundrum.

Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, the Fitzgerald’s captain will likely be relieved even though he was apparently asleep in his sea cabin when the collision occurred. A Navy captain is responsible for setting the conditions for the safe handling of his ship whether he is on the bridge or not.

Only the best of the best of naval officers are given command of our ships. They are the closest thing to absolute rulers that this democracy produces. But with great power comes great responsibility. In the Darwinian world of naval operations, there can be no excuse for failure. In peacetime, safe ship handling is the standard of excellence; in wartime, victory at any cost becomes the standard. That mental transition is often hard for some to make.

The ship’s Executive Officer took over command when the injured captain was medically evacuated and saved the ship by making the hard decision to seal off the flooding berthing cabin where seven sailors were trapped. These are the kinds of hard decision that have to be made in combat. Unless he was actually involved in the collision decision making on the bridge, the Navy would do well to mark him as a future combat commander

As James Hornfischer points out in his excellent book on the early days of World War II in the Pacific, “Neptune’s Inferno,” the Navy had to sack several senior admirals and ship captains before it found the right mix of leaders because the Navy had not fought a major sea battle in nearly eight decades (If one does not count the trouncing of the outmatched Spanish in 1898).

Cautious admirals and captains squandered many opportunities early in the war because they were brought up in a play it safe peacetime environment. Adm. Ernest King, the Navy’s wartime commander, relieved many of the Pacific Fleet’s top leaders and replaced them with men not afraid of risk taking. Men like Chester Nimitz, William Halsey, and Dan Callaghan would likely not have been promoted past junior officer rank in today’s competitive naval promotion environment. Nimitz and Callaghan were court-martialed early in their careers. Halsey was a notorious hard drinker and womanizer. These three each took enormous calculated risks that lifted the Navy out of the infamy of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines.

Halsey’s ships launched the Doolittle raid on Japan that raised American spirits at the darkest time of the war. Nimitz made the gutsy decision to make a stand against a superior Japanese fleet at Midway and won a battle that proved to be the turning point of the Pacific War. Callaghan died leading his heavily outnumbered fleet in a battle that proved to be key in saving the embattled marines on Guadalcanal after their less aggressive old school predecessors had withdrawn from the battle area.

Today, we are seven decades from the last great naval battles of World War II. That is almost as long as the period between the battles of Mobile Bay and Midway. The Navy’s challenge is to walk the fine line between encouraging competent seamanship and identifying the kind of officers with the aggressiveness and ability to take calculated risks in periods of high stress.

I’m not suggesting that the Navy encourage alcohol abuse, infidelity, or random recklessness in ship handling; but I am suggesting that the Navy work to avoid a zero defects mentality. The Navy could make a start at doing this by making competitive war games a graded event at the Naval War College. Those prospective future commanders who do well in such high pressure graded events could be identified fairly early. If they survive peacetime command at sea, the best among these can tagged for wartime command positions if conflict breaks out.

Adm. Nelson, Great Britain’s greatest naval hero once said, “No captain cannot be very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” Our Navy needs to identify its next generation of combat commanders early and cultivate them. Any good sailor can avoid accidents. Those who can win battles are rare.

• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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