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Crimes of Command in the Navy

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Hundreds of service members at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, May 4, 2017 (Department of Defense photos by Reese Brown)

By MarEx 2018-09-26 19:29:47

[By Christopher Nelson]

Recently, Captain Michael Junge published a book on why and under what circumstances the U.S. Navy relieves commanding officers. His book, Crimes of Command, begins in 1945 and proceeds through numerous historical case studies up to the modern era.

Nelson: Would you briefly describe what the book is about and why you wanted to write it?

Junge: In short, it’s about why the Navy removes commanding officers from command – the incidents that lead to removal, the individuals removed, and what the Navy does about the incident and the individual. But instead of a look at just one or two contemporary cases, I went back to 1945 and looked across seven decades to see what was the same and what changed.

Nelson: In the book, when referring to the process of relieving commanding officers, you talk about words like “accountability,” “culpability,” and “responsibility.” These words, you say, matter when talking about why commanding officers are relieved. Why do they matter and how do they differ?

Junge: The common usage blends all three into one – accountability. We see this with the press reports on last summer’s collisions – the Navy’s actions are referred to as “accountability actions.” Most people, I think, read that line as “punitive actions” mostly because that’s what they are. But accountability isn’t about punishment – it’s about being accountable, which is to give an accounting of what happened, to explain one’s actions and thoughts and decisions. The investigations themselves are an accountability action. The investigations are supposed to determine who was responsible for the problem, what happened, who was at fault, and then determine if within that responsibility and fault there is also culpability.

Culpability is about blame – accountability is not, even if we use it as such. In investigations, when you mix culpability, blame, and accountability together end up being about finding fault and levying punishment instead of finding out what happened. That keeps us from learning from the incident and preventing future occurrences. We’ve completely lost that last part over the past few decades if we even had it to begin with. Every collision I looked at, for example, had four or five things that were the same – over seven decades.

Nelson: Later in the book, you say that as virtues, honor, courage, and commitment are not enough. How should we reexamine those virtues? Isn’t this always the challenge – the challenge of the pithy motto vs. the substantive truth, that’s what I was getting at. And it’s not that there is some truth to the motto or slogan, but rarely are they sufficient alone – yes?

Junge: Honor, courage, and commitment make for a great slogan, but will only be inculcated in the force when our leaders routinely say them and live by them. I wrote a piece for USNI Proceedings in 2013 that commented on how naval leaders rarely used those words. That hasn’t changed. If they are used it’s in prepared text and often used as a cudgel. Leaders need to exemplify virtues – we learn from their example – and if they don’t use the words we don’t really know if they believe in them. But they are a great start, and they are ours – both Navy and Marine Corps.

What I meant in the book is that honor, courage, and commitmentaren’t enough for an exploration of virtues in general. For the Navy, they are an acceptable starting point. For individual officers, or for the Naval profession, we need to think deeper and far more introspectively. My latest project is looking at the naval profession and a professional ethic. My personal belief is that we don’t need, or want, an ethical code. Or if we have one it needs to be like the Pirate Code – more as guidelines than rules. There’s science behind this which is beyond our scope here, but rules make for bad virtues and worse ethics. Rules tend to remove thought and press for compliance. At one level that’s great, but compliance tends to weed out initiative and combat leaders need initiative.

Nelson: So, after studying the historical data and specific events from 1945 to 2015, what did you conclude? Why are there more commanding officers relieved today than there were fifty years ago?

Junge: Even after all the research and the writing, this is a tough one for me to encapsulate. In my dissertation defense, I made a joke at the end that the reason we remove more officers now is complicated. And it is. Every removal is a little different from the others. That makes linking details difficult. But, when you lift back a little and take a really long view, I could find some trends. Not only do we remove more commanders today, we do it for more reasons, and we have almost completely ended any sort of recovery for officers removed from command.

Without giving too much away, because I do want people to read the actual book, today’s removals come down to a couple of things – press, damage (material or emotional) to the Navy, and the commander’s chain of command. If the chain of command relationship is poor, the press gets a story, and there is some level of damage to the Navy (metal bent, people hurt, or image tarnished) then the commander is likely to go.

But it’s not a direct line. Sometimes the information comes out later – we saw this with USS Shiloh last year and in one of the cases I covered, the helicopter crash in USS William P Lawrence. Neither commander was removed from command, but both careers were halted after the investigations were done and the administrative side of the Navy took over. If those incidents happened in the 1950s or 1960s, both commanding officers would have unquestionably moved forward with their careers. 

Nelson: You go into some detail in your book about court-martials. Historically, why does the navy rarely take commanding officers to court martial?

Junge: The simple reason is that the Navy has a difficult time proving criminal acts by commanding officers. It’s not a new problem. When officers are taught to think for themselves and have sets and reps thinking critically, then when on a jury they are likely to take the evidence and make their own minds up. And that conclusion may run counter to what Navy leadership wants. Getting courts-martial into that real true arbiter of guilt and innocence was a major win for the post-World War II military. But, since leaders can’t control courts-martial anymore, we now see this major abuse of administrative investigations, which runs counter to our own regulations on how we are supposed to handle investigations of major incidents and accidents.

Nelson: In fact, you threw in an anecdote in your book about Nimitz issuing letters of reprimand to the jury members on Eliot Loughlin’s court-martial. This was fascinating. What happened in that case?

Junge: In April 1945, Lieutenant Commander Charles Elliot Loughlin sank a ship without visually identifying it. The ship turned out to be a protected aid transport with 2,000 civilians aboard. [Adm. Chester W. Nimitz] removed Loughlin from command and ordered his court-martial. The court found Loughlin guilty but only sentenced him to Secretarial Letter of Admonition. Nimitz was reportedly furious and issued letters of reprimand to the members of the court. 

Anyway, that was a rare case of Nimitz being angry. And in retrospect, I wonder if he was angry, or if he was protecting the court from the CNO Admiral King. There’s a story I’ve been percolating on in how Nimitz and King had differing ideas of responsibility and culpability. King was a hardliner – King could be seen as the archetype for modern culpability and punishment. There were some exceptions but he was pretty binary – screw up, get relieved. Nimitz was the opposite. Halsey put Nimitz into multiple tough spots where Halsey probably should have been removed from command – but Nimitz knew Halsey and erred on the side of that knowledge rather than get caught up in an arbitrary standard. That’s why I think those letters were out of character. But I have to temper that with the very real knowledge that Loughlin committed a war crime, was pretty blasé about it, blamed others, very likely put American prisoners of war in more danger than they already were, and might have endangered the war termination effort. Those conclusions run counter to the modern mythology around Loughlin, but are in keeping with the actual historical record.

Nelson: And if I recall, there was an XO that chose court martial rather than NJP ten or so years ago after a sailor on the ship was killed during a small boat operation. The XO was exonerated and cleared from any wrongdoing by the jury. Fleet Forces ended up putting a statement out how he disagreed with the verdict.

Junge: USS San Antonio – LCDR Sean Kearns. Sean remains one of my heroes for forcing the system to do what it says it will do. I firmly believe that Admiral Harvey stepped well outside his professional role and made his persecution of Sean a personal matter when he issued some messages and letters after the acquittal. I know among many SWOs that Harvey’s actions after the verdict really altered their opinions of him. Sean’s case is also major reason I am in favor of the Navy ending the “vessel exception”which precludes anyone assigned to a sea-going command from refusing non-judicial punishment and demanding a court-martial. Too many Navy leaders abuse this option. I know of a story where an officer was flown from his homeport to Newport, RI for non-judicial punishment, and another where an officer was flown from Guam to Norfolk for NJP. There are more cases where officers were removed from command, but kept assigned to sea duty so that they could not refuse NJP. That this even happens completely belies the intent behind the vessel exception.  

Nelson: I ask this question in many of my interviews, particularly of naval officers – if you had ten minutes with the CNO, and if he hadn’t read your book, what would you tell him about Crimes of Command? What would you recommend he do to change the culture if change was necessary?

Junge: I really thought about punting on this one and running the note our Staff Judge Advocate has been running about Article 88 and Article 89 of the UCMJ (contemptuous words and disrespect toward senior commissioned officers). If I had ten minutes with CNO I doubt I would get 60 seconds of speaking time. My conclusions run completely counter to Navy lore about accountability and 10 minutes isn’t enough time to change anyone’s mind.

But, as I thought about it I think I would say this: “CNO, we have really got to follow our own instructions. If an instruction says ‘do this’ then we need to do it, or change the instruction. We can’t have flag officers making personal decisions about this rule or that based on short-term ideas and feelings. If the situation doesn’t fit the rule, either follow the rule with pure intent or change the rule. But we can’t just ignore it. That’s an example that leads us, as a profession, down bad roads.” I would hope that question would then lead to a conversation of leadership by example that would include everything from Boards of Inquiry to travel claims to General Military Training.

Nelson: Sir, thanks for taking the time.

Michael Junge is an active duty Navy Captain with degrees from the United States Naval Academy, United States Naval War College, the George Washington University, and Salve Regina University.  He served afloat in USS MOOSBRUGGER (DD 980), USS UNDERWOOD (FFG 36), USS WASP (LHD 1), USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68) and was the 14th Commanding Officer of USS WHIDBEY ISLAND (LSD 41). 

Christopher Nelson is an intelligence officer in the United States Navy.  He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, Rhode Island. The questions and views here are his own.

This article appears courtesy of CIMSEC and is reproduced here in abbreviated form. It may be found in its original version here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.