The military is one of the few institutions that Americans still hold in high esteem, but that should never be taken for granted. Two events late last week suggest that even the military’s culture of high performance can be eroded without constant attention.
The first was a military judge’s decision to let off U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl with a slap on the wrist for desertion in Afghanistan in 2009. After a court martial, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance recommended that Bergdahl be dishonorably discharged, demoted to private and forfeit $10,000 in pay. Prosecutors had sought 14 years in prison.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for nearly five years, a terrible ordeal to be sure. But those most outraged by the wrist slap are other members of the armed services who fear the damage to military discipline. Bergdahl deserted on the battlefield in a forward post — the worst betrayal you can make against your fellow soldiers save for fragging them with friendly fire.
Members of Bergdahl’s unit were killed or maimed when they were sent to search for him, not knowing that he had been preparing to walk away for weeks and had even dispatched personal effects to the U.S. before he walked off the forward base. The court-martial sentence must be demoralizing to those who do their duty and risk their lives without fanfare.
Even more distressing is the Navy’s report on its investigation into the collisions with civilian vessels this year in the Pacific theater by the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain. The collisions — off the coast of Japan, and in the Singapore Strait, respectively — resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.
The 71-page report, which says both collisions were “avoidable,” is damning about the Navy’s training practices and makes for dispiriting reading if you are a civilian who thinks the U.S. Navy is the best in the world. The report says watch team members on the Fitzgerald “were not familiar with basic radar fundamentals.” And it cites a failure to plan for safety, adhere to sound navigation practices, properly use available navigation tools, and respond effectively in a crisis.
As for the McCain, the Navy cited a loss of situational awareness in response to mistakes in operating the ship’s steering and propulsion system. It also cited the failure to follow the International Nautical Rules of the Road that govern maneuvering vessels amid high-density maritime traffic. These are mistakes of basic seamanship that suggest inadequate training, or shifts that are too long and cause a loss of concentration and crew cohesion.
The Navy had already relieved the ship captains and even the commander of the Pacific Fleet. This accountability is a credit to the Navy and will be a lesson to other commanders. But it should also be a warning that Congress needs to allocate enough money to adequately train sailors so they can fulfill their missions. Collisions with civilian ships in peacetime are awful, but seamanship failures during wartime would be disastrous.
— The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 6