This post originally appeared on the USNI Blog here.
The Navy has long held fast to the standard of accountability immortalized in Vermont Royster’s 1952 Wall Street Journal editorial, “Hobson’s Choice.” If you’re reading this blog, I assume you’ve read it. I want you to read it again. This time, focus not on the exaltation of the Navy’s “cruel” standard of accountability, but rather the condemnation of American society’s accountability. Royster wrote “all around us … we see the plea accepted that what is done is beyond discussion, and that for good men in their human errors there should be afterwards no accountability” and “almost everywhere we have abandoned accountability. What is done is done and why torture men with asking them afterward, why?”
Fast forward to 2019. Does American society look like it did in 1952? Do we have the same standard of accountability in our society? I suggest we do not. Men (and women) are now held publicly accountable for events that transpired decades ago. There is no statute of limitations in the #MeToo movement, the relative merits of which are outside the scope of this article (so don’t @ me). Across the country, police face a reckoning due to biased treatment of minorities, however widespread, with sometimes lethal consequences. Anyone in the public eye, from athletes to celebrities to politicians, is subject to their social history being excavated and brought to light, sometimes ending their careers (again, I am not weighing in on whether this is right or wrong). The simple fact is our society in 2019 displays a high sense of accountability, even to the point of mob rule in some cases.
How does Royster’s comparison of the Navy’s and the broader American society’s standard of accountability hold up in 2019? What would he write if he could update his iconic article today? I argue that, while accountability in our society has gradually risen, our Navy’s standard has remained static by canonizing the “Hobson’s Choice” concept of accountability. CAPT Michael Junge said it wonderfully on Strategy Bridge:
“Today he would likely write much as he did in 1969 and call for a public accounting of the continuing aftermath of the U.S. Navy’s terrible summer of 2017 … Fifty years ago, Vermont Royster wrote that “it may seem cruel, this tradition of asking good and well-intentioned men to account for their deeds.” This accounting should not stop with the commanders at sea, but should also go to actions ashore, including how incidents like this are handled, and learned from.”
Royster never meant to claim the Navy had a perfect sense of accountability, only that the Navy had a higher sense of accountability than American society in 1952, and rightfully so. Today, we still hold Commanding Officers of ships to the “Hobson’s Choice” standard, but we see all around us examples of wayward officers and sailors who benefit from the uniform they wear to evade public scrutiny or retire with full benefits. I believe, if not for the uniform, many of these shipmates would face a higher (or at least the same) standard of accountability from the American public. Is that the dynamic we in the Navy should strive for?
Which brings me to the final adjudication of the cases against the USS FITZGERALD CO, CDR Bryce Benson, and Tactical Action Officer, LT Natalie Combs. Last Wednesday, the Navy announced the Chief of Naval Operations will dismiss all charges against them, and the Secretary of the Navy will issue both a Letter of Censure. The officers were dismissed from their jobs, received non-judicial (administrative) punishment, and issued letters. That is a far cry from the original charges of negligent homicide, which arguably were always an overreach. The Navy certainly faced trouble in prosecuting these cases, and it may turn out we have more to learn from events after the collisions, than before. Still, is this accountability? According to USNI News, a letter sent to the families of the fallen “concludes with the service promising ‘to provide updates on significant information related to accountability actions and the Navy’s corrective measures to improve the safety and security of our people and our operations. Your loved ones did not die in vain; their legacy lives in the form of a stronger and more capable Navy.’”
What would Vermont Royster think? What do you think? I’ll finish with this: the day after the Navy announced final adjudication of the cases against Benson and Combs, we announced the nomination of the next CNO. Anyone casually following Navy news – not just a suspicious SWO – has to wonder whether the two announcements are related. It’s understandable that the current CNO would want to bring this saga to a close before the end of his term, but the obvious question now is: did career timing somehow factor into the final pursuit of justice and accountability? Even if not, the timing only serves to fuel the notion that our ideal of accountability at sea has devolved into complacency in accountability writ large. Our decades-long unquestioning devotion to “Hobson’s Choice” may now be having its inevitable revenge. Whether you believe individual or systemic accountability is most necessary, we are a now at risk of achieving neither. Perhaps it’s time we re-examine our venerated standard of accountability in the Navy.