Cmdr. Scott Waddle, skipper of the USS Greeneville, the nuclear submarine that collided with the Japanese fisheries training vessel Ehime Maru, resulting in the loss of nine lives, has been found guilty of violating military law. Offered a choice between retiring or explaining his actions at another hearing, Mr. Waddle opted for the former. His naval career is over. That is unlikely to satisfy the families of the victims; nonetheless, it is time to bring closure to this tragic incident.
In a statement this week, Mr. Waddle said that the events of Feb. 9 will be with him for the rest of his life. That day, the Greeneville was on a cruise with 16 civilian guests who were participating in a navy public-relations program. To impress them, Mr. Waddle ordered an emergency tank ballast blow, a procedure that forces the submarine to rush to the surface and is as exhilarating as it is dangerous. Navy officials have acknowledged that the procedure was performed only for the benefit of the civilian guests, three of whom were at the controls of the submarine at the time of the accident.
At the time of the surfacing, the submarine was behind schedule. Sonar officers have testified that they were not following standard procedures when tracking ships in the area; Mr. Waddle said the submarine spent about 80 seconds at periscope depth before surfacing and has admitted that was not long enough.
In March, a three-member administrative panel heard testimony about the circumstances surrounding the accident. They prepared a report for the admiral’s mast, a disciplinary proceeding that is short of a court-martial. At that hearing, held earlier this week, Adm. Thomas Fargo, Pacific Fleet commander, concluded that there was dereliction of duty and negligent hazarding of a vessel. He also said that civilians aboard the Greeneville did not cause the accident, but they did “prove to be a distraction to the commanding officer (and) hindered the normal flow of (sonar) information.” As punishment, Mr. Waddle was given a permanent letter of reprimand, which effectively ends his navy career, and was docked the equivalent of one month’s pay.
On an emotional level, the punishment is unsatisfying. An accident of this magnitude would seem to merit more than an administrative procedure. The decision to dock Mr. Waddle’s pay was suspended for six months; since he has decided to leave the service on Oct. 1, that means he will get an honorable discharge and retire with full pay and pension.
Although the families of the victims may feel a harsher punishment is justified, there is no guarantee that a court-martial would provide it. Rarely is the captain of a ship charged with criminal behavior for collisions at sea, even when people are killed. The admiral’s mast ensures that some punishment is levied.
At this point, the important thing is discovering the real causes of the accident and ensuring that it does not happen again. To the U.S. Navy’s credit, its investigation has been thorough, open and transparent. The presence of a Japanese admiral at the March hearing contributed to the confidence this nation has in the justice of the ruling. The official admissions that the voyage was done solely for the civilian guests and that the emergency-surfacing procedure was also unnecessary should force the navy to rethink its PR programs and its priorities.
Equally important has been the way in which Mr. Waddle has handled himself during the investigation. Like any good commander, he took full responsibility for the events that occurred that fateful day. Against his lawyer’s advice, he testified during the hearing without being granted immunity. Mr. Waddle’s efforts to speak directly to the families of the victims have gone a long way toward defusing the anger and hurt that followed the accident. He has also expressed his desire to visit them in their homes in Japan, a gesture that should also help.
The Ehime Maru tragedy has been a grueling experience for the families of the victims, for the members of the submarine, who must live with the consequences of their actions, and for all supporters of the Japan-U.S. alliance. The accident has exposed the sensitivities of the two partners and the distance between them. Without proper handling, this incident could have seriously damaged the alliance. To its credit, the U.S. government was quick to understand its significance and to act accordingly. As subsequent events have revealed, there is a larger strategic context within which we must consider the Ehime Maru tragedy. That may drive thinking among policymakers and politicians, but it brings little solace to the families of the victims. That will only come with time.
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