The fire that tore through U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard for more than four days starting July 12 devastated a $4 billion ship and injured more than 70 sailors and civilian firefighters. The resultant smoke that covered San Diego's harbor and downtown for days afterward seemed a visible symbol of the condition the U.S. Navy finds itself in around the globe.

It also brings to mind a history lesson. In many of the offices I occupied during my Navy career, I kept a painting of the USS Maine on the wall. It shows the battleship in early 1898, in Havana harbor — just before it blew up at anchor and sank, killing hundreds of sailors. The event was a cause celebre that put into motion the Spanish-American War.

Navy people who knew the story of the Maine well would come into my office and ask me why I kept a painting of a doomed ship on the wall. Why not the carrier Enterprise, my flagship in strike group command? Or the destroyer Barry, my first command at sea? The reason was twofold.