(Moral) Hazards to Navigation at Sea

Fitzgerald towed_edited

It would be an understatement to say Bryan McGrath’s excellent article, published in these pages last week, turned some heads. It was a response to the in-depth reporting in ProPublica on the events leading up to the 2017 USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) collision. He argues that, for all of the systemic issues at play, the tragic collision that caused the deaths of seven sailors is ultimately the result of specific, culpable failures on the parts of specific watchstanders who failed in their duty to safely navigate the ship. He points out further that the accountability for those watchstanders’ failures properly lies at the feet of the commanding officer whose responsibility for his command is, in the words of Navy Regulations, “absolute, except when … relieved therefrom by competent authority.” McGrath’s article is well-reasoned, temperate, and persuasive.

It is also wrong.

To be clear, he is not wrong about the proximate causes of the collision, or the responsibility that should attach to those officers who failed to keep their ship and shipmates safe. Where he is wrong is in his closing assertion:

Assigning this level of blame to the commanding officer does not let the chain of command and “Big Navy” off the hook. Rather, it places responsibility where it properly lies. The chain of command and Big Navy cannot be onboard all the time and cannot be expected to create individual solutions to individual ship problems. Commanding officers are responsible for solving these problems. ProPublica has done an excellent job of describing the total set of issues that the Fitzgerald was facing with when it collided, but readers must be careful to remember the central role of the commanding officer in the safe and effective operation of Navy ships. Blurring the lines of responsibility between the commanding officer on scene and superior levels of command will weaken the Navy and diminish the bonds of trust that must exist between a captain and a crew, while diluting the capacity of those higher levels of command to fix those readiness issues for which they are responsible.

Responsibility, McGrath argues, is an either/or proposition. Either the commanding officer is to blame, or Big Navy is. By focusing on the role that decisions made by those outside the ship may have played in creating the climate in which the officers failed in their watchstanding and risk assessment, he argues, we dilute the responsibility of command at sea.

McGrath’s argument is reminiscent of the famous “Hobson’s Choice” editorial run by the Wall Street Journal in 1952, following the collision of the destroyer Hobson with the aircraft carrier Wasp, which resulted in the loss of the destroyer with 176 on board. The essay reads, in part:

Now comes the cruel business of accountability. …

It is a cruel business because it was no wish to destruction that killed this ship and its 176 men; the accountability lies with good men who erred in judgment under stress so great that it is almost its own excuse. Cruel, because no matter how deep the probe, it cannot change the dead, because it cannot probe deeper than remorse.

And it is even more cruel still because all around us in other places we see the plea accepted that what is done is done beyond discussion, and that for good men in their human errors there should be afterwards no accountability. …

Everywhere else, that is, except on the sea. On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.

This accountability is not for the intentions but for the deed. The captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honor and privileges and trust beyond other men. But let him set the wrong course, let him touch ground, let him bring disaster to his ship or to his men, and he must answer for what he has done. He cannot escape….

It is cruel, this accountability of good and well-intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end of responsibility and finally as the cruel scene has taught, an end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do.”

And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into uncontrollable derelicts.

This editorial has become a staple of the culture of command in the Navy. It encapsulates the extraordinary trust and responsibility that historically has defined the honor of commanding a ship at sea. But one does not need to have commanded a warship to recognize the fundamental issue raised, both by the editorial, and by McGrath’s article. Economists refer to it as “moral hazard.”

Moral hazard is simply the notion that, when freed from responsibility for the choices they have made, people or institutions will be less likely to consider all the potential implications of their choices. They will have little incentive to choose the proverbial “hard right” over the “easy wrong.” When translated to the concept of command at sea, it is the argument that, if a commanding officer is not held to account for the failures of his or her ship, he or she is less likely to be vigilant against practices that may lead to failure, which will weaken trust and responsibility of command. On this point, McGrath and I agree.

Where we diverge is on the question of whether moral hazard can scale up. McGrath seems to take the position that, when Navy Regulations describe the responsibility of command as “absolute,” that means that responsibility and accountability can rest only with the commanding officer. I disagree.

As the second installment in the ProPublica series makes clear, the poor choices made by the officers on Fitzgerald were not made in a vacuum. They were made in the context of decades of reductions in manning, training, and maintenance resources, accompanied by a relentless increase in operations.

When the USS Antietam went aground in Yokosuka harbor, the subsequent investigation found that the commanding officer was ultimately responsible because “his demeanor discouraged the crew from making critical communications that could have increased situational awareness on the bridge and potentially prevented the grounding.” No one argued that the commanding officer’s demeanor was the proximate cause. Instead, it was the climate created by his demeanor, which prevented others from making the best choices for the safety of the ship. Similarly, the choices made by a decade or more of surface community leadership to under-fund manning, maintenance, and training were not the proximate cause of the Fitzgerald collision. Instead, the climate created by those reductions set the conditions in which the consequences of bad choices by a few watchstanders could be magnified with tragic effect.

Mishap investigations frequently allude to a “Swiss-cheese” theory of causality in which many small failures align to create a path to failure, like the holes in Swiss cheese. The combined impact of the reductions in manning, training, and maintenance resources over the decade that preceded the Fitzgerald collision was to make the holes in the Swiss cheese larger, making catastrophic overlap more likely. To minimize or deny this effect is to introduce institutional moral hazard every bit as dangerous and corrosive as the purported impacts of diminishing the responsibility of command.

I agree that the commanding officer and officers on watch are responsible for their poor choices. But I also believe that the Navy has a responsibility and culpability, which doesn’t diminish that of those officers. To argue that assigning blame to seniors for their choices weakens the trust in command misses the fact that a failure to additionally assign blame and accountability for the institutional choices that were made does the same, but on a much larger scale.

To borrow the words of the Hobson’s Choice editorial, this is hard, this accountability of well-intentioned admirals. It is harder yet, because to correct their choices will require that the Navy give something up. More money is unlikely to be forthcoming, so difficult choices must be made between procuring the ships of the future and manning, training, and maintaining those we already have. But the choice is that, or an end to the responsibility that comes with leading the world’s most powerful navy, and an end to the trust and confidence that those who lead that navy will choose the “hard right,” even if it means bucking the well-intentioned desire of political leaders for more ships, or the well-meaning eagerness of senior commanders to answer each call for Naval forces. And when a nation loses confidence and trust in those who lead its fleet, order disintegrates into chaos, and our first line of defense in an emerging great power competition devolves into an unreliable, undisciplined, and ineffective hollow fleet.


Doyle Hodges is an associate professor at the US Naval War College and a retired Naval officer. The views expressed here are his own, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the Navy, or the U.S. Naval War College.

Image: U.S. Navy photo