During my military career, one of the things I always resented was when someone from another command, or another world criticized or second-guessed either my actions or the actions of a shipmate without firsthand knowledge of either. I’d typically tolerate the uninformed opinions until the next morning when I could confront the person by saying I had spent the previous night pouring through my cruise books desperately looking for their name or photo, ultimately unable to find either. My point was that unless they had served with me on that ship at the time of the event, they couldn’t possibly know for sure all the details that led to the accident, and would be wise to just be quiet. At least until the facts were known and made public.
I will not pretend to have a clue regarding the circumstances that led to the collisions of USS John S. McCain or USS Fitzgerald so I won’t comment on what might or might not have happened. Nor am I the guy to critique the navy’s process for training and selecting officers for command-at-sea. But what I will say is that sometimes avoiding a collision is much more difficult than you’d think. In fact, I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
In a career that included seven ships, six of them came mere feet away from catastrophes similar to what happened on McCain and Fitzgerald. While roughly half of those near misses were the direct result of ownship negligence or poor watch-standing, the others were caused by either severe weather, low visibility, shipping density, engineering casualties, inherently risky missions in restricted waters, or some combination of those factors. Ironically, it was my tour as Executive Officer aboard John S. McCain that was the only ship on which I had no close calls.
One of my former Commanding Officers, who had previously served as President George H. W. Bush’s naval aide, had an expression he’d say in the wake of an accident; and that was, “It’s a short walk from the White House to the Outhouse.” He said that not to ridicule those involved in the accident, rather it was meant to illuminate the line, the very small line, between success and failure.
Every (and I do mean “every”) post-accident investigation will identify mistakes, either in training and/or execution, that led to the incident. Something has to be identified because no one learns anything from saying that sometimes things just happen, especially when lives are lost. And I'll grant you that most times we did miss something that would have prevented the accident. But sometimes, where multiple and diverse factors beyond our control come in to play at the same time, during an already inherently risky endeavor - tragic accidents happen.
I have no idea what happened on John S. McCain or Fitzgerald. But what I do know, is that the need to know what caused the accident, although vital to moving forward, is not mine. And quite honestly, thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach for everyone involved, especially those families that do have a need to know what happened to their loved ones.