The sea can be a hard mistress, and as if that weren’t enough in itself, the service can be hard as well. In one of his splendid sea tales, Patrick O’Brian’s fictional character, royal navy Captain Jack Aubrey noted that “an officer’s buttons” can be like the curse of God – with all the privileges and honor come awesome responsibilities and accountability. When an officer finally achieves the joyful burden of command at sea, these privileges and responsibilities both tend towards their absolutes.
So it is with some ambivalence I read the story of CDR Kirk Lippold, former CO of the USS Cole. The attack on the ship he had the honor to command – although no one recognized it at the time – was the opening salvo in the ongoing war against Islamist terror.
Cole was sent to Aden by Higher Authority alone and unafraid as a part of a policy of regional engagement. Although no specific and credible threat indicators were hot at the time of her visit on 12 OCT 2000, the CO was found negligent in enforcing several force protection procedures by a board of inquiry, convened after a terrorist attack left 17 Sailors dead, and 39 wounded. Lippold’s leadership in the immediate aftermath, as his crew fought to save their fellow shipmates lives while also fighting to save the ship was widely recognized as being creditable, in the best naval sense of the word.
Ultimately, Navy leadership – as well as that of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – found that the CO had performed as well as could have been expected given the circumstances, both before the attack, and certainly afterwards.
But now, CDR Lippold’s promotion has been held up in a political process:
Though a Navy review found that intelligence failures contributed to the Cole attack and that other officers, including the Navy’s most senior admiral, also could have done more to anticipate it, only Lippold’s career has suffered. Everyone in his chain of command at the time of the attack has been promoted or given assignments with more responsibility, Lippold said; in many cases those advancements came with Senate confirmation.
Friends think Lippold’s nemesis is Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In 2001, when Navy leaders decided Lippold had acted reasonably to protect the Cole, Warner convened a hearing and lectured the service’s top admiral on the importance of holding commanders accountable for incidents at sea.
In an era when a Google search of “Navy commanding officer dismissed” returns over 1.4 million hits, it practically beggars belief that our civilian leadership, no matter how invested in the service’s traditions, concern themselves overly about our standards for command.
And yet such are the joys and risks of military premiership, subject as they are not only to the tides of fate, but also to the whims of our political masters. It’s little enough comfort to a good officer that his peers may say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”