Streetwise Professor

April 7, 2007

The Ghost of Admiral Byng

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:10 pm

Accountability is one of the three pillars of leadership (authority and responsibility being the others.) The British Navy set an extreme example for holding leaders accountable for failure in battle with the execution by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in March, 1757. Byng was found guilty under the Articles of War for his lack of aggressiveness in engaging the French in an abortive attempt to relieve the siege of Fort Mahon in Minorca during the Seven Years War.

It is widely recognized that Byng’s conduct, though hardly up to the standards of a Rodney or a Nelson, did not warrant such extreme punishment, and that the Admiralty went too far in its zeal to hold him accountable for failure. Fast forwarding 250 years since Byng’s demise, I get the sinking feeling that the modern Admiralty is in the process of making the exact opposite error. In the sorry episode of the 15 UK sailors and marines held hostage by Iran, it seems evident that there were serious failures of judgment up and down the chain of command, yet it seems that little will be done to hold those responsible accountable.

Anyone paying attention to the news from the Middle East over the past weeks and months should have been aware that the Iranians were in a fury over the capture and/or defection of numerous intelligence operatives, and that there is a war in the shadows between Iran and coalition forces in Iraq. Moreover, any sentient being in military and political circles should understand the Iranian predeliction for hostage taking to achieve political ends (cf. 1979, and Iranian supported hostage taking in Lebanon in the 1980s and last summer.) Add to this the tensions over the Iranian nuclear program, and it takes little imagination to understand that some sort of incident was almost inevitable.

Yet British commanders sent lightly armed detachments into areas swarming with Iranian speedboats without adequate cover or support under rules of engagement that rendered them virtually defenseless against a sudden attack. Despite this chain of failures, there appears to be no movement to relieve, cashier or otherwise discipline those responsible. Nor has anyone taken responsibility and resigned, as would be respectable and honorable.

This is disgraceful, and a serious blot on British Naval prestige. Not to say that the Byng treatment is in order, but numerous careers–from the commander of the HMS Cornwall to officials at Whitehall–should terminate posthaste.

And what about the 15 hostages just released? They have been subjected to withering criticism from numerous quarters, and with justification. I would not have wanted to be in their shoes, and I am sure that their experience in Iranian hands was unpleasant in the extreme. But countless servicemen (and women) have been in situations as bad–and much worse–and conducted themselves much more responsibly and honorably than they did. As an example, in the Vietnam War POWs such as Jeremiah Denton and John McCain held out for far longer under far more brutal torture and treatment than that visited on the 15 Brits before they submitted to their captors’ demand for statements condemning their country. And when they did so, despite the fact that they had cracked only under infinite duress, they felt guilty and ashamed–emotions that are not conspicuous among the 15.

Why did they cooperate so readily? In large part, it is attributable to training. After all, numerous American captives cooperated with the North Koreans in the early stages of the Korean War; the Code of Conduct adopted by the American military (which requires a POW to resist their captors in all ways possible and forbids cooperation beyond stating name, rank, and serial number) was a direct response to this problem. I had to memorize this code as a Midshipman during Plebe Summer at the Naval Academy, and it is drilled into every American serviceman and woman. I believe that the natural instinct of POWs is to cooperate, and it can only be overcome through intense training and repetition. As a result of this training, American captives in Vietnam and the first Gulf War did not provide their captors with cheap propaganda victories.

Or consider the example of the crew of the USS Pueblo. Despite horrific treatment, the crew resisted their captors at every turn. For instance, when the North Koreans attempted to take propaganda photos of them, the crew gave the finger. Commander Bucher wrote a “confession” only after brutal torture and a mock execution, and even then wrote it in a way that mocked North Korea’s “Dear Leader.” (Nonetheless, a Navy Court of Inquiry recommended Bucher’s court martial. Only the intervention of the SecNav prevented this.)

My original reaction was that the Dianafication of British society, the mesmeric attraction of being on television, and the “vocationalization” of European militaries (although far less severe in British than continental services) had contributed to the too ready cooperation of the 15 captives. Some cable commentary (e.g., Colonel Jacobs on MSNBC) draws unfavorable comparisons between this generation of Brits and their WWII forebears. I am less certain that these conjectures/comparisons are apt after seeing a Military Channel documentary which played German propaganda films showing British soldiers captured at Narvik, Norway in 1940 praising their captors’ kindness, and even singing a chorus of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” for the German cameras. So this is not a new phenomenon. I think that soldiers, sailors and marines have to be trained to hold out against the duress of captivity, and that absent intense training of this type, captives are all to likely to succumb to pressure to cooperate. The apparent absence of this training is something else for which somebody or somebodies in the Royal Navy should be held accountable.

At Trafalgar, Nelson famously signaled “England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty.” Some of his men were insulted that he felt it necessary to remind them of their obligations to King and Country. If the behavior of the 15 and those who commanded them is considered consistent with the duties of British seamen and marines, the standards of the Royal Navy have indeed fallen below the Nelsonian level–and below the standards of the ordinary tars who felt no one need remind them of their obligations as sailors and warriors. Every day that passes without holding those responsible for the fiasco in the Shat al Arab accountable for what transpired there and in Iran in the days that followed only strengthens my conviction that this is, sadly, indeed the case.

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