February 23, 2001

What if they sank an American ship?

Imagine our outrage if a Russian submarine had smashed into a Japanese fishing trawler while surfacing and killed nine people, including four high-school students! Imagine if the Russians had then made no attempt to save survivors! Suppose further that it was revealed that the accident took place not during a military exercise but during a joyride to show off Russian military prowess to wealthy chums of President Putin. Acres and acres of newsprint, hours and hours of airtime would be given over to self-satisfied condemnations of the Russians for their recklessness. How could they have been so irresponsible as to allow civilians into the control room, to encourage them to get their hands on the controls and even to pull the levers during a particularly dangerous submarine maneuver? William Safire would weigh in with profound reflections, doubtless over a series of columns, about the low value Russians seem to place on human life – a legacy of their oriental despotic past, so unlike our own happily individualist one. We would be told that Russians are just downright lazy and irresponsible. There would be innumerable smug laments about the current sorry state our once formidable adversary. Anne Applebaum would sternly admonish the Russians to give up their imperial ambitions and simply let Americans come in and carry out the thoroughgoing "Westernization" that they need so badly.

However, even though the destruction of the Ehime Maru was merely the most recent instance of US military recklessness towards civilians – and particularly foreign ones – editorial writers and columnists have been extraordinarily sparing in their indignation. To be sure, there have been the pro forma demands for a full "inquiry" as well as earnest advice to the Bush Administration to do whatever is necessary to soothe Japanese ruffled feathers. But, with few exceptions, the pundits have been quiet. No one has even raised the issue of the vaunted professionalism and effectiveness of the US military. When it comes to the military, the media can always be relied on to act as cheerleaders. During the bombing of Yugoslavia journalists did not think it unusual that we bombed a refugee convoy, pulverized a passenger train in broad daylight, blew up the offices of Serbian state television, and even destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Preposterous NATO claims that it was only hitting military targets were accepted at face value. So why should journalists now trouble themselves over the deaths of a handful of Japanese fishing students? While the New York Times fulminated for months about the lascivious groping at Tailhook demanding court-martials all round and mass dismissals, the loss of life as a result of the US military failing to follow standard safety procedures elicits little more than a yawn.

The facts in the Ehime Maru case are shocking enough: The 16 civilians who were aboard the USS Greeneville during the emergency surfacing maneuver were major contributors to the USS Missouri Restoration Fund – a group dedicated to restoring the battleship on which Japan surrendered in 1945. The pointless emergency surfacing exercise was carried out not in the middle of the ocean but in a busy area of the Pacific – 10 miles south of Honolulu. The USS Greeneville was two miles outside the Navy submarine training area, which is marked on navigation charts. The submarine was not operating the active sonar at the time of the collision. (National Transportation Safety Board officials say that for more than 10 years the Navy has rejected recommendations that submarines utilize active sonar when operating in coastal waters.) One civilian sat at the helm of the submarine and another pulled the levers during the sudden ascent.

According to NTSB official John Hammerschmidt, the submarine had detected the Ehime Maru 71 minutes before smashing into it. One crew member now admits that the civilians were distracting him as the submarine was preparing to surface. The fire control technician, who plots the submarine’s position using sonar contacts in order to prepare to fire at targets, told investigators his duties were interrupted less than an hour before the collision. "He ceased this updating of the CEP (Contact Evaluation Plot) because of the number of civilians present," said Hammerschmidt. He also says that the submarine’s sonar room should have been staffed with two qualified sonar operators and a supervisor. Instead, there was only one trainee, an operator and a supervisor. In addition, the submarine’s sonar repeater was not working. (This device allows the submarine’s top officers to watch nearby sonar contacts on a monitor as they work at the periscope.) Hammerschmidt incidentally is also the man who came up with this prize quote: "The accident certainly is unusual. In terms of civilians being in those positions – I’m not sure that’s unusual." Well, that’s a relief.

There is, of course, a reason for this media insouciance. Arrogant and reckless conduct goes with the territory of being the "lone superpower" and the "indispensable nation." Since there is no one out there to challenge us, why shouldn’t we do exactly as we want? And, since we are "indispensable" surely a few foibles can be forgiven? But there is another and more sinister reason for this indifference, something we only became aware of as a result of this accident. Apparently, it has been the policy of the US military for some years now to cultivate wealthy and influential people, particularly journalists, by inviting them to take part in military exercises. The Navy has apparently hosted an estimated 25,000 civilian guests over the last two years on its West Coast vessels alone. The idea is to show off our military wares to wealthy, ignorant but self-important civilians with a view to winning their support for even more lavish funding of the Pentagon. So dazzled are the visitors by all the high-tech gadgets on display, by the death-defying skills of our servicemen, and by the elaborate military maneuvers worthy of a Hollywood summer blockbuster that they become ardent lobbyists for the military.

According to a story in the Los Angeles Times, "the Navy hopes the on-board experiences will win over civilians who are ‘active and influential in their community, business or government,’ according to Navy policy. Reporters and editors from The Times, for example, have participated. A 1989 directive by the chief of naval operations said taking civilians aboard must be ‘in the furtherance of continuing public awareness of the Navy and its mission.’ As part of the effort, public relations officers aboard individual ships often provide news releases and pictures of visitors on the vessels to local media." It is now common practice for Navy commanders to encourage journalists and other lobbyists for the military to steer the submarine during their visit.

Thus when the next US military intervention takes place influential people will be on hand to rally the public in support our brave men and women in uniform. Never mind the issue of whether the United States has the right to bomb a country that has done nothing to us, the important thing is to be behind our troops. One has to say that as far as journalists are concerned this Pentagon policy has been remarkably successful. Journalists are notoriously susceptible to flattery, and especially so when they are elevated to the status of civilians "active and influential in their community, business or government." According to the Los Angeles Times, "Commanding officers, eager to win such civilian support, often flaunt the abilities of their vessel and crew, according to retired military officers. ‘The submarine captain does put on a show,’ said retired submarine Adm. James Bush. Of all the maneuvers, the emergency surfacing, which the Greeneville did, is the most knock-your-socks-off dramatic, Bush said." It certainly knocked the socks off the passengers and crew of the Ehime Maru.

One wonders about further revelations. During the bombing of Yugoslavia it turned out that the US military was actually working inside the CNN offices. Military personnel from the Fourth Psychological Operations Group based at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, were installed at CNN headquarters in Atlanta. A Major Thomas Collins of the US Army Information Service confirmed the presence of these Army psyops experts at CNN, saying, "Psy-ops personnel, soldiers and officers, have been working in CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta through our program, ‘Training with Industry’. They worked as regular employees of CNN. Conceivably, they would have worked on stories during the Kosovo war. They helped in the production of news." While confirming the story CNN, needless to say, denied that these Army psyops personnel decided news coverage or wrote news reports.

In much the same way, the Navy assures us that civilians pulling the levers during an emergency maneuver had nothing to do with the destruction of the fishing trawler. But why was the military working at the CNN offices? Soldiers have no business being in the offices of any reputable news organization – particularly while the United States is waging war. Similarly, civilians, particularly journalists have no business wandering around aircraft carriers and submarines, goshing and gushing at whatever they are shown. And they most certainly have no business pulling levers and executing dangerous maneuvers.

Why would the military be ensconced in a newsroom other than to influence news coverage? Why would journalists be invited to take trips on submarines other than to make sure that they become advocates for the military? We have a military directly involved in the production of news. And we have journalists directly involved in the production of war. During the next US military expedition we will learn that journalists actually pushed the button that released the cruise missiles. Doubtless, the Pentagon will inform us that the media had nothing whatsoever to do with the selection of targets. And CNN will reassure us that pushing buttons on an aircraft carrier in no way impedes objective news gathering. It will be the final fulfillment of the military-media complex.

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Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Friday.

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