Ehime Maru verdict: Justice comes first
We don't envy the duty of Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, upon whom it falls to decide the next step in determining responsibility for the Feb. 9 sinking of the Ehime Maru, a Japanese training ship, with the loss of nine crew members.
A court of inquiry, conducted by three Navy admirals last month, turned over its recommendations and a 2,000-page report to Fargo last Friday.
The report, composed mostly of transcripts from the court of inquiry, is expected to chastise former USS Greeneville skipper Scott Waddle for allowing unqualified personnel at the Greeneville's sonar station, going to sea with broken sonar equipment and performing an inadequate periscope sweep before the collision.
It's now up to Fargo to decide what's next for Waddle and two other Greeneville officers. They could be ordered to face a court-martial, with the potential for a prison term as long as three years for each count of negligent homicide. More likely, according to some observers, is some form of non-judicial punishment that might include something short of imprisonment, such as discharge from the Navy, loss of pay or reprimand.
The basic distinction to be decided by Fargo is whether Waddle should face criminal charges. His job is made more difficult because he is not only expected to attempt to mete out justice in the narrowest sense, but much more broadly to consider ramifications such as this case's effect on Navy morale and on America's most important bilateral relationship that with Japan.
It is to be hoped, however, that justice will come first: that unhappiness in Japan, if that is what the final verdict produces, will become a diplomatic problem; that unhappiness among sailors will become a military priority.
Families of the Japanese victims are outraged at the possibility that Waddle might escape court-martial. This isn't simply because there's a clear sense in Japan that Waddle's behavior was criminal, per se. It occurs in part because of popular resentment in Japan over transgressions on Japanese soil by American servicemen such as the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl and recent arson attacks on nightclubs, and also as a result of a profound distrust of military institutions generally since World War II.
But the conflict is also owing to a sharply different philosophy of responsibility in Japan.
In 1988, a Japanese submarine struck and sank a fishing boat in Tokyo Bay and sailors stood by while 30 passengers drowned. We haven't learned what the consequences were for that sub's skipper or crew, but the minister of defense was forced to step down.
It's clear that Waddle's career, once promising, is finished. What's a little harder to understand, from the American perspective, is that 13 years later, the same minister, Tsutomu Kawara, has worked his way back to head the defense ministry again.
Court-martial or not, that sort of redemption won't be possible for Waddle.