Not often do the actions of a mere handful of U.S. service members — on or off the field of battle — so profoundly reflect on U.S. national prestige, American diplomacy, and the reputation of the American armed forces, writ large. When they do, one hopes it is in a positive way, through an extreme act of heroism on the battlefield, or through some noble action in a humanitarian crisis. One prefers to think of those who adhered to their training, and acted in upholding the honor of their service and country, in thinking about such events — men like John McCain, or Mike Thornton, or Chesty Puller.
What Americans should rightly loath to see is the opposite phenomenon, when service members act foolishly, abandon their training, and ignore the rules and ethics that guide the behavior of all U.S. service members. Men like Bowe Bergdahl and Edward Snowden come to mind in this case.
Now it appears that more names will be added to the negative side of that ledger: the crew members of the U.S. Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadron Three, who navigated into Iranian territorial waters in January of 2016, and allowed themselves to be taken into custody by the Iranian military, in an embarrassing and cowardly fashion.
According to reports in both the Navy Times and USA Today on June 30th, the U.S. Navy has concluded its investigation into the January detention of the two U.S. riverine boats by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The reports are damning and frankly, embarrassing. The boat crews and their chain of command demonstrated poor judgment and miserable operational planning. The crews of the two boats also demonstrated a complete lack of adherence to the Code of Conduct for members of the U.S. armed forces.
According to the Navy Times report, the poor judgment kicked in from the start of the boats’ seemingly simple planned transit from Kuwait to Bahrain. The crews “did not brief or even plan their route from Kuwait to Bahrain,” and decided to take a shortcut en route — one that took them directly through Iranian waters, and near an IRGC base.
And then one of their improperly maintained boats broke down.
Furthermore, the tactical operations center which was supposed to track the boats’ locations throughout the transit failed to do so. In addition, the command within the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, which exercised operational control over the boats, should never have tasked them to make the transit in the first place.
The whole episode reeks of incompetence.
The Navy Times article states that in all, nine Navy personnel will face disciplinary action over the incident, including three members of the boat crews, the commanding and executive officers of the riverine squadron, the commodore and chief of staff in charge of the riverine squadrons, and two members of the shore support staff.
The investigation also harshly faulted the junior officer and senior enlisted man in charge of the two riverine boats, saying “both [riverine command boat] leaders were derelict in their duties in that they failed to meet even the most basic requirements of leadership, planning, and tactical execution.” Well, no kidding.
Perhaps most damning, in this author’s opinion, is the investigation’s finding that the actions of some of the crew members violated the Code of Conduct for members of the United States armed forces. This set of rules, which all new American service members — across all branches — commit to memory when they enter the service, governs how U.S. service members behave while in captivity.
The Code is a set of principles that are meant to guide American military members when they are faced with the horrible prospect of being taken prisoner. It is meant to uphold the dignity of those members, as well as the national honor and the honor of all American fighting men and women. It is how American military members preserve their dignity and honor under terrible conditions, and when faced with agonizing choices while in captivity.
Article II of the Code states that an American service member will never surrender of his or her own free will, nor will those in command ever surrender the members of their command while they still have the means to resist. Furthermore, if American service members are captured, they are to continue to resist “by all means available.”
This means not allowing the American flag to be lowered, and the Iranian flag to fly, on your vessel. It means not willingly giving up your phone and laptop passwords. It means not reading statements prepared by your captors, or wearing headscarves if you are female. American military members are expected to resist such measures, to the best of their ability, and if ultimately forced to do certain things — by physical force — they are expected to do them in the least willing manner possible.
Sadly, it does not appear that the crews of these two boats resisted at all. They gave their boats up willingly, while on their knees. They appeared on camera, reading prepared statements. They provided their electronic devices (and passwords) to the Iranians. One female wore a headscarf when told to do so by her captors. They also allowed the Iranian flag to fly on their boats, without putting up a fight.
This author has sympathy for the sailors who were put in this situation. God knows, no one wants to face such an ordeal. It would be frightening, intimidating, and unnerving, to say the least. That does not, however, excuse the complete lack of resistance exhibited in this case. Those crew members should have, at a minimum, refused to go to their knees on those boats, or to allow the lowering of the American flag. They should not have willingly provided their phone and laptop passwords, nor read prepared statements, nor put on a headscarf on camera.
This whole episode should leave a bad taste in the mouths of all Americans. The Navy was right to discipline those found guilty of these failures. It is also time for some more Code of Conduct training in the U.S. Navy.
Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces
I. I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.
II. I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.
III. If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.
IV. If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.
V. When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause
VI. I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.