Should a Captain Go Down With His Ship?

Posted: January 22, 2012 in General
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I had to hold off writing about this one for a couple of days.  My first instinct upon hearing the Captain of the Costa Concordia had fled to shore after the ship began to go under was to have him keel-hauled and forced to walk the plank into shark infested waters.  After taking a couple days to reflect on that snap judgement of mine I have come to the conclusion, based on what has been written mind you, that Francesco Shettino’s actions were indeed cowardly and in no way did he participate in properly affecting a safe, orderly evacuation of the ship, for which they are still attempting to find approximately 21 people.  I had to do a little bit of self-reasoning in order to come to my conclusion, I have never been on a cruise nor set foot on a ship of anything close to that size that was not tied to land.  All I have to base my opinion on is my career in the Army and what was instilled in me by leaders, both good and bad, and my responsibilities to those who have been placed in my care.  Once I reasoned through my opinion I looked for some other professions or instances where I could logically apply the same thought process and came up with several and could probably go on and on relating my somewhat accurate interpretation of the scientific method.

I am probably a bit prejudice when it comes to determining the difference between cowardice and heroism.  I have been very fortunate to work with people who every day respond to life-threatening, stressful situations.  Situations in which not only are their lives hanging in the balance, but the lives of those around them as well.  This list includes; seniors; peers; subordinates; and all the others in the vicinity who are their based on the circumstances of the moment.  Fate plays a bit of a role in the outcome of battle, the unfortunate truth is not everyone comes out unscathed, but leaders stay the course and apply their training and innate responsibility to best effect the outcome from the most advantageous position possible.  For combat leaders, and this is true for just about any career field, that position may not be directly at the point of battle, but at a position from where they can BEST effect what is going on around them.  Relate this to a ship going down at sea and that point may very well be from a lifeboat.  I will come back to that last statement in just a few moments.

As a paratrooper for almost 18 years, I have a bit more perspective to share on the role of an overall leader and the subordinate supporting positions that all have responsibilities to make sure things go as planned.  As a jumpmaster, there is a whole team of people that come together to make a jump, sometimes consisting of multiple high-performance aircraft and thousands of paratroopers, not only safe but to effect the best possible outcomes for any accident that may happen as a result of this high-risk training.  Long before you attend the formal schooling that goes in depth into the equipment you use, the procedures for conducting the training, the inspections of everything from jumpers to aircraft, the setting up of the dropzone, the orderly movement of paratroopers through all the stations and the immense amount of planning it takes prior to the event just to coordinate it, you are simply a jumper.  You are trained how to jump out of a plane and in essence, you are placing your life in the hands of the jumpmaster team.  Simplistic in reasoning I know, but the Captain or Master of a ship does not just one day get into that lofty position arbitrarily; he starts at some point lower on the totem pole, receives the training and experience to advance through the ranks and just like the Primary Jumpmaster gains responsibility for ALL the lives of those involved.

Let me describe another parallel here.  Imagine during flight with an aircraft full of passengers, that suddenly as the PJ you are informed by the flight crew that there is something wrong with the plane.  You will neither make it to an airfield to land not will you be able to make it to the intended dropzone.  Essentially, you will all have to exit the plane within the next few minutes.  As the alarm bells are going off, you must brief your assistant JMs, the safeties and if possible as many senior leaders of the jumpers as possible as to what is going on.  The doors open and the JM team is hooked up first, they could exit the plane leaving all the other jumpers to their own devices, or they could do exactly as they rehearsed and trained for. You see, the jumpmasters are the last to leave the plane under normal circumstances, they make sure everyone is out safely and then they exit the plane leaving behind the safeties and flight crew.  Once you are sure you are the last, you exit.  The pilots then make sure the flight crew has gotten off safely and exit the plane only after they have made sure the plane is going to go down in a place where it can cause the least amount of damage.

All right, so now those who are not in the military or paratroopers are asking, “what the hell does any of that have to do with a captain going down with his ship?”.  It is a parallel.  In both cases, there is someone who is in charge of multiple things, especially the lives of those in the vessel.  There are systems in place, crews with specific responsibilities, rehearsals or drills, subordinate leaders to help insure the intent is met and as much as is practically possible is carried out.  In times of emergency, when other lives are involved, you can let self-preservation take over or you can rise above your fear and carry out your appointed duties.  The jumpmaster team cannot effect an orderly abandonment of a plane as they descend to the earth first, they need to be enforcing an orderly exit out the very small doors of a plane over ground that may not be the dropzone.  It is up to the leaders on the ground to do whatever is needed to effect the next leg of that journey.  A ships Master must be in a position that can effectively evacuate several thousand people in the quickest, most safe manner.  If that is from the bridge of the ship, so be it, if it is from a lifeboat being used in a command and control manner, so be it.  Every crew member has a responsibility during a crisis, the captain and senior leaders need to ensure the tasks are carried out and must use their best judgement in order to choose where that is done from.

So, should a captain go down with his ship?  I do not think there is a satisfactory answer for that question.  Figuratively speaking, any captain who has lost a ship and lives on it, should forever be haunted by what happened, therefore going down with his ship.  Literally, I do not know when self-preservation overrides training and positional responsibility.  Even the best trained most stalwart people can crack at any time, no matter how many times they have done the same thing.  What I do know is that anyone who has the responsibility for lives and equipment should be seen as effective and facing the adversity when the shit hits the fan, rather than calling for a taxi to take them home before all their responsibilities have been accomplished.  To me heroism occurs at the point where the muscle-memory developed by repetitive training meets the point where self-preservation is beginning to override and someone pushes further at risk to themselves so that other may be saved.  When a human can overcome their thoughts and fears consciously they have acted in a heroic manner.  Cowardice happens with the abandonment of responsibility in order to protect your own self-interests.

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