What Would the Athenians Think of Recent U.S. Navy Mishaps?

USS Oscar Austin fires its Mark 45 5-inch gun during a live-fire exercise.

The Greeks took official accountability too far. The U.S. Navy might not take it far enough.

U.S. Navy Leaders Should Drink Hemlock! Some of them, I mean. Figuratively.

That would be the Greek approach to solving the navy’s woes, at any rate. Take Athens. Ancient Athenians were hypersensitive about individual accountability. Athenians enforced accountability remorselessly, and these radical democrats seldom did things halfway. They went to extravagant lengths to hold public servants to account for deeds done, or left undone, in public service.

Hence the hemlock solution.

One wonders what Athenians would make of the recent spate of accidents involving American ships of war. In all likelihood, judging from classical history, they would come down hard on top leadership for foreseeably bad decisions that contributed to this time of troubles.

That would fit the pattern from antiquity. Athenians made a habit of trying their strategoi, or elected generals, for slipshod or corrupt performance during their tenures in charge of ground or naval forces. According to Davidson College classicist Peter Krentz, every general underwent an annual performance review, or euthyna. A bad review could precipitate an indictment. Or, an Athenian citizen could levy a serious complaint during the commander’s term of service, setting an eisangelia indictment in motion even before his term expired.

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Trials were far from uncommon in Athens, even amid the clangor of war. And fearsome penalties awaited strategoi found culpable for misdeeds. Fame exempted few from scrutiny. Even legendary figures—Themistocles, founder of the Athenian navy; Pericles, the city’s first citizen; Alcibiades, Athens’ playboy general—found themselves subjected to prosecution. Tribunals impeached big names for supposed transgressions.

Military commanders adjudged inept, or corrupt, or otherwise wanting could be sentenced to imbibe poison—and that was the pleasant way to go. Athenian politics empowered jurists to levy genuinely gruesome sanctions to punish malfeasance.

In the later stages of the Peloponnesian War, in fact, the ruling Athenian Assembly tried the victors from a major naval engagement, at Arginusae, because foul weather prevented the fleet from retrieving the corpses of slain seamen for proper burial. Victory was no excuse for neglecting one’s religious duty. Nor did wrathful assemblymen content themselves with rebuking the strategoi. Their verdict: the fleet’s overseers must drink hemlock. And so they did.

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That took official accountability too far. Athens was trying to recoup its losses from previous defeats. Decapitating the Athenian naval leadership hurt the city’s battle prospects at the same time rival Sparta was making itself into a deadly seaborne foe. Spartan ground-pounders rode the bounding wave with mounting confidence, and would ultimately triumph at sea after joining forces with Persia. The assembly acted against the strategoi anyway. Inquisitors ran amok—and courted martial disaster.

Anti-corruption measures are praiseworthy, then, but they shouldn’t be a suicide pact. There exist practical reasons to exercise temperance when conducting an inquest. Some classical wisdom for U.S. Navy investigators: go about your work zealously without yielding to zealotry.

Fortunately, this is peacetime. The navy need not literally embrace Greek remedies for failings plaguing the surface fleet—troubles that likely played some part in the recent string of collisions and groundings in the Far East. Hemlock fell into disfavor among jurists some time ago. A Greek outlook on such matters, however, is altogether worth embracing. Specific penalties aside, think about it. Officers of junior or middle rank cannot escape punishment for crashing a ship or plane. That’s one unit, comprising a trifle of the navy’s combat strength. Why should admirals or their political masters—the strategoi of our age—escape censure for decisions that harm the institution as a whole, degrading its fighting prowess while bringing disrepute on its good name?

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