The Cowpens Romance

by fpman

What we have embarked on here at The Patrimony is the coverage of political phenomena from a specific, peculiar viewpoint. This will usually entail discussion (i.e. a mixture of responsible, good-natured gossip and analysis) of something (and someone) related to a top decision-maker in this or that country. Today’s, however, is only the second post here so far, and its subject is slightly different.

In case you have missed it, this is what the Navy Times recently uncovered about the 2013-2014 deployment of the USS Cowpens in the Pacific, a tour that has seen the US Navy’s guided missile cruiser take part in disaster relief operations off the Philippines in November 2013, and subsequently get involved in a close confrontation with a Chinese amphibious naval vessel in the South China Sea during the course of December.

USS_CowpensUSS Cowpens (photo: US Navy)

It now turns out that the ship had an equally interesting ride over the 2014 leg of its Pacific cruise. In January, Captain Greg Gombert fell ill with flu-like symptoms, developed Bell’s palsy or partial facial paralysis, and, feeling weak and in a generally inadequate condition to continue to personally command his ship, found it necessary to retreat to the tranquility of his unit commander’s cabin (UCC) for the better part of the ensuing months. For the time being, he handed over command (his responsibility as CO or the Commanding Officer) to his temporary XO (Executive Officer), the chief engineer of the ship, whom he had previously promoted to the position after the predecessor XO had to leave prematurely — at a time when the new XO could not yet make it on board. The problem is: XOs come with a certain carefully determined level of required experience and specific training for the task, and the temporary XO did not have these. Moreover, with Captain Gombert spending most of the time in the UCC, the XO, by then the acting CO, did not even have the captain close by for those special situations with a narrower margin for error where superior experience can make a difference — she had to handle fuel replenishments in heavy seas on at least two occasions alone. This deviation from standard procedure may have put ship and crew at unnecessary risk…

Amidst this narrative you may have noted the gendered reference to the person of the XO. Yes, the executive officer happened to be a woman, by the (some would say remarkable) name of Destiny Savage. If you check out the history on the USS Cowpens, you may also find it interesting that over 2008-2010 the ship was commanded by a female Commanding Officer, Captain Holly Graf, who was eventually relieved of her duties related to allegations that she maltreated her crew. However, before one starts to theorize of a male-chauvinistic conspiracy against women in the Navy, and against women serving on board USS Cowpens in particular, it has to be noted that there indeed was some deviation from standard procedure in this case, even if no major mishap resulted from it.

Where gender certainly does come into play: Captain Gombert and Lt. Cmdr. Savage were eventually found guilty of “fraternization” by the Navy (that is, of being lovers, in this particular context). This, needless to say, is generally not tolerated within militaries, given the need for minds unaffected by ties of this kind in even the most demanding of circumstances. Based on what we know from open sources, the evidence of the two officers’ relationship seems to have been largely indirect though. They may have spent a couple of nights together in a hotel in the Philippines, may have been seen holding hands on one occasion, and Savage is rumored to have often made dinner for Gombert in whose cabin she spent considerable time. And the culinary specialist of the ship would swear that he saw Cpt. Gombert wearing boxers at least once while Savage was with him, and that this was romantically significant.

Savage_and_GombertLt. Cmdr. Savage and Cpt. Gombert (photos via KPBS and Thinking Housewife)

A ship usually makes for a nice metaphor. In this case, it epitomizes much of what this blog is about. For one obvious connection with the world of politics and decision-makers’ friends-and-relations, “fraternization” as well as having one’s actual relatives around can be an interesting issue in the latter universe, too, even as there are no similar anti-fraternization standards for political leaders (for a mixture of good and bad reasons).

But there is more to what the story of USS Cowpens may stand for. As James R. Holmes of the US Naval War College notes writing in The Diplomat, “ships are still islands — in effect self-contained societies — once they cast off all lines.” A ship’s leadership — even though officers therein rise to their position according to specific rules of promotion, or the institutional rules of the game — thus offers intriguing parallel with the leadership of a country.

One point I would make in particular pertains to imagining counterfactual scenarios and outcomes of the events that unfolded on board USS Cowpens. We often conceive of counterfactuals by thinking of circumstances that may have been different. “Had this or that happened, the result would have been different, for better or worse.” Yet it is equally easy to imagine counterfactuals by thinking of what would have happened had there been different people or even slightly different personalities interacting with each other in a given situation. Each and every member of the USS Cowpens crew may have made a difference in terms of how the merits of the case were eventually judged by the Navy — with the different interpretations they had, the way their interpretations evolved over time, the way they expressed what they thought, and the way they acted on the basis of their beliefs at any given moment.

Herman Wouk begins his classic novel, The Caine Mutiny, the fictional story of World War II destroyer/minesweeper USS Caine, by positing about the main protagonist Willie Keith that “the event turned on his personality as the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.” Wouk’s masterfully woven plot is nevertheless a good example of how all personalities are important. Replace anyone, or even a personality trait, and you may end up in a different “possible world,” in the language of counterfactual analysis. Not to speak of how an objective description of what happened is hardly possible, and whatever remains may be interpretation rather than fact, from anyone’s respective point of view. In the story of the USS Caine, even Willie Keith is not completely sure by the end of how much he was right to make the decisions he made.

Much of this applies not only to ships and their crews of course.

There are good reasons not to count with personality and interpersonal relations as exclusive determinants of domestic political processes and international interactions, but they clearly are a factor, and often a very important one at that. And in as much as that is the case, this blog is on to something.

To be continued.