The seizure of two US Navy riverine patrol boats January 12th has been widely reported. For those not following or remembering details, two Navy Riverine Command Boats (RCB) were captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces near Farsi Island, a sensitive Iranian naval base. One of the boats had engine trouble and somehow the GPS units on both boats malfunctioned putting both boats 9 miles inside Iranian territorial waters. Four craft (one visible in photo) carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guard sailors “helped” the US sailors at gunpoint and released them 15 hours later after taking numerous photos, videos and getting an apology from the US commander. Photos of sailors on their knees under gunpoint, a female sailor wearing Islamic style head covering, the apology by the detachment’s commander and embarrassing video of one of the sailors crying were streamed across the world.
My focus here is not on the mistakes that lead to the capture. Discussions about Iran spoofing GPS to create the incident and route selection and navigation can be discussed elsewhere. My focus is the stunning behavior during the Iranian seizure of US warships and subsequent crew behavior until they were released. This is a subject that has been largely untouched and will remain so even after the official investigation is complete. The incident is just too damaging to domestic and international political agendas as well as the reputation of the US Navy.
The Code of Conduct is an ethical guide for US service members addressing behavior during combat and in the event of capture. It is not military law though violation of the code could be addressed under some general articles of the UCMJ.
Article II and V are most applicable to the incident. Article II of the Code states, “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.” Article V states, “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.”
The largely unspoken and towering question, “Why did two US Navy ships fail to resist their boarding and the subsequent capture of the crew?” Yes the ships were outnumbered. The Navy has been outnumbered before and not surrendered without resisting. The only reasonable explanation justifying the Navy’s riverine boats boarding and subsequent lack of resistance is the ships were unarmed. Doubtful, some of the published pictures show ammo. Do we just don’t let warships traverse open bodies of water unarmed especially when they have weapons mounted on them as has been documented? Ammunition is a requirement if for no other reason to defend oneself from pirates or having your weapons or ship taken by criminals. Maybe there’s another issue at work here? Was a highly restrictive ROE the culprit for allowing Iranians to close with the US boats? Even in that case the lack of resistance is difficult to accept let alone understand?
Even more difficult to understand is the statement made by the commanding officer, Lt. David Nartker. In video taken very shortly after his capture and without visible duress he said , “”It was a mistake. That was our fault and we apologize for our mistake. It was a misunderstanding. We did not mean to go into Iranian territorial water. The Iranian behavior was fantastic while we were here. We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance.” Apologizing/thanking armed Iranian sailors for boarding one’s boats, putting one’s crew on their knees, stripping them of their outer garments and shoes hardly seems treatment deserving a thank you over. What about “name rank and serial number”? I’m not asking for a gunfight but the surrender of sovereign US territory (a warship is considered US territory) with no resistance whatsoever. Adding an apology and thank you is just beyond the pale.
There is an ongoing investigation. Considering how long the Bergdahl case has taken don’t expect much. The political spin has been to depict the seizure and quick return of our sailors along with Iran’s propaganda campaign as a victory and example of the new relations between our countries, a result of our “successful” nuclear negotiations. A military investigation finding that our boats were surrendered with no resistance, our crews propagandized or the disciplining of an officer for apologizing and thanking Iran for embarrassing the US and its Navy would directly contradict the narrative. Not likely to happen.
What are we teaching our sailors and their officers? What does this portend for future service member conduct when captured? This, the Bergdahl court martial saga, as well as other incidents must have a significant impact on changing the mores and standards our forces have operated under for centuries and upon which their reputations and a nation exist.