[Viewpoint] Naval pride needs to be restoredSeven specially-trained divers from the U.S. Navy have been assisting our salvage efforts in the waters near the maritime border with North Korea after the disastrous sinking of naval warship Cheonan on March 26. The missile cruiser U.S.S. Shiloh, a salvage ship, a destroyer and other U.S. vessels have been on the scene of the tragedy alongside the South Korean Navy for the complicated and delicate mission.
In fact, the Yellow Sea off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula has had special meaning for the U.S. Navy for many years.
Between 1945 and 1949, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the U.S. Navy forces dwindled. Politicians questioned why the United States should spend huge amounts of money on the sea command after the war wiped out its formidable foe, the Imperial Navy of Japan, and weakened Soviet naval power. Some talked about dissolving the Marine Corps, arguing there were no Soviet islands to attack. America had also developed nuclear bombs. As a result, the military option of using air raids with nuclear bombs was widely preferred to maritime campaigns. According to U.S. Navy records, the U.S. cancelled construction orders on nearly 10,000 warships during this period. Navy Day no longer existed and naval personnel that numbered 3.38 million in 1945 shrunk to 380,000 by 1950.
But the amphibious landing at Incheon on Sept. 15, 1950, silenced critics of the Navy when the operation turned the tide in the Korean War in favor of the U.S.-led allied forces. That battle proved that conflicts can take place - even in an era of nuclear weapons - in which sea campaigns using conventional naval and marine forces still play a vital role. In 1952, the U.S. Congress established the Marine Corps as a separate branch of service, acknowledging its crucial role in the Korean War.
The Yellow Sea helped rebuild the U.S. Navy’s name as the world’s undisputed naval superpower. The west coast and sea, having witnessed the legacies of Korean ancient maritime war heroes Jang Bogo, Adm. Yi Sun-sin and the revival of the U.S. Navy, serves as the sanctuary of pride for the Korean and U.S. Naval forces.
To the Navy, leadership and crisis response is a daily exercise. On the vast sea, sailors are surrounded by natural risks - choppy tides, rocks and temperamental weather - which pose more hazards than enemy ships, and from which there is nowhere to run. Navy uniforms are designed to be functional in hazardous situations. The neckerchief comes in handy when a sailor falls into the sea; by tying it on his ankle he can increase his silhouette and fend off sharks. Bell-bottom trousers can be used as life preservers by knotting the legs.
A battleship crisis demands comprehensive leadership from the commanding captain, including quick judgments, iron authority as well as good communication with his crew. A battleship’s captain and crew is entitled to a high degree of autonomy, almost amounting to partial extraterritorial rights A ship’s command is rarely replaced during a mission. The U.S. Naval Academy trains its cadets so hard that some end up bleeding. Endurance and self-control is what aspiring sailors need to survive at sea more than discipline or control.
The Navy served as an incubator of heroes. Adm. Horatio Nelson of the British Royal Navy, famous for his victories in Napoleonic Wars including the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, was also renowned for his compassion for his men. He made a fleet return to port when it failed to deliver a sailor’s letter to his wife. “Who knows if he dies in tomorrow’s battle?” he explained. Many historic and political figures found their backbone during maritime service. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as the Lord of Admiralty, enjoyed mingling with sailors on deck rather than spending time with senior officers. The U.S. has a number of former sailors among its presidents, including John F. Kennedy, as well as presidential candidates such as Senators John Kerry and John McCain.
The naval power of a country, the embodiment of strong leadership, often goes hand in hand with the nation’s other rankings. Our naval ranking in terms of the number of warships, tonnage, and combat capacity hovers around 13th in the world, akin to our economic status. The Korean Navy, marking its 65th year in service, has made strides in peacekeeping operations, adding the destroyer Sejong the Great, which was equipped with the Aegis combat system in 2008 and won a skirmish with North Korea near the sea border in 2009.
But the display of poor risk management in the sinking of the Cheonan caused public distrust and disappointment. The angst is greater because the disaster involved the Navy, the benchmark for state leadership and risk management. The Navy must re-create itself with a thorough fact-finding process and self-reflection. The sea does not tolerate the weak, according to the Navy’s banner cry. But more fearsome than the sea is a loss of public trust.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Choi Hoon