There are 10,000 people assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. One of them, a civilian, is implicated in the homicide of a Japanese civilian. As a result, all 10,000 members of the base will now have their liberties permanently infringed as a political demonstration to shore up support for continued US basing on the island.
This of course raises the question … if we have to live this way to have a presence in Japan, are we preserving a relationship deserving of the effort? How long will our servicemembers be held collectively responsible for the alleged act of one person who isn’t even a US servicemember? It’s not an unreasonable question.
This is a trend across the services, and particularly across the Air Force. The first response by commanders in dealing with the public consequences of individual misconduct is collective responsibility, usually in a breathless knee-jerk manner utterly free from the orbit of what gave rise to it.
Whether it’s mass drug sweeps, alcohol restrictions, sex segregation rules, or policies caricaturing male airmen as would-be rapists waiting to strike, the standard response to anything going wrong is to preemptively convict others and punish them as a means of preventing further troubles.
Commanders are probably within their legal authority to do this, strictly speaking. But they’re well beyond the bounds of ethics, morality, and common decency. It’s wrong to discipline someone for someone else’s misdeeds, even if the punishment is ornately adorned in diplomatic and political doublespeak.
Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, who commands all US Forces in Japan, was arguably reasonable in his initial insistence that American servicemembers on the island keep a low profile during a period of “unity and mourning” following the murder. The Japanese people do not tolerate violence in their society in the same way we Americans do, and are mortified at a societal, national level by things that wouldn’t even make the evening news in our country. Given that we’re their guests and the violent loss of a young woman horrified them enough to instigate a recall of our Ambassador, Nicholson needed to show seriousness as well as empathy in his response.
But that response having run its course, it’s not reasonable to continue its main restrictions ad infinitum. Nonetheless, this is unsurprisingly what’s happening.
Here’s the letter published by Kadena’s wing commander, where he emplaces considerable constraints on the liberties of all 10,000 of his assigned personnel in response to an accused crime by one of them:
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Notably, simply leaving the base is now considered “liberty.” And to “execute” that “liberty,” our NCOs need a “buddy” along with them — day or night, no matter whether they’re simply going for a jog or heading to a restaurant for dinner. You know, because they’re all would-be homicidal rapists who will attack the first woman in their path if left unattended. But only the young ones, even though the man whose alleged crime started this mess was in his thirties.
Most incredulously, the order doesn’t even encompass civilians in the same status as Mr. Shinzato, the American whose actions gave rise to this mess. So even if the point was to prevent recurrence of the same sort of event by the same sort of person, this wildly misses the target.
My beef with this, aside from what’s already been stated, is that it’s lazy leadership. Controlling people into perfection is just a thinly-veiled means of swerving around the handling of disciplinary issues, which is a major component of command. The price of this maneuver is the liberty and dignity of thousands of people who deserve better … all so some officer can have an easier time at the helm. When generals permit or encourage this brand of inchargeship, they reinforce the fallacious idea that perfection is possible in an inherently non-linear, human-based business, and they set up reward and incentive structures that disadvantage commanders who show moral courage by refusing to engage in Soviet-style mass punishments. This is how we end up with really piss-poor leaders at the very top. We only promote the self-concerned and risk-averse.
It’ll be argued, not completely without merit, that this is about risks and rewards … costs and benefits … and the need to weigh them carefully to preserve our basing rights. Such utilitarian logic isn’t without merit, but it has limits. When we find ourselves significantly limiting how grown adults live their lives just so we can drive risk and cost down to zero, we’ve gone beyond those limits.
Or so I opine.
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