Against the advice of his lawyer, Cmdr. Scott Waddle on Thursday faced the relatives of some of the people killed when the USS Greeneville rammed a Japanese trawler last month.
"I'm accountable for the incident," Waddle told the families, admitting that he could not bring himself to ask for their forgiveness. "This is a burden I will carry to the grave."
A million circumstances had to converge for the one-in-a-million tragedy to occur in the Pacific. To some, it would have seemed more difficult had it been planned. Have a nuclear-powered submarine sail below the surface of the ocean all morning, occasionally peeking to see if any small ships had come into view. If one is spotted, position the submarine far beneath it, then burst to the surface at full speed so that the sub topples and sinks the ship.
Somehow the trawler was not seen -- or its position and course were misjudged badly. Two needles touched in the same watery haystack. Lives were changed and lives were lost.
The court systems ostensibly engage in searches for truth and justice. In reality, they tolerate obfuscation. Personal liability generally is not volunteered. It must be extracted in an adversarial exercise and established brick by grudging brick.
Scott Waddle did not have to face the families of the victims of the collision between the Greeneville and the Ehime Maru. He did not have to apologize. He could have skirted accountability, merely expressing his regrets for the pain they feel as a result of an unfortunate accident.
But it was his ship, his command and his responsibility to be certain in times of peace that he and his crew do no harm. Yet they did cause harm and he knew it.
Society extends a presumption of honorability to those who choose the military as a career. Even more honor is extended
to those who accept responsibility as officers. Because it is so difficult, one of the most honorable acts any officer (or civilian) can commit is that of accepting responsibility when things go wrong. To apologize is harder still, but it allows healing and forgiveness to begin.
When Waddle apologized, tears streamed down his face -- and the faces of the relatives of those lost in the sinking of the Ehime Maru.
"We understand that he knew our feelings and he couldn't stand staying silent anymore," said Ryosuke Terata, who lost his 17-year-old son. "Even though we can't forgive him for causing the accident, after all, we think he is a good person."
Waddle's father, Dan, told a network television audience that everyone in the world is praying for those in Japan who lost their loved ones. The crew of the Greeneville is suffering too, he reminded. "They need some prayers."
That is not too much to ask.