The British Royal Navy was humiliated in March 2007, when fifteen sailors
and marines were taken prisoner by an Iranian gunboat. The fifteen prisoners were held for 13 days
in Iran, and turned it into a media circus, all at the expense of the Royal
personnel were involved in checking ships off the Iraqi coast for smugglers and
terrorists. The fifteen British personnel were supposed to be protected from
such seizure by the frigate they had come from. But the frigates officers
screwed that up. This was a terrible embarrassment for the Royal Navy, and at
the time they assumed the stiff-upper-lip position.
charge were not punished, until now. Justice may not have been swift, but it
was certain. Since the incident, the captain of the frigate was quietly
relieved of command. Two vice admirals were retired, and the head of public
relations for the Ministry of Defense (which botched the news aspects of the
incident) is also out of a job. Several other officers and officials had their
careers terminated, or damaged, by the way the affair was handled.
Britain to all this led to mention of a certain admiral John Byng, who was
executed in 1757 for not trying hard enough to dislodge the French from the
island of Minorca. This execution was later described as done to
"encourage the others (admirals)." In fact, Byng died because of bad
publicity surrounding the earlier execution of a junior officer for the same
"offense," while senior officers got less lethal punishment.
But it is a
ancient naval tradition that someone must take responsibility and be punished
when things go wrong. This attitude developed over the centuries because the
seas are an unforgiving environment, and those put in charge of ships have
absolute power, and absolute responsibility. So, to this day, in most navies,
the senior officers can quickly (or, in this case eventually) lose their jobs
if things go wrong.
Byngs demise was not all that unusual. In centuries past, many navy commanders
have been executed for not doing all their boss expected of them. But 18th
century Britain considered itself to be in a kinder and gentler age, thus the
outcry after Byng was executed, instead of simply being dismissed (or exonerated,
something his descendents still call for). Now, in 21st century Britain, the
trend continues, as do the punishments.