Crashing Warships & Clashing News Coverage: The Legacy of the McCain

On Monday, August 21st, the U.S.S. Destroyer John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker off the coast of Singapore. The Military community was very unprepared for the influx of the 200 sailors arriving into port. As the son of a Platoon Sergeant and a mother serving as supervisor of the NEX (Navy Exchange, the only store that sells gum here), I was told many things about how the sailors were getting on and the anguish that some of them were going through during this initial period of not knowing where their fellow sailors were and not having anything but the clothes on their back.

The USS John S. Mccain being brought into Changi Naval PortSource ABC News

All ten sailors that were missing were later found and pronounced dead from the crash.  All were posthumously promoted to the next rank, a tradition for the U.S. military.

The tragedy of the McCain, surprisingly, hasn’t continued to fill the news cycles as often as most people would have hoped for.  In the wake of these events, the Pacific Fleet commander was fired and it was noted that the incident was the fourth in the region this year. Another crash (the June 17th collision involving the Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan) made headlines but perhaps failed to cast light on what has now become disturbingly too frequent. The Fitzgerald crash has been blamed on multiple errors made by the sailors failure to act when specific problems arose.

They did nothing until the last second,” one official said. “A slew of things went wrong.” A second official said the crash “will wind up being viewed as our (the US Navy’s) fault.”

In the most recent incident, the McCain tried to move out of the way of an oil tanker that collided with it. Maritime rules governing a ship’s right of way state that, when passing through grounds or waters that belong to someone else, your vessel must keep a constant course and speed, even when a collision seems inevitable. Due to this norm, the McCain likely had only a minute to make evasive maneuvers. To prevent crashes like the McCain or Fitzgerald from happening again, ships are expected to utilize an automatic identification system to broadcast their location to other ships. However, the U.S. Navy ships can turn this off these warning signals for operational usage, and this mistake may have resulted in tragedy.

So why hasn’t the Mccain continued to be investigated by journalists? Is it because the Fitzgerald, only two months ago suffering a similar fate, makes this more recent escapade read like the same old story? Or is because Americans may have begun to normalize news about the death of American soldiers?  If this were a commercial vessel or a cruise ship, would the story be more dominant?   Back when the War on Terror started, the first soldiers to die in this war were considered heroes, martyrs even. The names were read on television, the faces plastered across the TV sets.  These days, frequent casualties are hardly mentioned unless they were involved in a major, high-profile military operation.

For weeks, family members adamantly waited for any news of their loved one. My friend’s dad and my own father were both involved in the search operation for the 10 missing sailors later confirmed to have died immediately within the hull of the ship. My mother personally helped in giving the stranded sailors supplies such as toiletries and financial aid while they awaited the legal processes and repairs necessary to continue their mission.  

USS_John_S._McCain_DDG-56 2.jpg
U.S.S. Destroyer John S. McCain.  Source: Wikipedia Commons

Some of the survivors lost everything, as there was no time to retrieve any of their belongings when the ship had to be evacuated. Understandably, any aid to these men was appreciated, as was as was the recognition of the events that were occurring while they remained stranded in Singapore.

I suppose the reality of this tragedy was “trumped” by more click-worthy stories, such as the kneeling of professional athletes during the U.S. National anthem.  These respectable men, who protect a ball for a living, may not be aware of the sort of sacrifice my family or the other military families have gone through. I recognize that they also suffer from a sense of abandonment by those around them, but I do take offense to using the national anthem in their protest and see this news distraction as lamentably offensive and disrespectful to the men and women in uniform who protect their right to protest in our country built on freedom of speech and expression.   

Regardless of the normalcy of these things, International news outlets and American citizens both need to accept the fact that any death is not normal. Accidents are not normal.  Downplaying the tragedy of 10 families — heartbroken over the loss of their loved ones — is not an acceptable price to pay. We need to accept the fact that, like other groups looking to have their importance affirmed, military lives matter.  The incident with the McCain will not be the last to be glossed-over as merely an unfortunate event. Brave soldiers, whether in war-time or peace, and whether on the battlefield or running routine missions through the Strait of Singapore, must be acknowledged — not ignored.

Author: Ryan Deguire

Ryan Deguire is a first year reporter of The Eye. He is a Junior at SAS and has been here for 2 and a half years. He is the son of a Platoon Sergeant in the U.S. Army and has lived in six places including Singapore. He enjoys watching movies, videochatting with his friends in San Antonio Texas, and playing with his puppy Kaya. He can be contacted at either rymater2000@gmail.com or deguire48003@sas.edu.sg

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