Even though 37 men died under his command, the captain of the USS Stark will not be court-martialed. The reasons offered by the Navy are various: the accidental and surprising circumstances of the attack, the captain's "heroic" action to save the ship after the attack, the grief that an airing of the incident would cause the families. And, said Adm. Frank Kelso, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, nothing more was to be learned through a court-martial.

But a court-martial is not a learning experience. It is an exercise in accountability. The notion of accountability has suffered lately. Presidents have done much of the damage. They have taken to assuming full responsibility for this or that debacle. But the assertion is a mere rhetorical device. As the lawyer told the court in the New Yorker cartoon, "Your Honor, my client would like to plead responsibility but not guilt."

John Kennedy showed how at the Bay of Pigs. He assumed "sole responsibility" for the fiasco, declared himself "strongly opposed to anyone within or without the administration attempting to shift the responsibility" and watched, with a mixture of contempt and amazement, his popularity polls soar to an unprecedented 82 percent. What did taking responsibility mean? Nothing. It was a way of admitting error without accepting any of the penalties traditionally reserved for those held responsible for error. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr. records Kennedy's thoughts on the matter: "If he had been a British prime minister, he {Kennedy} remarked, he would have been thrown out of office; but in the United States failure had increased his charm.")

Kennedy's response to the Bay of Pigs set the standard. It illustrated the many benefits of uttering the words "I take responsibility": 1) You shield your subordinates. After all, you indignantly insist, you are responsible, not they. 2) You look good. You win points for honesty, forthrightness and manliness. 3) You need do no more. No resigning, no firings, no penance, no hara-kiri. You've uttered the words. You're all done. Next subject.

Ronald Reagan has attempted regularly to partake of the absolution conferred by the "full responsibility" ritual. After the Tower Commission issued its report, he thought to avoid further damage by taking, on national television, "full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration." This attempt at diffusion and deflection of criticism failed. A previous one had succeeded, however. After the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, a Pentagon board of inquiry found bungling up and down the chain of command and assigned direct blame for the lax security and "responsibility for the catastrophic losses" to two Marine commanders. But then Reagan took "full responsibility," an act that carried no penalty for him and abolished the threat of penalty for others responsible for the disaster.

It might be argued -- it was argued at the time -- that one should not blame the poor commanders in the field. They were given such an impossible mission in Beirut and were issued such absurd rules of engagement that they could hardly be blamed for what happened. The fault lay not with them but with political higher-ups. The same unspoken argument is offered to justify the graceful exit permitted the captain and chief weapons officer of the Stark. They too were given an impossible mission with ambiguous rules of engagement.

Fine. Let's not hang the military commanders out to dry. But if they are not at fault, it does not follow that no one is. It follows, instead, that those who gave them their orders should be held accountable.

In parliamentary systems, there is a firm tradition for doing exactly that. Responsibility -- real responsibility -- often rises to the political level. When the Falklands were overrun, the British commander on the ground was not sacked. It was the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, who resigned. (So did his deputy and the foreign office official with most direct jurisdiction over the Falklands.) Explained Carrington, "I don't think we did anything wrong, but the result was wrong." Under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, that is enough. If something goes wrong on your watch, you do not utter the word "responsibility" with a catch in your throat. You resign.

Sometimes you may need to do more. A most extreme example has been offered the world by a man whose whole life has been lived in extremis. As prime minister, he led his country into a war that he was sure would be quick and painless. It was neither. Six hundred of his soldiers died and he never forgave himself. He not only resigned. He locked himself up in his apartment, and for four years now (except for two trips to the cemetery and one to a hospital) Menachem Begin has not come out.

Self-imprisonment is an unusual form of penance. It is not to be expected from most politicians (though there are some for whom you might wish it). But between atonement on a Biblical scale and today's empty rhetoric of pseudo-responsibility, there must lie something. Responsibility must carry with it some consequences. For reasons not of vengeance, but of justice -- and as one of our few deterrents against fatal negligence. Responsibility that has no consequences is not just an exercise in cover-up. It is an invitation to the debacles of the future.