The U.S. Navy has, or soon will have, 600 ships. But its dispositionof the USS Stark disaster suggests that it soon will also have at least600 ways of ducking responsibilityfor what happens to ships in harm's way.
The Navy's Atlantic command has disregarded the recommendations of a board of inquiry and sparedthe Stark's skipper and gunnery officer a court-martial. Capt. GlennBrindel and Lt. Basil Moncrief will instead be allowed to resign from the service.
The official explanation of this remarkable decision is that the two officers took ''heroic'' action after the May 17 Exocet missile attack on the ship by an Iraqi fighter plane in which 37 crewmen lost their lives. It is also said that a long court-martial ''would cause intensified grief on the part of the families of the victims . . . and stress to the Stark crew.''
In the prevailing climate of what has been called ''no-fault government,'' the Navy is hardly alone in seeking easy ways out of its problems. When high civilian officials tend to excuse themselves lightly for presiding over unmitigated policy disasters, a certain decay of standards could well become contagious. Perhaps it is not especially shocking that the Navy would let its historic traditions of command responsibility slip. The decision certainly is humane and compassionate. But more important, for military purposes, it is both sentimental and misguided.
One thing should be made clear at the outset. No one is interested in vindictiveness. No one can yet assume that either Capt. Brindel or Lt. Moncrief was ''guilty'' of an avoidable dereliction of duty. Both in the current fashion have accepted formal ''responsibility'' for what happened. But without a searching formal inquiry -- for which the usual forum is a court-martial -- who can say whether these two dutiful officers were heroes, nincompoops or victims of circumstance?
Under longstanding institutional custom, once especially strong in the Navy, a high degree of personal responsibility necessarily attaches to any military command -- indeed, to the very status of being an officer. A court-martial would dictate that both officers offer defenses. And out of the dialectic springing from those defenses, important questions could be answered.
For instance, was the Stark devastated by the Iraqi missiles because its officers failed to be vigilant? Or was it, as one anonymous Pentagon source has hinted, because the rules of engagement for American warships in the Gulf were too foggy to offer clear guidance? Was the Stark disaster primarily a human failing? Or was there something in its weaponry or defensive systems (now only five years old) that might reveal stupid design or shoddy procurement decisions?
These are precisely the kinds of questions that courts-martial might answer, in addition to the crucial function of fixing the exact focus of personal responsibility in an incisive way and by a judgment of peers.
In short, the Navy has preferred sentimentality to martial rigor. Sparing needless grief to the families of Stark victims and ''stress'' to its surviving crewmen are admirable objectives. But they are hardly so paramount as to excuse tossing overboard two centuries of command tradition and responsibility.
Already, the advertising campaigns for military enlistment (''A Good Place to Start'' and all that) tend to imply that a profession whose essence is danger is anything but dangerous; that our military services are no more than rather unconventional educational institutions, in which students wear fatigues rather than blue jeans.
When such disasters as the attack on the Stark and the Beirut Marine barracks bombing of October 1983 pass without adequate and systematic military scrutiny, the feelings of the victims and their families may be spared. But potential victims of the next military failure -- and the next -- may be placed at greater risk.
Not the least of the consequences finally is that those of us who admire the Navy and its traditions must ask ourselves what it means to be in command of a ship these days? Is command just another 9-to-5 job with a military version of the golden parachute at the end?