The initial report on the accident on the USS Iowa read like the script of a particularly preposterous and lurid television drama. Lonely gay gunner's mate, discouraged by lack of promotion and recognition, "probably" blew up self and 46 shipmates in gun blast, leaving insurance policy to a shipmate who had rejected him.

Clayton Hartwig's family couldn't accept it. He was just not that kind of a guy, they said. Several members of Congress found it far-fetched. Columnist Edwin Yoder Jr. wrote, " . . . As an exercise in historical inquiry or common justice, it stinks."

Yoder's contention is that the Navy spot-welded two shaky propositions -- sloppy reporting by the notoriously inept Naval Investigative Service and off-the-wall pop-psychology from the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime -- and blackened a good sailor's name.

The Navy said the Iowa gun-turret explosion was no accident. The Navy doesn't have accidents, was the subtext.

Luckily, a few people didn't want to leave it at that. Hartwig's sister, Kathleen Kubicina, took to the road and talked to her brother's shipmates, newspaper editors and members of Congress. The House Armed Services Committee did a probe and accused the Navy of conducting an "inadequate and unprofessional" inquiry.

The Iowa's skipper, Capt. Fred P. Moosally, when he took early retirement -- and full responsibility for the tragedy -- and could safely speak out, said the investigators put the Navy's image ahead of the truth.

Two weeks later, the General Accounting Office, Congress's crack detective unit, issued a report that blew up the Navy's thesis about Hartwig's stealthy introduction of an explosive device into the gun barrel.

What was more likely, the GAO account said, after extensive tests by Sandia National Laboratories, is that the powder bags, rammed into the barrel at high speed, ignited.

The Navy is reinvestigating. Maybe this time, it will tap people as interested in finding the truth as in protecting the Navy. Institution-lovers proceed on the theory that the institution must be preserved at all costs, never noticing the loss of credibility that is involved.

Hartwig's sister hailed the vindication of her brother and said, "A simple 'I'm sorry' from the Navy would do."

Governments around us are apologizing for grave offenses. The newly elected East German parliament asked the Jews for forgiveness for its nation's previously denied role in the Holocaust. Japan apologized to Korea for cruel treatment. Even in the Soviet Union, difficult, painful slate-cleaning is done. The Soviets finally admitted that they had killed the flower of the Polish Army in the Katyn Forest. This was well known, but the Russians had stubbornly insisted that the Nazis had perpetrated the atrocity.

But "I'm sorry" is not in the U.S. tradition. Ronald Reagan could not bring himself to apologize to Iran for the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner, with great loss of life. In Japan, even corporations say they are sorry. After an air disaster, the head of an airline stands at the foot of the ramp, bows low and begs pardon of relatives of victims.

Apologies do not bring back the dead. They help the living a little.

The Navy's powerful counter-instinct to close ranks was on vivid and ugly display recently in the lesser incident of the female midshipman dragged from her room in Bancroft Hall at Annapolis and handcuffed to a urinal by male classmates.

The perpetrators, proud of their work, photographed the scene. The woman, feeling humiliated and degraded, resigned. Her assailants, who should have been required to apologize to her in public before they were kicked out, instead were restricted to campus for a month and given demerits.

These are the "officers and gentlemen" who will be representing America around the globe. Will they, with their history, excuse excesses on the part of their fellow officers and, when there is trouble on their ships, conclude first that it is not their fault and hunt down enlisted scapegoats?

The trouble at Annapolis goes deep: insecure men, feeling threatened by bright women excused from combat; a service-wide identity crisis caused by the fact that its ships have become little more than targets for Exocet missiles.

Male bonding was in full force during the punishment phase of the incident. The academy superintendent decided that it was simply a little horseplay that "got out of hand." It did not constitute hazing, which is forbidden, because it was not "premeditated." Boys will be boys. It's the kind of mentality that closes the mind to any admission of mistakes and injustices.