A tight ship

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2011, 12:00am


Loose Lips Sink Ships. It is worth remembering this US refrain from the second world war to help explain the disciplined silence from the 7,000-odd US sailors now visiting Hong Kong over any juicy details of Osama bin Laden's last hours.

Any sailor will tell you that life on board is not exactly all beer and shore leave. Sheer routine can get painfully dull. So it is safe to assume that the role the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson played in the events leading up to the sea burial of bin Laden was a pretty hot topic of gossip at the coffee urns, even if only a tiny fraction of the crew and officers had any direct involvement or knowledge. It will be, as they say, a story for the grandchildren.

Yet, from the commander of the strike group on down, the crew of the Carl Vinson and its support ships have been giving nothing of note away during their stops in Manila and, now, Hong Kong - their first days of freedom since the May 2 drama.

An admiral said he could not reveal 'operational details' or where his orders came from, even as he happily engaged on other issues. Sailors hitting the town offered even less details. 'I saw it the same place you did - on the television,' is a typical reply.

It is tempting to assume that personnel at all levels have been made aware of the dangers of hot talk in this case, such as the risk of inspiring future terrorist attacks by inflaming Muslim tensions.

In other ways, however, the rigour of this silence speaks volumes and has wider meaning.

It is an illustration that the US military remains very much in war mode nearly a decade since the start of the Afghanistan campaign. For all the controversy of the Iraq invasion and the very naming of the 'war on terror', the fact is that the US possesses a battle-hardened military at all levels. It may well be a costly experience but it is one that will help keep it sharp for a generation ahead, despite any perceptions of US power on the wane.

That fact is not lost on regional strategists and 'great power' theorists, who fear that a conflict between a rising power - China - and a declining one - the US - is somehow inevitable. It is a fact well understood, too, by the People's Liberation Army, according to sources familiar with its thinking.

The discipline is a further sign of the apparently tight system of control between the US military's civilian leadership in the White House and the Pentagon in Washington, and the operational level - a system that history suggests has not always functioned so smoothly given the openness and pressures of the world's most influential democracy.

That was brought into vivid relief over the weekend. The Carl Vinson was arriving in Hong Kong as the US commander in chief and president, Barack Obama, was giving a rare interview to the BBC on the capture and killing of bin Laden. But, as it transpired, there was no risk he was about to be upstaged.

There were no leaks in the long months of planning and the aftermath has been watertight, too.

It may not be the stuff of headlines, or easily answer the critics who say Washington must release details to ensure credibility in the eyes of a sceptical international community. But it does show that, for the practitioners at least, their system still works.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.