“Only a seaman realizes to what great extent an entire ship reflects the personality and ability of one individual, her Commanding Officer. To a landsman this is not understandable, and sometimes it is even difficult for us to understand. But it is so.

“A ship at sea is a distinct world in herself and in consideration of the protracted and distant operations of the fleet units the Navy must place great power, responsibility and trust in the hands of those leaders chosen for command. It is a duty that most richly deserves the highest, time-honored title of the seafaring world. CAPTAIN.”

— Joseph Conrad Something is rotten in Denmark. Or rather, rotten in the shore-based command structure responsible for selection, posting and relieving naval officers chosen for command at sea. What once was the culmination of every line officer’s dream and aspiration must now be viewed by many with fear and trepidation. The cashiering of U.S. Navy commanding officers continues apace. What once was rare has become almost commonplace. What’s going on?

Are the wrong officers being given command? Are criteria used for judging them ready for command not really indicative of their readiness to assume it? Or are complaints to higher authority by troublesome crew members being accepted largely at face value, without adequate verification of their validity, by seniors in the chain of command fearful of ending their own careers on a sour note if they fail to take “apropriate” action?

Relief for cause is a serious matter and not one to take without exhaustive investigation and regard for the damage done to both the officer relieved and the Navy, which presumably has groomed him for command and weighed performance evaluations prepared by senior officers in earlier assignments.

One of the most recent cases of a ship’s captain being removed from command concerns The Sullivans, a guided missile destroyer home ported in Mayport, Fla., and currently deployed with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. An investigation by the Sixth Fleet found The Sullivans commanding officer, Commander Derick Armstrong, had “created a hostile work environment that undermined the effectiveness and morale of the sailors” aboard his ship. Is this now sufficient cause for relieving a commanding officer? What specifically does Cmdr. Armstrong stand accused of doing or not doing?

Cmdr. Armstrong was in command of his ship only since last November, and he is the second captain of The Sullivans relieved for cause in the past eight months.

Who’s in charge, the captain or the crew?

Why can’t the Navy put the right people in command of its dwindling number of ships and keep them aboard for their full tours?