THE RISK OF GOING UNSEEN

Preached by the Rev. Whitney Edwards in Upper School Chapel 
August 28, 2017


Watch the New York Times video that accompanied the chapel talk here.

On Aug 21st the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer in the 7th fleet, collided with the Liberian-registered Alnic MC, a commercial oil tanker, at the entrance of a channel in the Straits of Malacca near Singapore. As you can see by the clip of the pre-dawn traffic patterns in the Straight that morning, it is incredibly busy channel feeding a large port, with each dot representing a ship as tracked by radar.

Less than 2 months earlier, on June 17th, another 7th fleet Navy guided missile destroyer, called the USS Fitzgerald, collided with the Philippine Cargo ship the ACX Crystal 12 nautical miles off the southern tip of the Japanese Izu Peninsula, just before daybreak.

Maritime officials and ship operators call both regions “Convergence Zones”, where hundreds of ships pass through narrow waters each day in and out of commercial ports, particularly at dawn and dusk. Between the two collisions 20 lives have been lost, hundreds of millions of dollars of damage sustained, the fleet commander has been fired, and, as these add to two other collisions this year, the Navy’s morale, especially in the Pacific Fleet, has taken a terrible blow. According to Vice Admiral William Douglas Crowder, former commander of the 7th Fleet, even accounting for the size of the fleet, congestion of the region, and frequency of missions in the Pacific, “four collisions in 9 months puts coincidence in the lower percentage of explanations”. So, if it isn’t a coincidence, thenhow could this have happened in 2017?

It is unlikely just one thing, but a host of issues: from human error, to shortcomings in judgement, poor training, insufficient experience; and faulty command structures. Investigations are underway and, hopefully, the Navy will not rest until all is learned and mistakes remedied so that another serviceman does not die by avoidable causes.

But something that has already been identified as a significant contributing cause is worth our consideration, I think. While many are saying, how could this happen in 2017 when technological capability is better than ever, those in the know are saying, actually that is it. That is the fatal flaw.

You see, no one could see the Fitzgerald and the McCain in the midst of the busy shipping lanes, not from the bridge, not from the deck, and not on the radar screens. No one knew our ships were there until they literally crashed into them… not the giant lumbering container and tanker ships, not surrounding boats, not even the Maritime and Port Authorities of Tokyo and Singapore tracking all movement in and out of port.

The Fitzgerald and the McCain, were for all intents and purposes, utterly invisible. International maritime law requires all but the smallest commercial vessels use the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which transmits a constant communication of a ship’s location, course and speed. Yet, while military vessels carry AIS, Naval ships, which are designed to avoid detection by enemy fleets and aircraft, are exempt from those laws. Neither destroyer had their AIS on at the times of their accidents. Additionally, combat-ready ships tend to have fewer lights and are painted gray to blend into the sea by day and to be impossible to spot by night. And a growing number of modern naval vessels, including the McCain, are designed to scatter incoming radar signals, making them virtually undetectable.

Here are some images of some next generation ships with radar and detection avoidance capability currently being used. I saw one being built this summer and they are amazing. They are streamlined, with hulls coated in high tech material to deflect radar, and can even operate intensely powerful engines without producing any detectable heat signature. When you hear that the McCain is valued at $1+ billion dollars, you can believe it.

As it turns out, all the stealth capabilities we have gone to great length and expense to develop sometimes turn out to be our greatest liability. Because in our efforts to go unseen…well no one can see us.

I was in a meeting the other day, thinking about this. It was actually a conversation about our dress code. I know, those two words, “dress code”, are about as controversial as they come on these 42 acres. I may have actually just lost a few of you to passionate thoughts of shirt tails and logos.  But come back, come back and we’ll definitely talk about that another time. Because in the discussion, I was thinking, really, about the fact that while our dress code is intended to minimize distraction from learning and maintain standards, it is also a very effective form of camouflage. And it’s not the only kind we have here. Whether it’s by how we dress, or by keeping a low profile in the work we produce, how much we speak up or stay silent, the leadership opportunities we pass over, whether we get to know our advisors and let our advisors know us….all these are places where we choose whether to stand out or paint our hulls grey and avoid radar detection. Around here, there are as many ways to be stealth as there are to stand out. And the choice is really up to us which way we go. Hopefully, many of us feel deeply known here, by classmates, by teachers, by coaches. As “known people” we feel supported and encouraged. Yes, when things turn out well, but also when they don’t. To feel like whatever comes, we can do it because we are doing it together.  That is something St. Christopher’s strives for: To know boys and for them to feel known and supported.

And yet, for some of you, what is known about you is not that deep. Maybe some people know your interests, your grades, where you stand in your class ranking, what you are likely to do when you get a hold of the ball.
But do we know what you really care about?
What’s going on in your heads?
What you fear?
What you love?

Do you want us to?

Sometimes it feels good, not being known, I mean. To move through the crowded halls and classrooms like a battleship in a crowded channel, passing through without really been seen. Stealthy, free of the prying looks of others. Free to ride under the radar and do your thing. Believe me, I know the appeal of it. As a 9-month pregnant woman, I long for the days when people didn’t stare at me. When total strangers don’t grab at my belly or ask me incredibly personal questions. Ha! Pregnancy is so awesome and so weird. Though you don’t know my particular experience, maybe you have known the exposure of growing several inches in a year, or being singled out by a teacher as their go-to, or you were born with all the expectations that come with a great intellect, athlete or artist for an older sibling. Maybe you have had to shoulder the unwelcome attention of a devastating loss or failure… Sometimes, attention, no matter how well meaning, is uncomfortable and unwelcomed.

But, if our study of the 7th Fleet is any indicator of the drawbacks of riding under the radar, going unseen is straight up risky. For all the times the Fitzgerald and the McCain successfully slipped in and out of the crowd unseen, they had to do it with no help from anyone, relying on their own wits and abilities and by the laws of probability raising the risk of a crash at every pass. Self-reliance has serious risks.

I bring this up because it is the start of a new year and a good time for us to decide what kind of attention we will get this year, what kind of help we will ask for. And I mean it when I say “we”, because we all have that choice, faculty and students. Who we will be in this community and whether we will, as the scripture says, hide our light under a bushel, is up to us. It is only we who get to decide.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, my sheep know me, and I know them”. That’s his vision for real community: A group of people who actually know and care about each other. Each and every other. And that he will not leave us alone until he has gathered us all and brought us home.

Because sometimes, being known, is exactly what we need. Especially when it is in the company of good people who care deeply about us.

So my prayer for you (for all of us) is that we have the courage to risk being known and that when we do, when we take that risk, we will find ourselves rewarded by the attention of good men and women who care about us, look after us, and give us what we need to have a really awesome year.

AMEN

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  • Fraser Davis says:

    Whitney, what a great way to start the year. Thank you for this very helpful and kind message to the boys.