ADVERTISEMENT

Ever since Francesco Schettino decided to treat a 114,000-ton cruise ship like a Jet Ski and buzz Isola del Giglio off Tuscany on Jan. 13, people around the world have been ripping him.

Ripping his tan. Ripping the way he showed off his chest hair. Ripping his matinee-idol looks. Ripping the attention he allegedly paid to lissome young female passengers. But mostly ripping the fact that he abandoned the Costa Concordia before making sure all the passengers and crew were safe, refusing to go back on board even as an Italian coast guard captain ripped him up and down.

At least 17 people have died in the shipwreck; 15 more are missing and presumed dead.

The Italian press is mortified; the country finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi and then this guy comes along. The British press is calling him "Captain Coward." The captain is under house arrest and could face a long list of criminal charges.

Almost nobody, as far as I can tell, is expressing any empathy for the man. But my guess is this: Under similar circumstances, at least 95 percent of the people criticizing Schettino would, in a dark night with a ship sinking under them, do exactly the same thing he did. Give it a spit and a lick and hit the silk. We wouldn't be proud of it, but that's what we'd do.

In our imaginations, we are all noble and brave. But honor and self-sacrifice are qualities far rarer than we'd like to think. Look around. People are copping pleas and making excuses all over the place. Politics, business, sports, entertainment. That's why we have cover-ups. That's why we have weak non-apologies like, "I certainly meant no offense by calling you a weasel."

If people won't even step forward and say, "My bad. I shouldn't have (lied) (cheated) (injected steroids) (run the red light) (invaded Iraq) (whatever)," then how can they pass judgment on a guy who wouldn't stay on a sinking ship until everyone else was off?

The Navy is smart. It doesn't let just anyone command a ship. In the Navy, it takes years. Training. Discipline. Duty. And above all, you don't want to let the people you command think you don't have what it takes.

Apparently cruise ship companies may not be so particular; sailing a bunch of tourists around the Mediterranean doesn't require the same set of values as commanding a warship.

I went looking through the history books for someone at the other end of the command spectrum from Schettino. History is replete with heroes, possibly because cowards usually don't get remembered. Most of the heroes were naval mariners, but there are plenty of examples of merchant captains, fishing captains and even yachtsmen who made sure everyone else got off first. Many of them went down with their ships.

The code does not require that. It does, however, require that the commander be the last guy off, and sailors take it seriously. Consider the hero of Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim." He is haunted that as a young mate, he and his cowardly captain abandoned a steamer full of pilgrims, failing his own code, failing the code of the sea, failing mankind.

"The real significance of crime," writes Conrad, "is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind."

When the U.S. aircraft carrier Lexington was attacked by Japanese aircraft in the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942, it happened to be carrying not only a captain, Frederick C. "Ted" Sherman, but also the task force commander, Rear Admiral Aubrey Fitch.

The Lexington was struck by four torpedoes and two bombs shortly before noon but managed to stay afloat all afternoon, even recovering her own aircraft. But fires below led to internal explosions and by 4:30 p.m., Sherman ordered the boilers shut down and the crew to the flight deck. Shortly after 5 he gave the order to abandon ship.

The sailors did this methodically. Fitch and his staff remained on the flag bridge as long as possible and then made their way to the ropes at the forward port side. Protocol said that Sherman, the ship's commander, has to be last. Still, the admiral insisted that he and his staff were second to last.

Back on the Lexington, where bombs and ammunition were still cooking off, Sherman and his executive officer, M.T. Seligman, did a final inspection. Then Sherman sent his Marine orderly and Seligman over the side. He himself was the last man off the ship, which by then had turned red-hot from the fires below.

Of course, this was 70 years ago. And it was the U.S. Navy, not an Italian cruise ship. But this is how it's done.