Sat – November 22, 2003
Three weeks at sea, an exercise complete, a message to draft.
So, back from three weeks at sea aboard one of our newest aircraft carriers. An amazing technological marvel, to be sure, compared to my last ship, which was 42 years old when we brought her home and has since been de-commissioned.
Now, the last ship was actually mine, I was not a visitor, merely on her, but of her: ship’s company. Even when I was flying, as a squadron member and part of the embarked air wing, the carrier was more of a hotel-cum-airport than home. So the ship I walked off of yesterday was just a place I had come for mentoring and evaluation with the rest of my staff, we were (not always welcome) visitors. The ship was emphatically not mine.
And it’s always hard to compare, because no one else’s thing ever seems to be as good as your own thing. So it was that I was there thinking, yes, yes – nuclear powered, everything works, perfectly enormous – fine, but at the same time thinking, “this ship doesn’t hold a candle to my old boat.” There is an almost spiritual aspect to a ship, they almost have a soul. From my perspective that soul is an accretion of all the things that the people who have served on her have left behind them through the years. The Sailors who have worked in the crucible that is the engine room, even those scrubbing the decks and polishing the knee-knockers and brass fittings (one of the most ridiculous uses of paid labor ever designed, in my view), the pilots that have launched off her grime-smeared decks through decades to vault through the ocean skies – carrying their own lives in one hand and death in the other, the surface warfare officers who have stood countless hours of watch through all the long, quiet nights. All of these have left a part of themselves behind, a sort of echoing excellence. This new ship just didn’t have as much experience, as much soul, as my old one. And anyway, like I said – it wasn’t mine.
And of course it was great to be home. Up late the night prior preparing the out-brief, and then handed the task to write a message to the fleet commander on our results during the briefing. Ugh. Skip lunch, back to the keyboard, tap-tap-tap. Finished the draft by 1600 (on a Friday afternoon!), knowing full well that no one will read this thing over the weekend, wondering why I wasn’t on the way home.
Smiling faces, welcome homes, back to the routine – re-integrating into lives that have moved on ever-so-slightly in your absence. Didn’t see the last volley ball game, the championship, missed the parent-teacher conference (she’s doing great!), wasn’t a part of the college essay that had to go out.
Sometimes you have to wonder if it’s all worth it – could have been a banker, could have left ten years ago to be an airline pilot, most of my friends did. But then one of them had his throat cut and his airliner crashed into what had been one of the tallest two buildings in the world up until a little over two years ago.
It would be nice if we could split at every decision point, college, marriage, career, and meet again at the end of days to compare notes: how was it for you? Life’s not like that of course, so we take the best course we can fashion, weighing all the tangibles and intangibles. For my own part I knew that no one ever makes enough money, no matter what you do – life has to be a measure not of what you’ve bought, but what you’ve accomplished.
Everyone thinks of getting out when they’re young, retiring when they’re eligible. I myself had an approved resignation letter back in 1990. Took it back, I was having too much fun and great things were in the offing. I had a chat with one of our junior officers (JO’s) at sea, he’s “on the fence,” which really means he’s preparing me for his resignation, since he wouldn’t talk about it unless he was most of the way out the door. Too hard, misses his family too much, too much BS. The wife wants him out, wants him home.
He’s young enough to want perfection in a human institution, old enough to see it will never happen. He’s brilliant and energetic, a good officer and a great pilot and we will probably lose him to someplace where the bottom line has a dollar sign beside it, where hard work results in a little more in the pocket. Where he’ll make the last volley ball game, and the parent-teacher conference. Someplace where he will undoubtedly be liked and valued, but they will not love him like we do, as one of us, made by us and forged into a dependable weapon, a leader, a naval officer. I have so often seen it before.
This is getting long, much longer than I intended, and has gone off in a different direction than I had started down, so if you’re still with me, thanks. The words are writing themselves.
There was a scene in the movie “Glory,” where the Col Robert Gould Shaw character played by Matthew Broderick asks of his regiment prior to the (ultimately unsuccessful) assault on the Confederate Fort Wagner, “if this man (the color bearer) should fall, who will take his place?”
Now that can’t have been a very good job for an infantryman, I should think. Up front, no rifle, symbol to the enemy. But some one had to do it, and someone had to be ready to step in when the color bearer dropped. And mostly someone did, and when no one did, then the battle was going very poorly…
The closest historical parallel to the current status of the US seems to me to be that of the Roman Empire. Rome stood astride the western world as a colossus, and was at its best a flare of light in a world of darkness. It was not comprehensively good of course: Roman senators sent their speeches to the mob in the hands of slaves, taxation to support the occupying legions, bread and circuses destroyed the landed gentry. The legions themselves were never allowed inside the city walls, were not to cross the Rubicon. But taken as a whole in the context of its times, Rome was a power of good, of civilization, even of hope.
The Roman Empire fell not because of a lack of power, but a lack of will. The Romans became fond of their luxury, stopped serving as citizen-soldiers in their legions and hired other men to stand in the line for them. They depended upon their superior tactics and their superior culture. And when they died, they died upon their superior couches. And when Rome fell, what a fall was there. The west collapsed for a thousand years into the tyranny of those with the bloodiest hands. Vast volumes of knowledge were lost, some of it forever. Not for nothing were those known as the Dark Ages.
Now, in spite of the hyperventilated shrieks from the Euro-left, I am convinced that the US is no empire, unless it be an empire of ideas. One of those ideas is that freedom means something universal, that it represents the noblest aspiration of all peoples, even those who have not received it as a birthright. For me, that idea is worth fighting for, against the barbarians at our gates. Not just for the families I don’t know in some Iowa town I’ve never heard about, but for my children, so that they shall have the same freedoms that were handed down to me by my father’s generation, and his before him.
I am convinced that as long as we collectively decide that what we stand for is worth preserving, we shall not fail in preserving this light, this beacon to all humanity, this hope of what could be. But that collective will is expressed in individual decisions all over the country – at army posts and Navy bases, in check-points in Iraq and in the halls of Congress, in the sky by tanker pilots and in the ballot booths.
At some point, God forbid, when the last critical man will decide that it is too hard, that he misses his family too much, the line will fail, the colors will fall, and the barbarians will break through the gates. I do not know who that last man will be, but I know it will not be me.
So we talked of these things, the disappointed young junior officer and I. And he told me that I had given him a lot to think about.
I guess we’ll see.