I started this book because I’m on a novelization/source of movies kick to begin the year, and I remember the short-lived television series from the 1980s. This book is not a novelization of it or a novel that’s the source: It is a non-fiction book that was purportedly source material for the television show, but I don’t think they had much to do with one another aside from the name and the type of boat.
The author is a Washington Post reporter and a former pilot who embeds before embedding was a thing with the crew of the USS John F. Kennedy as it deploys for a seven month cruise in 1983-1984. Originally scheduled to steam out to the Indian Ocean, it gets put on point off of Lebanon after the attack that killed the Marines in their barracks. The posting climaxes early in an ill-conceived bombing raid that results in the loss of two planes and the deaths of two aviators.
Initially, I thought the author was playing it pretty straight, but in gestalt, not so much. He proffers some respect for the people on the ship–and he gets around, so he gets to know people in every position from the captain down to the boiler tenders–but, really, he’s kinda for the guys who are in the Navy because they had no other prospects in their slums or backward small towns. And when we get to the bombing raid, he really takes some time to call out the civilian leadership of the military (Reagan and the Republicans) for attempting a limited retaliation for a missile strike. Which is weird because he mentions Operation Eagle Claw which was launched in an election year by Carter, but he doesn’t call that a political operation.
So, basically, the author tries to be for the troops while pissing on the military and the political leadership.
However, the left-leaning subtext is fairly subtle compared by modern standards, and in between its blushes we get some good stories and insight into various occupations and life on a deployed aircraft carrier. The cover says it was a controversial book, and I bet it was, as a lot of people who would have liked a straight narrative got a Political Message in it. But, as I said, by the standards of today, it’s relatively subtle and mild. Although books like this likely led us to where we are now.
I can’t give it a completely unalloyed recommendation, but it was insightful in spots.
Quibbles and targeted snark below the fold.
How do some of the ship’s crew feel about having a newspaper man aboard to write a book? They were not pleased with the press especially its reporting of Vietnam.
Television crews were often obnoxious as hell in Vietnam and other places. So were print reporters sometimes. But I hae never felt apologetic about the way most of the press reported on Vietnam. The reporters I traveled with around the boonies in 1968 and 1972 passed onto the public what they saw and what they heard from those fighting the war.
Of course, the author uses the same template for this book: Uneducated kids being asked to die for their country for no real reason. Also, yes, the brief Lebanon peacekeeping mission is totally like Vietnam you guys.
The Churcher Who Is Almost Like Us
A chaplain who is almost normal:
“All I can do is to try to stop the bleeding,” Captain James E. Doffin, head chaplain, told me. He was a cherubic looking down-country speaking Baptist from Charleston, South Carolina, who also happened to have earned a graduate degree from Princeton University.
Astounding! He went to the right college!
Race Relations In the 1980s Military
The most uplifting change I noticed was the harmony between black and white sailors. I had sailed on Navy ships in the 1970s as a military correspondent, including a cross-Atlantic trip with the Mod Squad of destroyers, and found the races dangerously polarized. Blacks often handed me petitions charging their superiors with racism when I went down into the engine rooms or walked through mess decks. Sabotage and muggings broke out in the post-Vietnam, racially polarized Navy. I found no such polarization on the Kennedy. “We’re too busy to get into the race thing,” was a typical response when I asked black sailors about it. I witnessed this marvelously health vignette one afternoon on the flight deck:
White sailor to black sailor: “Hey, you’re ruining the neighborhood. You’re the only black here.”
Black sailor to white sailor: “Fuck you. Sell while you can get a good price for it.”
Then, best of all, they both laughed/
Man, I remember those days. I did not engage in much racial banter, but comedies like Blazing Saddles and Richard Pryor’s work were funny as they acknowledged and poked fun at cultural differences and stereotypes. Can’t have that any more, and they’re moving to radicalize the armed forces, so it was a brief golden age in race relations in retrospect.
Now, my eleven year old son has trouble describing schoolmates as black and feels like a racist if he mentions that one has a darker complection than another.
They Probably Have Smoking Areas Now. Or Not
Usually the lounge was heavy with cigarette smoke, especially along the wall where President Kennedy’s portrait hung over an artificial fireplace.
One wonders the smoking policies in the 21st century navy.
Also, note the portrait of the beloved former president, the namesake of the carrier, who got the United States involved in Vietnam.
The Inspiration for Top Gun
“We flew beside them so long that we had plenty of time to get close and take pictures and study the airplane [a Russian bomber]. We could see what the guys were doing inside. One guys had just a T-shirt on and his little leather helmet. He was the guy in the back window which stretches across the aft end of the bomber, right under the tail fin. We could see him move from side to side, from one window to the other, to look at us. After we were on him for about an hour, we had our masks off and were just taking it easy. They signaled to us to sweep our wings so we they could take a picture. They were holding up cameras. So, what the heck, we swept our wings, and they took pictures.
“Then I saw the guy in the little bubble window behind the cockpit. I could see he was eating a sandwich and had a little cup in his hand. My backseater pulled out his little water bottle that we keep and he held it up like a toast. And the guy in the bomber broke into a great big smile and held up his cup. And then my backseater and the Russian drank.”
Or, more to the point, an inspiration for a Pepsi commercial, the first commercial included on the VHS of Top Gun when it was first released. I can’t help but wonder if the film and the Supercarrier television series were in part inspired as a rebuttal to this book.
Fresh History, Forgotten
The U.S. Navy and Brazilian Navy officers were kindred spirits even though their governments were on opposite sides during the war over the Falkland Islands.
Remember that one? If you do, you’re old.
I mean, I was ten, so I wasn’t there, man, but I remember what it was about.
A Roosevelt Quote, Shared
At the service for the aviators lost before the Lebanon raid, the chaplain quotes Teddy:
“‘It is not the critic who counts nor the man who points out how the strong men stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the enthusiasm, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.'”
I wrote that out and had it taped to my computer monitor twenty-some years ago. I think I still have the hand-written inspirational quotes on cards somewhere close by even now.
But one wonders if the author saw himself anywhere in that quote, and if it was, if he saw himself more as a critic or the doer of deeds in a book where he criticises and points out the stumbles of the military. Just kidding. He’s on the carrier, and Reagan isn’t. I know how he thinks of himself.
Tell Us How You Really Feel
Before the Lebanon raid, we get some foreshadowing:
“I didn’t know I was going to start a war out here,” Market (because he played the stock market) Burch would tell me later. I watched as he and Lieutenant John “Fozzie” Miller prepared their fighter plane for the mission that would trigger a chain of events which would kill one of our most popular fliers, lead to the capture of another, and spotlight the incompetence in the high command of the American military.
He’s for the men in the military, but against the military, who are blunderers and sacrificing their men’s lives for nothing, but, then again, the men come from nothing and have no better prospects than the military.
Failed Raid Leads to Mondale Voters
After the raid, a bunch of unnamed people confide that that was the last straw; they’re Democrats now:
“What a fucked up mission,” shouted a hotshot fighter pilot as I sat with him and other aviators in the Air Wing office rehashing the raid. “I don’t see how you can’t retaliate when they fire on your planes. Be we lost two airplanes. That’s a big victory for them.”
The pilot was an outspoken Republican who had sung Reagan’s praises long and loud around the ship. So it was radical for him when he summed up his protest: “I’m going to vote Democratic because of the way they micromanaged this raid.”
Spoiler alert: Democratic leadership is worse, as history will soon prove. Then and now.
The Future Is Then
Interviewing the Secretary of the Navy, the author asks about drones.
Flying lower to see better increased the risk of being downed by the SA-7. Armed with this information, I asked the Secretary of the Navy why it would not make sense to turn to low level, unmanned drones for both photography and spotting for both photography and spotting for Navy guns offshore.
“We ought to try it. It certainly makes sense to go drones for the TARPS mission in some circumstances.”
You know, my recently passed aunt was a civilian working on the drones program tangentally in the 1980s, and my godfather/uncle told me drones were the future. Me, hopped up on Top Gun and Gunship, doubted it out loud. But, author, wait until you see what an unaccountable President can do with armed drones in the 21st century. You’ll love it (if the President is of the proper party).
Someone Got A Bang All Right
Does the fact that a Third World country tied down two of the Navy’s giant carriers at once strengthen the argument by Senator Gary Hart and others that the nation would get more bang for its buck by building smaller and less expensive carriers so the Navy could afford more of them?
Ha, ha, he said Gary Hart. Man, I am from the future, and I am here to tell you there will be no President Hart no matter how much you want it. (C’mon, you damn kids, Gary Hart. Although a couple years later, we would get President Bill Clinton who might have learned a thing or two about running for president as a womanizer from Gary Hart.)
Don’t Know Much About History
Conflicts [in Lebanon] between tribes, between Christians and Moslems dating back to biblical times kept breaking out like a rash.
Of course, as anyone old enough to have studied actual history in public school might know, Moslems do no date back to biblical times.
Overall, a worthwhile read, but only for the actual stories about the men on the boat as well as a flashback to current events from the first years of the 1980s, but definitely bogged down by the message that the author wants to convey about what it all means. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s all we get in more modern books–the message without the reporting. Of course, I rarely read anything from the 21st century anyway for much that reason.