In June 2008, I finished my eighteen-month tour on the USS Cowpens and thus reached my minimum service obligation of four years in the United States Navy. I resigned my commission, separated from the navy, and moved to Canada a couple months later to start graduate school at the University of Toronto. During that year in Toronto, when I had free time, I pulled together some disjointed stories and musings from my previous four years in the navy. By the summer of 2009, they all came together in a self-published book, Assumed the Watch. Moored as Before. (An Alternative Naval Officer’s Guide).
Eight years later, when I occasionally reflect back on both the navy and the book, I harbor no real regrets. True, I could have left out one or two of the more superfluous penis jokes and references. I probably could have weaved some of the stories into a better cohesive whole. And, it probably could have been less bitter or angry. That is, if I were to have written a book about my time in the navy (2004-2008) now, it would look a lot different from the one I wrote. Yet in 2009, after Toronto, I was on my way to Uganda for a year-and-a-half volunteer teacher program. One of my closest navy friends encouraged me to get the book out sooner rather than later, to capture the bitter me in the bitter moment, especially before I became too “peacey-lovey” in Uganda. And so I did: I tried to capture an honest, bitter moment, and I’m glad I did.
All in all then, I am proud of the book. Short of bringing down the entire U.S. Navy, it accomplished what I wanted it to do: it was fun to write; it exorcised some of my demons; it made a handful of officers and sailors still out in the navy laugh and even cry; and it eventually broke even and, somehow, still brings in a couple dollars of royalties once in awhile.
In Assumed the Watch, I do not paint life in the navy as a surface warfare officer (SWO) in a good light. And by sharing all of my reactions to that life, I admittedly do not paint myself in a good light either. John Wheelwright, the narrator in John Irving’s beautiful A Prayer for Owen Meany, reflects on his move to Canada during the Vietnam era: “But I didn’t come to Canada to be a smart-ass American…. I didn’t want to be one of those people who are critical of everything.” He, predictably, had become “one of those people.” I went to Canada in a different time and for different reasons, but by many accounts, I was the smart-ass American that he described. I was critical and complained of many things, both American and non-American. This comes out in the pages of Assumed the Watch. There are positive reviews of the book on Amazon and elsewhere. But, there are certainly negative reviews as well and some reviews in between. Among the mixed reviews, these two are my favorite:
A shockingly accurate yet incredibly whiny and negative view of life in the surface navy.
I am in the Navy but luckily not a SWO. [SWO’s] are miserable and yes they do like it that way. It is just the culture. LT Fitzgibbons didn't like the Navy, but the Navy is not about liking it is about serving. I only fear Mr. Fitzgibbons will find himself as bored in the corporate world as he did in the Navy. Hopefully he finds a job crab fishing or smoke jumping I don't think he can hack the 9-5 world either.
All through high school, I never got in trouble. I never argued with my parents. I dutifully did any schoolwork or housework asked of me. It appears, then, that I had saved my teenage angst for my early-to-mid twenties and for my respective commanding officers. I was, at times, a little shit. If the now-high-school-teacher-I was in charge of the then-sophomoric-me, especially on my first ship, I would have tired quickly of my attitude. Thus, I am thankful that my captains went easier on me than they could have or perhaps should have.
None of this is to absolve Uncle Sam, John Paul Jones, or Commodore Barry of any malfeasance on their part that led to our divorce in 2008. But almost ten years later, I recognize my own role in the matter.
When I wrote the very first draft of Assumed the Watch, it was much longer. It contained a second half which attempted to summarize, theologize, and philosophize away not only the surface navy but the need for all wars, ever—past, present, and future. Fresh out of the navy, I had embraced pacifism, and I felt like I had to make the case for it there and then, or never. When I sent the first draft to my friend Weston, who had served in the navy and was in the army at the time, he told me he really enjoyed the first half of the book. However, he didn’t like the second half. Not necessarily because he disagreed with all of it. But rather, I was in over my head and trying to do much. I was more effective in what I didn’t say—stick to the stories—he said. He was right, and I lopped off the second half.
After President Trump has fired Tomahawk cruise missiles to Syria—or was it Iraq?—while eating “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake,” I now feel compelled to revisit some of the more explicitly anti-war sentiments from the original draft. Much of the popular U.S. media, which had been relentless in their criticism of Trump since his inauguration, now fawned over the new president and his missiles. This was his first “presidential” act, many commentators applauded. MSNBC’s Brian Williams went so far as to, oddly, describe “beautiful” images of the ships firing the missiles. Was he speaking of the missiles themselves? Of the gray ships illuminated at night? Or, the smoothness of the operation, at least seen from this end?
That is not to pick on Williams alone. He and we are part of a larger current. More than 70 years ago, Orwell wrote, “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Sleek missiles fired from sleek gray ships intoxicate Americans of all stripes and parties. It seems respectable. As for the other end of the missile, which we rarely see, the powerful have fed us phrases suitable for our palate: collateral damage, enemy combatants, extraordinary renditions, and enhanced interrogation techniques. We mindlessly accept the language and in turn do our own sanitizing and euphemizing.
Those Tomahawk cruise missiles—and the ones before and the ones since—came from navy warships similar to one I served on. In fact, in 2003, three and a half years before I reported on board, the USS Cowpens fired thirty-seven missiles in the initial “shock and awe” devastation in Iraq.
In 2003, while the Cowpens fired those missiles, I was studying abroad in Cairo as an undergrad and as an inconspicuous ROTC midshipman. Watching the Iraq invasion unfold from the center of the Arab world necessarily colored my view of the war, and from then, March of 2003 would forever color my political worldview. And so, when I took the oath of office in 2004 and was commissioned an Ensign in the navy, I said aloud with my right hand raised that I had no “mental reservation or purpose of evasion.” While I took that oath freely and while I did not have any purpose of evasion, I certainly had mental reservation. What would I be asked to do? Would I have to participate in what I believed was an unjust war? With modern weaponry, can any war be just? And even if I was not directly involved in that or any war, did my being part of the institution nevertheless equate with guilt and complicity?
Assumed the Watch, without that second, moralizing half of the book, attempted to describe the boredom and the bureaucracy of the navy: fudging spreadsheets; counting bullets; painting and re-painting the hull; circling with the carrier in the Pacific for weeks at a time; sweeping; inspecting and preparing for inspections; and more sweeping. Some degree of bureaucracy and non-glamorous work, I’ve learned since, is part of life in any institution. And, toxicity can exist in any work environment, military or civilian, to be sure. Yet, lurking behind my mundane, soul-crushing paperwork was some larger soul seeking. Behind our carelessly vulgar and often dehumanizing everyday language were some essential human questions. That is, I no longer believed in the mission of the United States Navy, and in particular instances and particular places, I found that mission to be explicitly immoral.
In 1951, W. H. Auden wrote a poem entitled “Fleet Visit,” which seems like it was written specifically for the USS Pelican or the USS Cowpens. In it, he feels bad for the sailors who come ashore, “mild-looking middle-class boys,” who are victims to some larger social forces. But, I think he gives us too much credit when he says, “No wonder they get drunk.” I can’t attribute my fake suicide notes, my going AWOL for a concert, or my drinking copious amounts of cheap beer most weekends, for instance, to some connection or disconnection from any “Social Beast” that Auden names. All of my shenanigans did not stem from a larger moral and existential crisis. But, I nevertheless navigated through a moral and existential crisis.
My “war story” is fairly clean and normal. Because of that, it is no story of real war, and for that, I am grateful. I have my life, my limbs, and my wits. I never felt real danger in those four years, and I thankfully never had a comrade or friend killed in war. Given the choice between navy war games in the Pacific and Marine wars in Fallujah, I still would go with the navy war games every day. Whether it was in Cairo as a student, in Bahrain as a newly minted Ensign, or on the Cowpens after it had fired those missiles, I was always several degrees removed from the action. Thus, my war story is neither Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July on one hand nor Chris Kyle’s American Sniper on the other. But precisely because my war story is so normal, so clean, and frankly so removed, I believe it is worth sharing or, rather, sharing again in a different light.
In theory, uniformed military members take orders from a civilian commander-in-chief and civilian cabinet members and advisors; that commander-in-chief must seek a declaration of war, or now at least some type of “resolution,” from Congress; furthermore, both that commander-in-chief and those members of Congress purchase the hardware for any war; but both that commander-in-chief and those members of Congress serve at the pleasure of the citizens of the United States, who elect them. And so in theory, the citizens of this country have a say in foreign and military policy. Yet, so many of us have outsourced our critical thinking on these matters. The decision-makers have given us the clean images and the clean language of war. In turn, we have given them our consent. We are, for the most part, neither a check nor a balance on their decision-making.
Most Americans do not view war from the vantage point of Ron Kovic or Chris Kyle, even after we have read their books. Let alone from the vantage point of the Vietnamese or the Iraqis. Many Americans choose not to view war at all or do not even know we’re at war, which is a luxury, because it all happens “over there.” If we do indeed view it, it is filtered through our cable news channels of choice. The closest we get to it is those “beautiful” missile videos from the foc’sle of the USS Porter and the foc’sle of the USS Ross this past April 7. And this goes for a great number of military members, too. The closest we get to the action is the air-conditioned “combat information center” on the USS Cowpens—the dark, blue-lit room with all the radars like you see on the movies—where actual armchair warriors preside.
None of this is to argue that all civilians and current military members not on a front line should sign up for the infantry. Nor that you have to do so in order to state an opinion on a war or on war in general. I think the fewer people exposed to direct violence the better. Nor is this to argue that Bashar al-Assad is a good man, as we use the missile attacks on Syria as an illustration. Nor that all use of force—in Syria or elsewhere by every actor always—is a priori wrong. While I hold a presumption against war, I am in the end not a pacifist. But, these issues cost lives, and therefore they merit debate. There is little to no debate in the United States of America about war.
“Mild-looking middle-class boys” and girls grow up with an easy and simplistic patriotism. This patriotism prefers slogans to critical thinking. It demands flag-pins and support-the-troops car magnets over sacrifice and responsibility. Its images of war are beautiful missiles that, by definition of nation of origin, are morally justified. That patriotism, combined with an endless supply of consumer goods, makes for a deluded and distracted public that acquiesces in endless war.
I am thankful that I was not on the Cowpens when it fired those 37 missiles; I am thankful that I am not currently on the Porter or the Ross; but my own non-explicit involvement makes little difference to the people on the other end of those missiles. The fudging spreadsheets, the counting bullets, the painting and re-painting of the hull, the circling with the carrier in the Pacific for weeks at a time, the sweeping, and the inspecting and preparing for inspections has all been for those missile moments. All that bureaucracy eventually kills, as it has killed before. That is its mission after all. Are we okay with that? Some say “yes,” but I doubt most of us have really thought about it. Thus, the mission proceeds with easy patriotism’s blessings. This is the normal war story—the normal, clean, and removed war—that we are a part of, and the story continues. It is a strange and latent militarism that we possess. We receive it very early on in our lives, and it all appears so normal.
“In a free society,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” With that spirit and in this little corner of the internet, I revisit the USS Pelican and the USS Cowpens. This is a longer series that I will for the moment call, “Assumed the Watch, revisited.” I will post new parts here and simultaneously compile them on the page labeled as such. Perhaps we can exorcise some other demons. I will do my best to stick to the stories.