»  The Straggler, No. 91

June 21st, 2010

   Follow the Fleet

Fleet Week! For a few days the rather distinctly un-military inhabitants of New York City find that in hurrying from one commercial deal to another, one fashion show to another, one dinner party to another, one charity fundraiser, poetry slam, book-launch party, gallery show, clubbing excursion, coffee-klatch, or private debauch to another, they are sharing the streets of the metropolis with young (mostly) men (mostly) wearing spotless, well-pressed uniforms of a style vaguely familiar from old movie musicals, and practicing manners that would have done credit to the courtiers of an oriental potentate. Fleet Week!

My own Fleet Week began on Wednesday morning, when the ships steamed up the Hudson River to their berths on the west side of Manhattan. I had the great good fortune to have been invited, along with my son and daughter — high school freshman and junior, respectively — to a Fleet Week breakfast at the New York Mercantile Exchange, whose downtown offices overlook the river.

It is one of the great strengths of American civilization that our different components — military, commercial, literary-artistic, scientific — are on friendly terms. In another time and place — mid-19th-century Paris, perhaps, or imperial China (where the cant phrase was: "You don't use good iron to make nails, a good son does not become a soldier") — a louche bohemian specimen like the Straggler would have been condemned to a life of sipping absinthe and debating metaphysics in seedy cafés with poets, actresses, and similar ne'er-do-wells. Instead I have friends who trade stocks and bonds for a living, who in turn have friends who command ships, fly fighter jets, and lead troops into battle. So there we were in blessed comity on the tenth floor veranda at NYMEX, watching the ships.

As a naval ignoramus, my viewing pleasure was much enhanced by the presence of historian, strategist, and friend Norm Friedman, who describes himself as "a defender of oppressed navies everywhere," and whose column in the monthly Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute qualifies him as a fellow member of the back-of-the-magazine columnists club. As the U.S.S. Iwo Jima hove into view, Norm gave me an informative run-down on every armament, pod, dome, nacelle, and davit visible to us, garnished with caustic observations on the political travails of the programs that brought them forth. He was scathing, too, about naval esthetics: "I've seen three generations of the U.S. Navy, each one uglier than the last." I thought to myself, but was too tactful to say aloud, that this is not likely a topic that much exercises the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

My son, who I am quietly hoping will take up a military career, was sufficiently impressed, though he confessed himself somewhat overpowered by the smartness, confidence, and demeanor of the military men present. That was the reaction I had hoped for. I taught him Doctor Johnson's remark that "every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea." The only protections against future repetitions of this particular discomfort, I pointed out, would be to avoid military people, which would be uncivil and unpatriotic, or to get some military cred oneself. I think he understood, but with 15-year-olds it's hard to tell. Ms. Straggler had nothing of much consequence to say, but I am pretty sure I caught her ogling the uniformed guys.

Later in the week I took my lad on a tour of the Iwo Jima, by this time moored at one of the Manhattan piers. Iwo Jima is classed as an amphibious assault ship, smaller than a full-scale carrier and with only a third the complement, divided between Navy and Marines. You can take that "divided" a couple of ways. As has always been the case, Navy personnel, busy running their ship, can never completely shake off the notion that the Marines are just passengers being taken somewhere, with nothing much in the way of activity to occupy their shipboard time. It's grossly unfair, of course — no Marine officer lets his troops sit around idle — but still the occasion of much good-natured inter-service humor.

Even if not a carrier on the floating-city scale, Iwo Jima is a mighty impressive piece of construction. (She was launched in 2000.) Some areas were off-limits to us — this was Memorial Day and a shipboard ceremony was in preparation — but we saw enough to leave us in awe of the range and co-ordination of skills need to run a vessel of this size: from navigation and gunnery to dentistry and laundry. What a thing it must be, to command a ship like Iwo Jima!

The Navy is unlike the other services in this way. In the Army an officer may of course advance from command of a platoon, to a company, to a battalion, with increasing authority and satisfaction at each step. An Air Force officer might similarly advance in charge of a flight, a squadron, a wing. These are mere numerical increments, though — degrees of the same thing. A ship is an unmistakably large solid object, requiring dozens or hundreds of people to keep it afloat. No wonder every naval officer is haunted by the dream of getting a command. I sat in the Captain's chair on the bridge of the Iwo Jima, lamenting my own miserable lack of military ambition.

Iwo Jima got my boy's attention, I know. It was one thing to mingle with a scattering of Navy and Marine officers among the NYMEX suits; it was quite another to see them going about their business aboard ship, saluting each other as they passed; to have them demonstrate their equipment with all the pride of having mastered a complex and dangerous task (the Marine crew who showed us their M252 mortar, when I asked them how they move the darn thing around — it weighs 90 pounds, not including ammunition — replied cheerfully: "We carry it, Sir"); to spend three hours experiencing the exquisite manners the military infallibly display towards the civilians they are sworn to protect. If this doesn't stir a young man's patriotism, he had better start considering a career as Community Organizer.