Thursday, June 12, 2008

Band of Brothers

Date: 26 March 2008
Location: USS Nimitz, East of the Mariana's Island Chain, Western Pacific

Dear Friends and Family-

Deep in the desert of Arizona is an aircraft graveyard . Relics of past eras of aviation sit row upon row upon row for literally miles and miles. Scrapped 747s next to gutted B-52 bombers, what were once state of the art F-14s next to ancient DC-3s. A virtual timeline of technology is evident , and the march of ever increasing obsolescence apparent. For an aviation enthusiast, it is a cornucopia of history embedded in one location. Yet, if you want their real stories, you need only go to any number of VFW's around the country and talk to the men who flew them. Some piloted piston driven prop behemoths amidst flak storms in Germany, some single engine jets over the clear skies of Iraq. But one and all, they are men who, in the words of Robert Heinlein, "voluntarily stood between the desolation of war and civilization."

Though the ages passed and innovations evolved, the daring spirit of the men (and in modern times, women) has remained the same regardless of the technological changes around them. It is the conscious choice of thinking men that makes Heinlein's statement possible, not the massing of industrial might and technological marvel.

I recently read an article in a conservative magazine entitled "The Military We Wish We Had." It laid out a laundry list of future technologies that the author, a former undersecretary of Defense for President Reagan, believed were a requirement for future success in projecting American power. New ships, new airplanes, new network integrated body armor, all while extolling the virtues of recent acquisitions of high cost items like the MV-22 Osprey and the F-22 Raptor, both aviation related, gold plated projects that have yet to find a modern practical use (my opinion, of course, but yet another discussion for another day). It was not an unsurprising view, and a few years back, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that bigger, better, more costly widgets makes for a better military. But experience is the greatest teacher, and something changes when you actually deal with the people behind the rhetoric. Perhaps the piece should have instead been entitled "The Armed Forces Defense Contractors and Congressional Contributors Wish They Had."

This is not to say that I am opposed to technological advancement, as indeed the platform I fly in on a daily basis is equipped with the latest and greatest in whiz-bang technologies, providing situational awareness that would otherwise not be possible. Its ease of use and effectiveness is far beyond what was available to even an aircraft one generation prior. But it is to say that for far too long, and in too many defense circles, technology, versus people, has been the silver bullet. This mindset, though increasingly entrenched, is increasingly too one-dimensional. This is one of the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the protracted conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan; for a time, insurgents with little more than homemade explosives nearly drove the most expensive military in the history of the world away. Ingenuity and necessity defeated technology, and only when we turned to the human element, emphasizing interaction and personal engagement while reassessing what mere science could accomplish, did the tide begin to turn.

Being onboard the quintessential artifice of American hegemony, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, has given me a unique view of the benefits of technology in the military world. But even more importantly, it has shown me that at the heart of it all lay the souls and hard earned efforts of men. Every day when I walk in the ready room, I am reminded subconsciously of an adage uttered by one of my favorite philosophers, the late Col. John Boyd: "Machines don't win wars, men do. And they use their minds to do it."

This was made apparent to me at a recent all officers meeting (AOM…we love our acronyms). As is the tradition at the beginning of these sessions, the junior most aircrew stands before the assembled wardroom, and gives us a bit of squadron history. VFA-41 has a particularly rich past, dating to the Korean War. Throughout it's over 50 years of commissioned service, the Black Aces have flown nearly every type of fighter aircraft in the Navy's inventory. Such venerable platforms as the F-4 Phantom, the F-14 Tomcat, and now of course the F/A-18 Super Hornet have carried the emblem of the Ace of Spades. But when we talk about where our squadron has been, it is always about the men that carried the torch before us, not the machines they flew.

On this particular day, Flounder (the aforementioned junior aircrew) gave a presentation on a young lieutenant (j.g) (the rank I am now) who just checked into then VF-41 in the mid-1960s. Soon after reporting aboard, he was sent on a combat mission into the heart of North Vietnam, and was shot down. He spent the next several years of his life in captivity, finally being repatriated to the US at the end of the war. His words after his release can be summed up in the pride he expressed at having served his country honorably next to brethren of equal character and fortitude. This man was no longer just a statistic or number, but his story was now part of my story. It was the horrors he endured and the spirit of returning with honor that defined his role in the squadron, not the effectiveness of his bombing during that fateful mission. At first, I thought it a rather depressing way to begin the AOM, but as I sat and pondered this, it became apparent that while somber in nature, it was the Truth, a history that really was. This business isn't just Dress Whites and setting our hair on fire going mach 2. The very imperfection and potential for tragedy of the profession is what makes it real and challenging. And even for those who did their cruises uneventfully, it was their willingness to stand at the precipice of potential calamity and do so because they believed in something greater than themselves. All their individual stories, both happy and sad, are an element to the spirit of the squadron, all a vital part of what gives us the bond that keeps us sane amidst the dreariness and difficulties of cruise. It is what has made me, after only six weeks in their midst, an integral and unquestioned part of this family.

While each squadron has its own lore and history, this one is particular to ours. A fierce sense of pride and competition that has been honed over the past six decades of service. The strange thing about this is that I will never know 90 percent of the people who have sat in the chairs that make up the rows in the ready room, but their esprit de corps is ever present. They are the giants, most hardly known beyond their friends and family, whose shoulders we now stand upon. Their prior service, whether it be in wars popularly supported or not, effectively carried out or not, is what gives us the basis for the present which we have inherited. Their machines took them where they needed to go, but the men who coerced them into flight were and remain the deciding factor in making usefulness out of electrons and finely shaped metal. The lessons learned, and rules literally written in blood, are what makes us the Black Aces of today.

To be sure, this is not just a characteristic among aviators or even a single squadron, but one that is prevalent in every branch of the armed forces. The modern Marine and those who stormed the halls of Montezuma, the Soldier and the forces at Thermopolae or Valley Forge, even the Aegis ship-bound warriors and the seamen aboard John Paul Jones' wooden frigate during the Revolution have a common heritage that transcends time and innovation. The tools of their trade may have changed, but their spirit and warrior ethos have remained steady for millenia.

One of my dear friends asked me, "what are the men who you serve with like?" Perhaps the most relevant answer is that the men I interact with on a daily basis are not infallible, and as such far from what recruiting ads portray (save the Marines), yet their ordinariness is what makes them special. In some ways they are the most human of men. They make mistakes that have consequences, sometimes seriously life altering, and have successes that go to their heads. They are prone to emotional and physical stressors. There are brilliant men and those missing more than a few screws. Some are aggressively arrogant, and others silently humble. Some are devious pranksters, some dourly serious. Some want to lead men, others only care about flying. Most of their ambitions end at some stream at the foot of a spectacular range of mountains fishing for trout. They can and do lose, but pursue victory as tenaciously as any professional athlete. Being away from their families and loved ones saps their strength, and most good military men have mastered the art of complaining about this. Most just want to be home, but press on anyway. In all these things, they are a reflection of our greater society. They all have stories as varied and fascinating as the characteristics they encompass. Most of them are vastly different than me in temperament, ambition and intellectual pursuits, but it is this variety that makes them representative of the country and philosophies that they are defending.

Most significant, however, and the thing that sets them apart, is the character of citizen soldiers still doing their jobs after months at sea and cancelled port calls, with rumors of extension. Missed anniversaries, birthdays and constant disappointment from an always fluid schedule mark their days, yet here they are, voluntarily, day after day. As CAG put it during our Line Period Awards a few weeks ago (be sure to add a curse word between every other word!) – "This sucks, we know it sucks, but when it comes down to it, you guys made it happen, when the men at the top were watching, despite everything else going on, and you did it flawlessly." And it is quite true – even when morale hits rock bottom, these men suck it up and do their jobs anyway, often very well.

Thus no matter what tools or equipment Congress may or may not see fit to acquire for them, it is these Americans who are the heart and soul of our military. Our Skipper's command goal for this cruise is stated as such: "To bring every sailor and airplane back home safely…in that order." Take away the airplanes, and you still have a fighter squadron. Take away the men, and you have heaps of very expensive metal, nothing more. People are everything, the rest is just details.

I continue to do well, if not occasionally weary of daily life on the ship. Thanks for all your well wishings on this most intriguing of adventures.

Yours ,


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