Skip to comments.Our Islands in the Storm: Carriers as the new phalanxes.
Posted on 12/13/2002 3:24:39 PM PST by xsysmgr
Sometimes a distinctive weapon a Venetian galley or British man-of-war becomes emblematic of an entire culture. For three centuries, the phalanx columns of armored hoplites in a forest of raised spear points obliterated any Persians foolish enough to stand in its way. Plutarch said at the battle of Plataea that its very look instilled terror, comparing the Greeks' approach to some sort of enormous aroused hedgehog. "There came over the entire phalanx," he wrote, "suddenly the look of some ferocious beast as it wheels at bay and stiffens its bristles." No wonder the vast imperial army of the Persian king collapsed when the Spartans' spears bore down and ripped it to shreds.
But the phalanx was more than a singularly deadly infantry unit or a psychological weapon of terror. Its dense columns also reflected the solidarity of free men, who willingly donned heavy armor under the Mediterranean sun, crowded with one another in cumbersome rows, marched in unison and defined courage as following orders, advancing on command and in rank, and protecting one's comrade on the left. Aristotle thought the city-state the very beginning of Western civilization was identified by the emergence of such a strange way of fighting. Indeed, the polis arose, he wrote, when a new class of farmers Europe's first middle class of free property owners began to fight in unison in these serried ranks, armored columns that other men, whether aristocrats, the poor, or those outside the Greek world, could not or would not emulate.
Our aircraft carriers are this nation's phalanxes, at once frightening weapons and symbols of American freedom. Few countries can build such behemoths; fewer still operate them with any degree of efficiency. Germany in its darkest hours never launched a single one. Japan's were long ago sent to the bottom of the Pacific. Russia's attempts resulted in abysmal failure. England has a couple, France one in the aggregate all lack the power of a single American carrier. And we have twelve of these colossuses $5 billion, 80,000-90,000-ton monsters, each home to a crew of 5,000. Their flight decks cover 4.5 acres, and the 70 (and more) planes on each wield more destructive power than do most countries.
Carriers are as much small cities 15,000 meals served each day as they are ships. Visually their arrival produces a psychological effect not unlike the approach of B-52s or C-5s, their size, speed, and wake seemingly defying the laws of nautical physics. Critics cite their costs and vulnerability, suggesting that robots, drones, and more sophisticated missiles on the horizon are a better investment. But I am not so sure of their purported obsolescence.
First, like the phalanx, the American carrier is more than a weapon of destruction or even a tool of deterrence. It is a microcosm of America itself at its best. I spent two days recently on the John F. Kennedy and watched from out in the Atlantic as it unceasingly received and launched F-14s and F-18s. The average age of its crew seemed about 19 or 20. Most Americans don't trust their children to take out the family van on Saturday night; our navy entrusts $50 million jets to teenagers, whose courage and maturity trump those of most adults.
At Stanford University, where our wealthier and supposedly more educated reside, silly theme houses exist with names like Casa Zapata and Ujama, as upscale students are segregated by race in a balkanized and separatist landscape. My own university in California has auxiliary but separate graduation ceremonies for Mexican Americans.
By contrast, in the far less comfortable but much more real world of the Kennedy, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites are indistinguishable in the manner in which they eat, sleep, and work, united as they are as Americans in a common cause, not separated by race, class, and tribe. African-American officers supervise whites, and vice-versa in a meritocracy where equality is a natural, not an induced, phenomenon. Women fly planes that men service or the other way around or both. And recently graduated Naval Academy ensigns learn from tough men with tattoos and calluses who inhabit primordial places of fire and oil in the ship's bowels or who work on the flight deck where a momentary lapse in concentration can get one disemboweled or vaporized in seconds. Our universities might do better to mothball Ethnic Studies and send the entire freshman class to the Kennedy for a semester.
Yet these men and women are hardly janissaries. Like Greeks, they are citizen-soldiers, and so do strange things that a Socrates or Aeschylus, who fought in the phalanx, might have approved of. Apart from its bombs and missiles, the Kennedy, like its eleven deadly siblings, has a chapel, library, and hospital. Its media experts produce state-of-the-art videos; its ward room still displays the paintings of its first skipper, Admiral Yates, who also designed the ship's seal, Latin motto and all.
The Kennedy's present captain, Ronald Henderson Jr., like the ship's revered namesake, is a Harvard graduate who prepared for college by reading another warrior-scholar Xenophon in the original Greek. His job description is deterrence and so mandates that he keep ready at a moment's notice deadly weapons to convince evil regimes not to dare try attack the United States. He does that hourly without flaw, seemingly without sleep; but he is also a skilled university provost of sorts whose vast floating campus accepts 18-year-olds who often enter reckless, but who graduate as mature and experienced citizens for the service and security they give us. Accountants remind us of the Kennedy's cost, but how can we measure its real worth over 34 years, when some150,000 Americans have graduated as far better people from its rigorous curriculum?
During the Cold War there was much talk that such floating airfields were anachronistic and too vulnerable in a battle of guided missiles and submarines. But they survived that conflict and evolved in ways that have made them more, not less critical in the current age of asymmetrical warfare. Indeed, no carrier has been sunk by hostile fire since World War II. In uncertain times we pay no foreign rent for their flight decks nor haggle with autocrats for permission to use their runways. GPS bombs from the Kennedy's planes can streak into the windows of terrorists, who would have trouble even finding such a rapidly moving ship it runs faster than most ski-boats blacked out by deep night on a wide ocean. I would prefer to entrust our jets to our sailors on our own floating runways than to Egyptian or Saudi or Kuwaiti military police. And so in the hours after September 11, our president didn't need to ask whether that week the Turks were friendly or whether Mr. Schroeder might give permission to use German air space. Instead, he no doubt demanded, "Where are the carriers right now?"
Presently the open seas are ours; and such 23-storey enforcers go where they wish and do what they please not only ensuring America's freedom, but guaranteeing that the Japanese can buy oil, the Chinese can ship Wal-Mart their sundry goods, and our food reaches hungry Africa. Ships that helped obliterate the Taliban and may do the same to the fascist Republican Guard in Iraq also save sailors of foreign navies on the high seas who are on the brink of death and need life-saving operations, or stop to pick up the anonymous dead who float routinely in the Arabian Sea careful to notify surrounding nations of their losses and to provide a dignified Islamic funeral as if the drowned were our own.
The skill and courage of pilots have transformed the nightmarish and, frankly, terrifying to watch ordeal of receiving and launching planes on a rolling deck into a routine, albeit a deadly one. A half-century history of training and the tragic lessons learned from hundreds of deaths in peace and war have all honed pilots' skills to a fine art. These men risk destruction daily to make less money than a middling college professor. They call "sporty" what we call terrifying. An empty ocean, jet fuel, sparks, heavy metal, and speed, after all, do not exactly combine to make a safe environment.
The carrier's efficiency and lethality, however, are not a consequence of mere technological superiority, but of the dividends of a peculiarly American set of values. If we gave the Truman to Egypt it would sink on its maiden voyage. The French Charles de Gaulle I imagine has better food than the Roosevelt, but far fewer planes and even fewer launches. Israel has astonishing pilots, but few if any could land on the Vinson. Even the Swiss or Dutch could not build a Ronald Reagan. China claims they can soon launch a simulacrum to our carriers; but though they can steal the technology of an Enterprise, they still cannot emulate the ethic and creed at the heart of its success unless China too first creates a culture of freedom. Carriers, in other words, are an American thing, and I am glad we at least will never have to meet such things in battle.
As we ponder the cost of building and manning them the newest and last of its class is to be the George H. W. Bush we should consider how the value of such icons transcends the mere tonnage of their weapons. Tonight we sleep reasonably well in part because the Kennedy and her sisters do not and can turn up anywhere to convey just that message to our enemies.
If we must go to war, and if we must send a half-dozen or so of these giant and uniquely American ships and our nation's best with them into harm's way, then let us at least give them the support and assurance to finish the job and bring them home with victory and resolution rather than with another decade of no-fly zones and an endless and hazardous stalemate. Anything less will be beneath the courage of their crews and the deadly risks they must take.
All the more so since, come next fall or thereabouts, I will be reporting aboard the USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67) for duty.
Yesterday, I drove past her at her berth at Naval Station Mayport, here in Jacksonville, Florida. Just SEEING a ship that large is stunning. And she's not even considered a "supercarrier", being a conventionally-powered (versus a nuclear-powered) craft.
I once read that the only man-made machine in the world more deadly than an aircraft carrier was an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine. I said,"So what? We own both...".
One thing's for certain: their eyes would be SNAPPED open to the real world.
Believe me, a tour of duty in ANY armed force, prior to college, is of incalculable value to the person, especially in these times. I would have no problem encouraging a child of mine to do so.
Say hello to Mrs. Long Cut from all of us.
Are you taking good care of the car?
Stop around again we you are free and can get the fleet of planes out! Love that desert scotter! LOL
And as far as your son goes, people with some prior military service as Enlisteds who go to college afterwards have a MUCH easier time of it, and tent to get MUCH better grades than those who did not.
First, they can get a whole bunch of credits just for the military training and schools they have gone to, eliminating the need to take those classes over, and secondly, their time-management and study habits blow away those of the kids who did NOT first serve. Saves money in the short AND long run.
Trust me, I went to college BEFORE joining up...I'd have reversed that in a heartbeat if I'd known then what I know now.
Hey, I spent a quarter in "Ujama" (its actually spelled Ujamaa). Only half the residents are African-American. It was like a carrier flight deck in one way--- it was loud!
And what does Ujuama mean? Collectivism!!
The concept of Ujamaa is an African form of collectivism in living. Explicitly, "Ujamaa" means collective economics and is from the Swahili word "Jamaa", meaning family. Only through Ujamaa - family - do we find the oneness with others like us that is necessary for us to grow to our full individual potentials. Only through Ujamaa - collectivism - will we find the strength to overcome. And only through Jamaa - family - can we find expression for our ideas, culture, and uniqueness that will endure beyond our brief passage in life.
What the battleship was in 1941, the aircraft carrier is now: a big, proud, expensive...sitting duck.Aircraft carriers came out of WW II looking powerful, but that was before microchips. Now, when an enemy tanker can fire 60 self-guiding cruise missiles from hundreds of miles away, no carrier will survive its first real battle.</>
This assumes that the enemy tanker can detect the target reliably.
There's only one nation that can do over-the-horizon targeting on a consistent basis.
And that nation is the United States of America.
Since when were Spartans "free men?" Able warriors, certainly. Brave, without doubt. But Spartans were about as free as the Kaiser's boys.
And as for "protecting one's comrade on the left, the reality was apparently rather different. In phalanx formation, the shield was held in the left hand. Each soldier in the line would naturally crowd right-ward to gain protection from the shield next to him, so the entire phalanx would tend to drift to the right as it advanced. According to Jon Bridgeman at the University of Washington, Greek generals had to account for this drift when they set up their formations. Guess wrong, and the advancing phalanx would miss its adversary! (Or, worse, end up with an exposed flank.)