For 6 years of my young adult life I was in the Navy. I spent about a year and a half in training, roughly 2 years in a shipyard, and the remaining 2 in the back end of a ballistic missile submarine. I met some amazing people there and have immense respect for them and the work that we did. It amazes me that a bunch of high school grads were able to be trained up in short order and entrusted with the proper operation and maintenance of a nuclear power plant in the middle of the ocean.
I often felt that joining the service and serving on subs was the strangest decision I ever made in my life. My rash decision to enlist occurred in a teenage testosterone flurry in which I found myself frustrated with inability to go to the college I wanted, a series of car accidents, and a burning desire to take some control over my life. Now 47, I look back and shake my head. I remember waking up in boot camp in disbelief at the choice I had made. At that time 6 years was a long time to commit to anything and I remember thinking that by the time my 6 years was up, I would have spent a quarter of my life in the Navy.
Ask any of my shipmates about me and I’m sure they’ll recall me as not quite “squared away”. I was often slow to qualify for various jobs onboard, not particularly eager to take on new roles, nor to make rank. I don’t think I fit particularly well in that environment. Although I did extremely well in the “book learning” stages of my training, I found myself slow to jump into the hot seat of the reactor operator role while some of my contemporaries were relishing taking the reigns of the power plant. They had a love of the job that I didn’t. I was slow and cautious and frankly fearful of that responsibility. The mindset and confidence in their ability to do that job still amazes me. I eventually qualified to do the job, but was glad to not do it if someone else was willing.
But it wasn’t just the technical side of this work that was hard for me…and this is sort of my core point here. I had trouble with the fact that I was on a submarine with a lot of nuclear bombs. I knew the mission of the boat was deterrence and that we would likely never be called to do anything with this very powerful weapon. It was a big stick. A giant, hidden threat of a stick to our cold war foes that we sort of knew we would never have to swing.
I’m no psychologist, and we didn’t talk about this much at all onboard, but my impression was that most of the guys on our crew didn’t struggle much with this idea. To my 20 year old eyes, it looked like either everyone was “fine” with launching armageddon on our enemies if we had to OR they rested easily with the belief that we would never have to.
I wasn’t “fine” and I didn’t rest so easy. I also didn’t sense that there was a lot of room to talk about this sort of thing with anyone. I had one friend who became a conscientious objector while onboard and was discharged. I watched him endure a lot of crap while doing it. I remember sleeping in my bunk and thinking what in the world I would do if we ever got an order to launch. It was a terrible thing to think about. The only way I can relate it is to think of a time when you imagined something horrible happening to your kids. It scares the hell out of you and you sort of need a minute to shake it off. It was a little like that, except you’re thinking of being a willing accomplice to decimating entire cities. It disturbed me.
I imagine that this sort of internal conflict must happen in military service all of the time. But the military doesn’t work unless those that serve can resolve whatever conflict they may have about the job. When orders to fire or launch come, the expectation is that you carry out the job, regardless of how you “feel” about it. It’s a surrender you have to make in your head at some point…and I was having troubles. But I did it…and here’s my “big take away” from my 6 years in the military.
I reasoned that you need to trust the decision makers that are elected or appointed in their positions. You have to believe that their ethics, morals, and judgement is sound. You have to have faith that the best of intentions are behind our country’s political and military actions. If and when they say “launch”, it would only be for the welfare of our country and my family back home. I think that my shipmates intuited that simple idea easier than I did. I don’t know why. I know I am a left-leaning in my politics now, with maybe more concern for caring about the environment and the global advancement of certain ideas and values than some. I’m not an activist, but wars still makes me cringe.
We can have that trust in the people at the top’s decision making ability because we elect them. We choose the commander in chief. Even when I didn’t agree with his political views, I was able to rest in their intent to do the most good they could. Some would say that this a naive view of the world, but it’s how I was able to reconcile it all in my head. It’s how I could sleep easier between missile silos underwater.
Twenty three years after I left the service, we elected someone for whom I can’t say that I would be comfortable in their decision making ability. Glib comments about bombing the hell out of this or that don’t sound like they come from a fully formed or properly operating mind. I would imagine that he will need a lot of support from people around him in order to control that “tweet” mentality. There are probably more than one soldier, sailor or airman today with a conflicted set of ideas in his head and a devastating weapon that they may have to use to carry out a nightmarish mission. It may scare them now as much as it did me then. I don’t think it would help me sleep.