Twenty-five years ago today, against the salty crosswinds, I was lowered from a moving helicopter by cable to a missile boat in the Mediterranean Sea, speeding toward Libya at thirty-two knots. Though I'd already worked long hours in the previous altercation with that country from my base in Spain, I had only been on station three months, and this was my first actual deployment. The combination of excited anticipation and "hurry-up-and-wait" monotony in the three preceding days of travel was everything, good and bad, it was cracked up to be. But whatever butterflies were flitting around in my stomach now were netted by the comforting reminder that the CH-46 Sea Knight chopper carrying me to my assignment was the same bird my brother, a Navy Avionics Technician, was working on half a world away. I had read The Last Detail in college a few years earlier and had determined that if there was one thing I would never, ever do, it was join the Navy. But Lawrence had enlisted two years before I did and had convinced me that the Navy of the 80’s was nothing like the Navy of the 60’s, so on the merit of his word alone, I had signed up. His subsequent counsel and willingness to “take the first hit,” as it were, helped me gain the top honors in boot camp, language school and technical school, so as we lifted off from the carrier USSAmerica, I felt oddly at home in this tandem rotor helo that I’d never seen in real life until that day. The air strike, though, was set to begin in just ten hours; I would barely make it on board in time to go to work.
After planting my feet on the Ticonderoga’s helipad and being hit in the head by the swinging iron pulley of which I had just let go (“Hit the deck!” was Navy vernacular that had not yet impressed itself upon me), I made my way to the space known as the Special Signals Exploitation System (SSES). My Leading Petty Officer, Dennis H., quickly brought me up to speed on the upcoming events: "At 0200 hours, eighteen F-111's are going to come down here"—waving his hand from north to south directly over our "X" marker on the now-primitive green aerial monitor—"and bomb the crap out of Tripoli." I had to stop myself from laughing out loud at the all-in-a-day's-work nonchalance of the statement. He continued. “Twenty-four A-6’s and F-18’s from the Coral Sea will hit Benghazi at the same time. We’ll handle battle group air defense and take out any naval threats from here.” And with that, it was down to the task at hand.
The USS Ticonderoga (CG-47), the primary Electronic Warfare platform of the America battle group, was the Aegis-class flagship, a cruiser with a radar system so sophisticated that it could take over all flight operations should the carrier’s command-and-control be taken out. But despite her state-of-the-art combat technology, she was doomed along with all her class to early mothballing, as she was one of the few remaining non-nuclear warships in the fleet. She was diesel-powered, with the fuel tank on the starboard side and the water tank at port. With eight Harpoon missiles weighing a ton apiece on the port deck astern, the ship had a constant list of three to seven degrees, depending on the counterbalancing fuel and water reserves. (This led to some comical moments. Besides always having to steady oneself between the bulkheads in any bow-to-stern passageway, and having vertical straps in our racks to keep us from falling to the deck as we slept, Aegis personnel had the unique “duty” of leveling the water tank (to reduce the list) in particularly painless ways. While carrier personnel routinely sped through two-minute showers so as not to be written up by the stopwatch-wielding Petty Officers eying their every splash (no, I’m not kidding), Aegis crew members got used to their own bedtime lullaby over the 1MC: “Attention: Refueling still three days out. Until further notice, all personnel are requested to take extra-long showers. Thank you for your cooperation.” Sometimes it’s bad to be hated by your fellow sailors; sometimes it’s just plain fun.)
I spent my first watch familiarizing myself with the ship, the targets, and the mission. Having worked plenty of 16-hour watches before, I simply assumed that I’d stay on duty as long as necessary, but at 2200 hours, Dennis booted me out of the space and told me to go get some sleep, as I’d need it the next day.
When I returned to SSES the next morning, the activity was high-pitched, but still calm and orderly; no Maelstrom here. Damage assessments from the bombing raids were still coming in, and we were fielding reports of two or more of our pilots being captured or killed. (Unfortunately, it turned out that they were indeed lost – two F-111 pilots, the only two who had actually thanked their Commander for sending them on this mission.) The next forty-six days were an education and an adventure to which, even now, I know I can never do justice with these few paragraphs. And I certainly admit that, in terms of American blood and treasure, the conflicts in which I was involved in Libya and Lebanon from 1986 to 1990 were nothing compared to the Middle East wars in which we are involved today.
I do, however, have a few thoughts.
More than anything else, I’m struck by how much has changed in the last twenty-five years. Back in the “good old days” of the Cold War and the relative clarity of state-sponsored terrorism, Americans on the whole still had a fairly good grasp on the reality of particular threats to our national well being – in this case, militant Islam. There were objections from some, of course, but we struck Libya in 1986 for the same reason Thomas Jefferson did in 1801: Forces from a hostile nation stated their intention to conquer us and raise their flag – both political and religious – over our Capitol, and demonstrated their seriousness by attacking U.S. citizens and vessels again and again, and demanding ransom from our government for the favor of “leaving us alone” (temporarily). The methods, attitude and intent of this enemy have not changed.
What has changed is my country. While there was no significant domestic activism back then running interference in the media and academia for the Islamists who want to destroy us (and are much more capable of doing so now than they were then), such homegrown intellectual “insurgence” is now the rule rather than the exception. The combination of educationally indoctrinated ingratitude toward the gift that is the United States of America, widespread ignorance of our history, militant secularism and slavish multi-culturalism has coalesced to build an even thicker wall between us and our heritage, and the shallowness of so much of our cultural thinking provides us with no tools to chip that wall away.
And so, here we find ourselves, right back in Libya – again. But this time, for what? Rather than defending Americans or American interests, the current vogue of a Postmodern, post-national, post-American political philosophy sweeping through our public mindset has produced a cloudy motivation to “defend innocent civilians from their abusive government,” even though Libyan protesters are only one of maybe a dozen population groups being routinely destroyed by their rulers right this minute, and we’re doing nothing to help them. And as in Egypt, many of these “innocent protesters” are the very type of radicals who want to do to us what Tripoli's Ambassador swore to do 226 years ago, and even the memory of a devastating attack on our shores only ten years back is not enough to give us pause to consider the implications. Now, largely unable to define and verbalize what our “national interests” even are anymore, we serve as just another arm of some international coalition that has no interest in helping America maintain her own character. Where does this all end?
As a person of faith, I don’t look to my country or any other earthly resource for my ultimate identity or security. But I do believe in being thankful for, and a good steward of, what I’ve been given, and I just happen to have been given the greatest nation on earth to call my home while I’m here. That used to be a sentiment shared by most Americans, but now I see countless forces at work, toiling day and night to wipe that attitude from the national psyche. They may very well succeed, because the words of William Butler Yeats are as true today as they were when he penned them ninety years ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
I will always remember my military days fondly, and I feel privileged to have served during a special time in our history, a time that will only exist now in my and my shipmates’ memories. I can't go back to Spain, because (I'm told) I wouldn't recognize it. My question is: Can I go back to... America? Is it still here? Will I recognize it twenty-five years from now? Five years from now? Tomorrow?
I don’t have the answer, but like Ronald Reagan, the president I learned to love while serving under him (and whose First Lady Nancy christened my beloved Ticonderoga), I remain hopeful.