A blog by Barry Edelson

You Know Those People We Put in
Harm's Way? They're Real

"Carrier" Shows the Face
Of Men & Women in Uniform

For most of us who never served in the armed forces and are not in the habit of playing with guns, our knowledge about the ways of life and states of mind of our men and women in uniform is about as complete as our understanding of the behavior of polar bears. That is probably why the documentary series "Carrier", about the aircraft carrier Nimitz which aired on PBS this past week, was such an eye-opener. It is undoubtedly the most unfiltered depiction of life aboard a navy ship that has ever been filmed.

It is hard to imagine how the filmmakers managed to turn the thousands of hours of footage they must have shot over the course of the Nimitz's six-month deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2005 into a coherent and compelling story. The resulting 10-hour series is variously inspiring, brutal, nerve-wracking, dreary, funny, touching, frightening, intense, painful: in other words, a vivid portrait of life in all its complexity aboard the ship for its crew of 5,200.

The most important achievement of the series is that it supplants the caricatures of military "types" who inhabit our mythology with a large number of real-life voices and personalities. Through numerous interviews and countless unstaged images of daily routines—from the stultifying to the thrilling—the program presents an array of individuals as varied in their motivations, outlooks and responses as any other community of human beings. Best of all, it pulls no punches. There is no avoiding the cramped quarters, foul smells, lousy food, monotonous tasks and occupational hazards experienced by virtually everyone on board. We see more than anyone would want to about how meals are prepared, how bathrooms are cleaned and how trash is disposed of. We are keenly aware throughout that these people are living on top of a nuclear reactor, a vast reservoir of flammable jet fuel, and enough ordinance to blow a small city to bits. And life is continually punctuated by the violent thud of jet fighters as they are catapulted off the flight deck and again as they land with enough force to sent a loud shudder through the entire ship. Even after months at sea, crew members still look up and flinch each time a plane makes its terrifying entrance or exit.

All of the frictions of human interaction are baldly depicted: between men and women (one of every seven crew members is female), officers and enlisted, black and white. The widespread idea that the military is the most successfully integrated institution in our society may be true, but it has its limits. People living in close quarters for long stretches of time, performing tedious tasks and getting relatively little rest or relief, get seriously on each other's nerves. If not for the ever-present threat of military discipline, everyday slights and annoyances could easily balloon into major confrontations. The camaraderie is real, but much of it seems to derive from people being thrown together and facing the same daily challenges, not to mention the military creed of being responsible your fellow sailors or soldiers, rather than from any innate feeling of brotherhood (or sisterhood, as the case may be). They do indeed care about protecting one another: when a sailor goes missing at sea from one of the carrier's escort ships, everyone's attention for days is focused intently on finding him. But the divisions of civilian life do not magically disappear when shipmates come on board; they are always there, right under the surface.

We learn that social life on board is cliquish in the extreme. Crew members tend to develop intense friendships within their units or departments and stick together to the exclusion of almost everyone else. Mechanics hang out with their fellow mechanics, air traffic controllers with other air traffic controllers. Even the pilots in the navy squadron have little if anything to do with pilots in the marine squadron. Competition is fierce, sometimes friendly and sometimes not.

We also learn that, while most of the officers appear to be well-educated and highly motivated, and have well-formed opinions about the service and their mission (not all of them positive), the enlisted crew are a decidedly mixed bag. A disproportionate number come from deeply troubled backgrounds, and many are amazingly blunt about joining the navy mainly to escape lives of abuse, drugs, gangs, alcoholism, crime—you name it. One officer muses about why the enlisted personnel work so hard for what amounts to very little compensation, but the answer is obvious: they don't have a choice. Once you're in, you had better do your job however much you may hate it, or else. Several members of the crew are shown to get themselves into serious trouble, both on board and during the infrequent shore leaves. Their dressing down and punishment by senior officers is not a pretty sight. One sailor is even discharged, not very honorably.

One cannot help but feel pride while watching these people at work. Even the crew whose jobs are less than glamorous and who spend much of their time counting the days until their next leave—the grunts who spend their days covered in axle grease or asphyxiated by jet exhaust—are doing this for our sake, whether they mean to or not. "Carrier" undermines the notion that everyone in the military makes their sacrifice willingly and with open eyes. While there are many who love the navy and their jobs, there are many others who plainly had no idea what they were getting themselves into and would gladly get out of it if they could. Separation from family is a constant misery for almost everyone. And yet, the functioning of an aircraft carrier, perhaps the most complex military machine ever devised, depends on these thousands of people doing a myriad of awful, thankless jobs, and under constantly stressful and sometimes inhuman conditions. (The heat on the flight deck in the Persian Gulf would be frankly unendurable for most people.)

Thankless, perhaps, but at least "Carrier" prevents these sailors and marines from being faceless, as well. A story in the news this week about deplorable living conditions at Fort Bragg follows on last year's revelations of substandard housing at Walter Reade Hospital and the Pentagon's shameful lack of preparedness for the large number of physically and psychologically wounded from the Iraq War. It is a lesson we just never seem to learn: that wars have vast and unforeseen consequences for the men and women we send to fight them, consequences whose human and financial cost is never factored into the political drumbeat that precedes a declaration of war as surely as dark clouds precede a storm.

It is sad and infuriating to see largely uneducated and ill-informed sailors parroting the president's sound-bites about Iraq and terrorism. Who can blame them for believing in their mission? If you had to do what they did every day, you would want to believe in it too. Our shameful political leaders, on the other hand, who ask no sacrifice of themselves or of the rest of us for the sake of their grand and glorious plans, have no defense for their pinstripe patriotism. But if they were capable of shame they would not be in the positions they are in, and the men and women of the Nimitz and all of their comrades in arms would not still be risking life and limb in an endless war that can never be won.

May 3, 2008

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