The family and I didn’t consciously set out to commemorate September 11 by screening the Public Broadcasting Service documentary Carrier (2008) for the first time, but that’s how it turned out. This superb ten-part series chronicles the 2005 cruise of USS Nimitz, the US Navy’s second nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the lead ship in its class. The ship voyaged from the US west coast to the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, and back again, calling at ports such as Honolulu, Hong Kong, and Perth along the way. A film crew deployed aboard the flattop, apparently with unfettered access to the crew. There’s no commentary from the filmmakers—just the words of the officers, the crew, and, once in awhile, their families. And of course the ship and its embarked air wing play a starring part as well. Crewmen routinely fling combat aircraft into the sky, recovering them under sometimes harrowing conditions.
Carrier performs a useful public-outreach function. I was present a few years back when a former Naval War College president (himself a former carrier strike-group commander) wished aloud for a new Top Gun, a movie that captures the popular imagination and, in the process, regenerates enthusiasm for the maritime services. The sentiment is understandable. By its nature, the navy operates largely out of sight. That’s the great virtue of sea power. It lets the United States radiate power onto foreign shores without staging an intrusive land presence that grates on foreign peoples’ sensibilities. The downside to an offshore posture is that it keeps the service largely out of public view, aside from a few navy towns such as Norfolk or San Diego or special events like Fleet Week in New York or San Francisco. Naval affairs are remote from most Americans’ daily lives—and so are the people who carry on the nation’s business in great waters.
That’s less true now. Top Gun was a crowd-pleaser, no doubt, but Carrier shows the reality of naval life rather than the rose-tinted variety. One hopes it will have more staying power with viewers. Consider: the average crewman on board a navy warship is all of nineteen years old, yet is entrusted with maintaining and operating complex machinery under high-stress conditions. Launch and recovery operations on a carrier flight deck rank among the most dangerous working environments anywhere, especially in heavy weather. Working with nuclear reactors demands caution and exacting skill. And as one Nimitz crewman points out (albeit not in so many words), serving in a man-of-war is like living in a small town built atop an ammunition dump and fuel depot. Preparing for fire, flooding, or battle damage is a constant challenge. Hollywood can skim over such realities, but actual crews can’t.
Furthermore, one hopes the interviews will expose the notion that military people are little more than automatons who mechanically execute orders as the fable it is. How about the connection between Iraq and September 11? Some of the sailors and Marines interviewed voice pride in their mission in the Gulf, others decry it on moral grounds, others insist an aircraft carrier is the wrong weapon for fighting insurgents, and still others throw up their hands and admit they have little idea what the United States is doing in the Middle East. In short, they embody a cross-section of opinion on contentious matters, the same way ordinary Americans do back home. That’s an excellent takeaway for a youngster like my daughter.
Kudos to the US Navy leadership for agreeing to such a project. Handing a 19-year-old sailor or Marine a megaphone and encouraging him to hold forth on life at sea—and potentially on the foibles of his higher-ups—takes intestinal fortitude. But the formula works. From the aviator making his first deployment as a father, to the Marine gunnery sergeant whose parents abandoned him at a carnival as a child, to the young sailor who says she’s glad to get home because she’s tired of looking like a ‘dyke janitor’ in her unflattering dungaree uniform, the series shows that real human beings comprise the sea services. Seldom has there been a truer, more human, or funnier portrait of mariners at sea. We were sorry when it ended.
There are a few cringe-inducing moments, as when pilots lament patrolling the skies over Iraq without ‘dropping bombs’. (The Nimitz expended no ordnance in combat on this particular voyage.) Such comments strike a discordant note. What the speakers mean, I imagine, is that they find it painful to look down at a fire fight without striking a blow on behalf of their brothers-in-arms on the ground. But the proficient non-use of force can contribute more to an operation than ‘pickling’ off a bomb or missile, and perhaps inflicting ‘collateral’ damage or deaths that stoke resentments against the United States. John Paul Vann was right to insist, in the context of the Vietnam War, that for all its versatility and precision weaponry, an airplane remains the bluntest, least discriminate, and thus riskiest tool of the counterinsurgent. Granted, it’s easier to see this from a classroom in Newport than from the cockpit over Baghdad.
As Beijing embarks on its own aircraft-carrier project, it will be interesting to see how well its navy fares, not only in perfecting the material dimension of carrier aviation but in unlocking the talents of Chinese youth. The most technologically advanced ship or aircraft is of little use without skilled, motivated, mature operators. Human capital is crucial.
Check it out.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.