J’refuse! The movie Battleship endeared itself to few film critics. Nor did Naval War College audiences have many kind words to say about it, judging from scuttlebutt I overheard in the corridors and classrooms when it first appeared earlier this year. Just this week one of the contractors replacing the roof on our building poked his head in the office to say: don’t bother. But as Mark Twain once quipped, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Wisdom for the ages from the great Mark.
The family and I watched Battleship on demand last week while enjoying Labor Day down at the Jersey Shore (the strand down by Cape May, not the northerly stretch inhabited by the lowlifes from MTV’s Jersey Shore). No one will mistake it for profound commentary on sea life or naval affairs—it will never take its place alongside The Caine Mutiny or In Harm’s Way in the annals of literature about the sea—but it works as a yarn. It also portrays life as it should be, letting a crew of grizzled old battleship sailors like me help defeat an offworld invasion! And, like many good tales, it features a hero who has to find the right stuff to perform a mission thrust on him unexpectedly.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
If you’re one of those who just couldn’t get past the finer technical points of TopGun or the historically inaccurate attire Spartan warriors wore into combat in 300, then Battleship probably isn’t for you. And to be sure, I preferred last year’s Battle: LosAngeles in the genre of U.S. Military vs. Aliens. The motley squad of U.S. Marines that defeated aliens in that film required no improbable gadgetry, just grit, imagination, and martial virtue. My wife and I caught that one with a boisterous Quebecois crowd in Montreal.
And those who pan the film do make an incontrovertible point. The battleship Missouri is indeed docked at Ford Island in Hawaii—as a museum ship. The navy kept the Iowa-class battlewagons in “reactivation” status for some years after they left the fleet in the early 1990s, meaning they theoretically could have rejoined the navy within a few months. But they have all found homes with private foundations since then. They no longer belong to the U.S. government. My old ship is the main attraction at the Nauticus Museum in Norfolk and is city property.
So the idea that the commanders of an embattled naval task force could round up enough experienced sailors to man a dreadnought (crew: almost 1,600), stick the torches in the boilers, raise steam, upload ammunition, and put out to sea to do battle is absurd. We have some clues as to how long it would take. The four remaining battleships were mothballed from the late 1950s through the 1980s, when it took two to three years of hard work to put them back into service. And our ammunition dated from the Korean War. I doubt the navy bothers maintaining a stockpile of 60-year-old, 1,900- or 2,700-pound projectiles for ships that will never again stand out to sea.
But again, if you can make the leap beyond that major quibble, there’s a lot to like. Movies are about people, not hardware. Yale’s Ambassador Charles Hill, a friend to my department, reminds us that allgoodepicsfollowsimilartrajectories. Heroes like Odysseus have to make their trip into the netherworld, confronting the darkness before they find redemption and accomplish great things. The young lieutenant pressed into service as commander of the Aegis destroyer John Paul Jones—a nice touch, invoking the legendary commander who informed a British foe that his battered ship had not yet begun to fight—has to make his own journey before he matures enough and develops enough tactical wisdom to save the world. Not bad.