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Changing Course

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Years ago I was a Naval Officer. I was lucky, I guess, because all of my service was at sea. I earned three medals for service: in Antarctica, in the Mediterranean, and in Vietnam. I discovered later that there were men in Washington who would have given up their mistresses and cocktail hours for the various assignments I had. After duty in "Operation Deepfreeze" I received orders to report to a ship homeported not in Norfolk or Boston or any of the usual states-side naval bases, but in bella Napoli, Naples, an ancient city dating back to the Greeks of the 7th Century B.C.E. who named it "Neapolis." I was to be the Navigator of my ship.

Navigating a ship around the Mediterranean is not as easy as you might think when all you have is a an ancient radar set and a sextant. Without GPS and Loran you can easily get lost in an inland sea that size. Of course, if you had the luxury of sailing in a straight line until you found land you would eventually find your way. The Navy, though, has a more frugal and professional idea of navigation. They tell ships where they are supposed to be, give captains a certain amount of leeway on the details of getting there, and require that ships send in their intended course so that, if disaster befalls-such as the engine room blows up and the ship is lost-the Navy will know where to start looking for survivors. That system works pretty well, being based on ship movement management developed in WWII in the Pacific where it became routine for as many as 500 commissioned vessels to be involved in a single operation.

As Navigator I looked at the OpOrder and plotted the various rendezvous points, calculated the speed we would need to make on the most direct course, and notified the Captain when I had it all planned. Of course, an admiral's staff member had done the rough work already and so, if I as Navigator thought this would be a good opportunity to avoid the Straits of Messina, the Admiral's staff had already figured that out and left me no time to go around the western capes of Sicily instead. So it was my job to avoid the rocks and the whirlpool-the Scylla and Charybdis-at the Straits and to assure my Captain that the succession of Officers of the Deck were following the plan.

It was a wonderful experience and I became quite good at it as well as managing the 455 foot long ship alongside aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers and the like at 15 knots out on the briny. These experiences gave me a fairly good sense of detailed planning and yet the need for flexibility, since almost nothing actually went according the small details of the plan. For one thing helmsmen were notoriously bad at steering the ship and on many a junior officer's watch I would cast a baleful eye at our sinuous wake and remind the officer that our course was supposed to be a straight line between turning points. A bad helmsman could cost you five miles in a four hour watch. A lazy lookout could cost you verification of a lighthouse loom over the horizon. In other words, what started in the admiral's offices gradually picked up additional personnel until in practice the person carrying out the OpOrder was not the Admiral, my Captain, nor me, but some 18 year old seaman apprentice from Brooklyn or Peoria.

Had George Bush actually served in the Armed Forces he might have had a similar experience, or at least one that brought him face to face with the human side of complex operations. He might have learned to distinguish between bright shiny concepts and often distressing fact of poorly executed reality. He would have learned to make adjustments as he went, including replacing the occasional sleepy helmsman with a more alert boatswainsmate, whose job it was to keep an eye on the entire crew of the bridge watch. You didn't have to do it too often to make a reputation for yourself. Soon the entire ship knew that you expected everyman's best ... even kids with well-off parents who had their sons in the Navy to grow up. But, George had none of this experience, and he assembled a group of advisors, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and others whose only real experience in life was the backstabbing daily politics of Washington, D.C., (where, incidently, I grew up listening to parents' stories).

Winter weather in the Mediterranean can be daunting, not terrible, but certainly worth changing course to avoid, if possible. The Gulf of Lions is that part of the Med that extends from Marseilles to the Spanish-French frontier. It is a funnel for weather originating out on the gray Atlantic, which comes ashore from the west past the north slopes of the Pyrenees and blows eastward into the Med with a fury that gave the Gulf its name. The winter storms of the northern Med usually start at the Gulf and dissipate only after running into Corsica or Sardinia or both. The eastern Balearic Sea and the Tyrrhennian, along the shin of Italy's boot, were stormy in my year there. Occasionally, I had to make drastic course changes to avoid damage to the ship and harm to her crew. Times like those were lonely times, cold, wet, and seemingly endless hours waiting for a break, waiting for an opportunity to get back on track and schedule, wondering what the latest time would be to inform the admiral that we were unavoidably delayed ... as if "unavoidable" were a part of the Sixth Fleet tradition.

Had George experienced something like this in his younger days perhaps he would have been able to see through the NeoCon plan to the reality of Iraq. But, the hard fact is that having surrounded himself with ideologues and toadies, there was not much chance for Bush to ever see reality and do anything appropriate about it.

Firing Rumsfeld for the chaos of errors in Iraq is more than a token step to take, of course, for as more than one pundit has noted, nothing will change in our attempt to fix Iraq while he and his ego are still involved. Ditching Rumsfeld is necessary, and I think we can count on it happening right after the election, particularly if both houses of Congress are won by the Democrats. Rumsfeld will be the sacrificial goat for the political defeat, even though he should be drawn and quartered for the brazen ineptitude of his techno-war against the people of Mesopotamia.

But, removing the helmsman does not steer the ship. Replacing the helmsman with an experienced person is necessary. The chances of Bush choosing a bi-partisan candidate for Secretary of Defense are not good. Unless Rove and Cheney suddenly take hits from Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, they will guide the choice and it is sure to be someone in the general mold of themselves, politically conservative and inexperienced and inept. Impeachment or not, the Joint Chiefs will have their hands full for the last two years of the regime and there will be resignations among them, forced and ugly.

All of this misses the point that Bush has sailed our ship of state into poorly understood waters. He and Cheney and Rumsfeld come closer every day to running our ship aground. Our course is hazardous, and a look at the charts-the histories-would have indicated this before the venture was begun. If the general population of the United States believes we were bound only on a mission to unseat Saddam Hussein and rid that country of weapons of mass destruction for our own safety's sake, then we have done all we need to do. Saddam is gone, soon to be executed, and there were no WMD.

But, regime change suggests a replacement regime, and clearly (but unfortunately) our ship's propellor is now thoroughly fouled by the fish nets of insurgency and sectarian civil war. In avoiding the rocks and the whirlpool, we have sailed straight into the local economy and destroyed the means of living for countless millions of Iraqis. They are quite angry-all of them!

The straits we are in do not easily permit major course changes. Yet, on one side of our vessel is utter failure, a battering on the rocks of defeat and destruction of what we hold dear in our own country. And on the other is endless involvement, sucking the energy from our economy into a prolonged occupation, adrift in the whirlpool without control of our own rudder, unable to extricate ourselves, helpless against the next storm to visit this fabled place.

Our aim was to leave Iraq better than when we found it, but that goal is all but lost, given the terrible leadership and management provided by Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. Ugly as it may seem, we have to leave the area and pay for the damage we have done. We cannot pay for the damage we have done and then leave, for every moment we are there more damage is done. Every moment we spend thrashing around in their country, in their economy, in their culture, we spread the damage wider and deeper. We must leave; we must signal that we will pay for the damage, but we must leave. Now!

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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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