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George C. Wilson Macmillan, $19.95. One element has been common to the events marking the re-emergence of America's militarism in the 1980s: the aircraft carrier. That is one reason why George C. Wilson-- a Washington Post defense correspondent--is to be applauded for going aboard the John F. Kennedy for the whole of its eventful 1983-1984 Mediterranean deployment. Another is that, in this year of Top Gun, our understanding of the military needs massive doses of human reality.

Many civilians persist in thinking that if there isn't a war on, then military life can't be too taking. But Wilson's narrative puts across the sheer personal toll of carrier deployments. He not only describes the rigors of many shipboard chores, but by including chaplain's messages, ship's disciplinary hearings, and wives' letters, he also builds an accurate picture of the extreme pressure that crewmembers and their families feel as they deal with uncertainty, separation, and death.

On the military level, Wilson also clears some important ground. The most significant chapter of the book is his account of the December 1983 airstrike launched by bombers from the Kennedy and Independence against Syrian positions in Lebanon. When the Marines at the Beirut airport were sabotaged in October 1983, the two-carrier force offshore was told to prepare a retaliatory strike. At first, Kennedy aircrews thoroughly prepared a nighttime mission against a readily identifiable terrorist complex in the Bekaa valley, only to have it canceled by a "higher authority' after French carrier aircraft struck a nearby target. Then, after one of the Kennedy's overland reconnaissance flights drew Syrian missile fire, another raid was ordered immediately. Time pressure made planning this go-round far from fastidious. Furthermore, now the targets were virtually invisible, dugin, anti-aircraft positions. Worse still, this attack would be flown in daylight.

And there was confusion about exactly when. All the Kennedy people thought the launch would be at 11 a.m., but around 5 a.m. they got the word that it would go at 7:20. The timing change was a two-fold disaster: it meant that the pilots would be looking directly into the rising sun as they tried to locate their miniscule targets, and that there wasn't enough time to put the appropriate ordnance on the planes. As a result, most of the ten Kennedy bombers took off with inadequate loads. One that didn't had a load too heavy for the evasive maneuvers required by the Syrian anti-air threats. That plane was shot down and its pilot killed. Wilson makes the telling point that in the end, all the bombs actually dropped on the target could have come from one airplane.

Wilson concludes that the target choices and timing were not left to the on-scene commander. When the Navy's top officer, Admiral Watkins, told Wilson he did not know who was responsible for the disastrous rush to launch, it was either a lie or an admission that the command flow doesn't work.

Despite its strengths, something insidious develops in Wilson's book as it unfolds. Wilson starts out trying to cover the whole carrier scene, including such unglamorous aspects as below-deck engineering. But before long, he leaves his ship's company roommate for airwing quarters and increasingly spends his time with aviators--5 percent of the ship's crew. Early on, one fighter pilot told Wilson that "if you don't fly for two or three days on a ship, you start to get irritable, pissed off. Then you fly and you're all right. Fix is a great word for it.' It wasn't long before Wilson succumbed to the drug. He also seems taken with the flyboys' partying and illegal shipboard drinking. After one fighter flight, this experienced reporter confesses without embarassment that his reaction was "Sign me up!'

Wilson's metamorphosis is not just an incidental detail. It's symptomatic of the biggest problem with our carrier-centered navy. Carrier jet guys are enthusiastic about subjecting their bodies to G-forces and the other demons of high-speed flight. It's not a coincidence that they also tend to drive fast cars and spend ridiculous amounts of time and money in bars and discos. It's because the nevy is so influenced by these aviators that it's still so piss-poor on details. Good planning requires patience, scholarship, and originality. And that is precisely the Wrong Stuff. For all his detailed reporting, Wilson's own fascination with carrier aviation provides the strongest explanation of why the navy continues to be dogged by such ills as operational meddling from above and a bias towards "glamor' weapons. There can't be improvements until we stop glorifying a military which goes more by its skin than its skull.
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Author:Shuger, Scott
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1986
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