I recently spent some time underway aboard a United States Navy aircraft carrier, and all in all it was a pretty good deal. In exchange for a few nights of sleep in a small bed I got to fling myself and a $75 million jet at the deck several times. After finishing my required landings and resetting my currency clock, I flew back to Virginia Beach. I’ve made this transition — ship to shore — many times, but this time was different. This time I arrived back on Midterm Election Day. This is not going to be a partisan rant, and if you adore or abhor our current crop of elected officials, your mind isn’t going to be changed after reading this. This is merely a few personal observations, and perhaps an idea or two about why some things work and others clearly don’t.
Due to the stratified nature of the military, and cultural and customary norms when aboard a Naval vessel at sea, the environment I left appears to be one where very little can be accomplished. Crewmembers are largely segregated by rank, gender, job, and to a lesser degree personal preference. Sailors and officers eat apart from one another. Enlisted and officer berthing (living spaces) are separate as are their bathrooms and showers. Male and female berthing is also separated. There are separate gym hours set aside for specific ranks. And, as with society as a whole there are sub-cultures and cliques that are often bound by race, gender, leisure interests, and hometowns. To an outside observer it would seem like all of this divisiveness and segregation would get in the way of esprit-de-corps, unit cohesion, and mission effectiveness — yet this is not the case.
The day-to-day operation of an aircraft carrier at sea is something that really must been seen or experienced to understand and appreciate. Despite all the cultural obstacles mentioned above there is an undeniable sense of unity and shared purpose that allows 5,000 individuals to collectively accomplish the ultimate goal: safely launching and landing high performance aircraft around the clock in all types of challenging conditions. A 19-year-old black woman from Houston is responsible for (quite literally) turning the wheel that drives the ship. A 38-year-old card carrying NRA member from Arkansas is responsible for ensuring the airworthiness of the aircraft a 25-year-old woman from Berkley is preparing to fly. A gay man who is the pride and joy of immigrant parents is responsible for ensuring the arresting cables are properly maintained and capable of bringing 44,000-pound jets to a safe stop. An observant Jew works together with an atheist and an evangelical to carry hulking chains and tie-downs back and forth across several acres of flight deck under a beating sun. To see the crew composition of a modern carrier at sea is to see a microcosm of America. Naturally, individuals come with their own stories, their personal priorities, their own goals, and cultural perspectives. Do all the crewmembers “like” each other? No. Are there arguments, disagreements, and sometimes even physical confrontations? Of course. However, when it’s time to get to work and do what the nation asks (and expects), the personal priorities and differences are set-aside for a shared purpose bigger than any individual.
Let’s set that observation aside while I describe what I flew back to after departing the carrier. Immediately upon landing my iPhone was inundated with robo-texts from candidates (or their surrogates) excoriating their opponents for being unpatriotic, unfit, uneducated, morally bankrupt, or some combination of all four. Then I drove out through the gate of the air station and was immediately met with hundreds of campaign signs that, if we’re honest, serve no real purpose other than to litter our communities. Having not yet taken the hint that I should simply retire to the hotel for an evening of room service and Netflix, I scrolled through Twitter and Facebook. That was dumb. The first two channels to appear on the hotel television were CNN and Fox News. To believe any of the ensuing commentary would imply both parties had systematically selected despicable pieces of human garbage to run for elected office. Candidates from across the ideological spectrum made political hay and varying claims of racism, sexism, weakness, hatred, and bigotry. It would appear this was a contest of good versus evil with no room for nuance, compassion, or unity. Depending on who won we would all be on the path to either riches or ruin.
This was a dizzying transition. I woke up on a warship far off the coast where Americans of every stripe set aside differences to accomplish a common goal, and I went to bed amidst breathless paranoia. After a day of reflection I’ve realized that this troubling difference is actually easy to understand. It can be distilled down to two words: purpose and adversaries. On the carrier there is a clearly defined purpose — we fix, fly, and fight airplanes. There is also a common adversary, either in a literal combative sense or, more likely, in the ever-present danger associated with a work environment where things can go from normal to tragic in fractions of a second. When it’s time to launch and land aircraft, the crew of a carrier doesn’t look at one another and see black, white, gay, straight, Democrat, Republican, and they most certainly don’t see an enemy. They see Americans and shipmates. The challenge of the moment is too great to allow for the pettiness or selfishness on display back at the “beach.”
If you’ve made it this far and are waiting for an uplifting “so-what,”- I’m sorry, I don’t have one. Instead I’m left to wonder what exactly it would take to build, or rebuild, a sense of national unity — to stop seeing each other as the adversary. Would a world war, pandemic, famine, or failure of critical infrastructure do it? And if so, what does that say about us? That we need catastrophes of biblical proportion to unite behind something? Even if we realized one of these terrible hypotheticals, how long could we keep it together? The ephemeral glow of national unity following 9/11suggests it wouldn’t be long.
Am I suggesting that we send the population to sea in an effort to solve our problems? No. But…there is something to the idea of unity of effort and national purpose. What exactly are we as a country working toward, and whom do we see as the enemy? Is there a moon shot, a depression (Great or otherwise), an existential threat, or even a shared concept of what national prosperity looks like? Is there a modest set of goals we’re working toward that not only allows us to, but also demands we set aside our differences and view one another as more than just a collection of pink and red hats? I don’t believe there is. I believe we have 350 million ideas of what “winning” looks like, and those ideas are loosely grouped into parochial political tribes. We’re lacking a cohesive and effective national identity, worse, we’re lacking a shared purpose, and we’ve filled these voids with pettiness and selfishness. That substitution is going to lead to really bad outcomes, just as it would on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.
Views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.