The Bergdahl Delusion: Man Overboard

June 6, 2014

For the use of the membership only (362 words)

THIS GENERATION is going to have to study war some more, alas. Even admirals today don’t seem to know how it works outside their politically corrected service academies.

Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, commented the other day that . . . wait, they assign admirals as flacks now? Isn’t that expensive?

Anyway, Rear Admiral Kirby doesn’t think the American military leaves anyone behind. “When you’re in the Navy, and you go overboard, it doesn’t matter if you were pushed, fell or jumped,” he said the other day in justifying the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. “We’re going to turn the ship around and pick you up.”

Well, yes, that happens in the movies, Admiral Kirby. Maybe the new Navy is more capable, but the “man overboard” drills in which I participated aboard the old U.S.S. Ranger were not confidence-producing in that regard. Petty officers would mock the official concern by saying that, in actuality, as soon as we hit the water, the Navy would wire our parents to advise them that we had drowned on an unauthorized swim.

As a reality check, imagine how today’s three-star pentagon spokesman might try to explain the culmination of an operation in which the United States lost more than 30 percent of its combatants. That was typical in World War II, Korea and Vietnam; they called them victories.

The admiral nonetheless fantasizes that his Navy is spinning about in the world’s oceans picking up overboard sailors (depressingly common). The vision belies military reality. There is more to war than Hollywood scripts commanding division-level attention to the rescue of last surviving sons (“Saving Private Ryan”) and artistic masterpieces (“The Monuments Men”).

My father is one of the only U.S. Naval aviators to survive a catapult failure during a carrier takeoff in the Pacific Theater of World War II. It was unusual enough to have been written up in Time Magazine. That was because the others were killed by the crash, drowned, chewed up by the screws or lost at sea as the fleet sailed by them to its battle station.

Moreover, when his night-fighter squadron went out on a mission, it was understood that if enemy submarines came into the area, the fleet would turn off its lights. That could mean the death of dozens of aviators who would have to ditch as they ran out of fuel circling the carrier, if they could even locate it — and that was after successfully completing even the most dangerous of missions.

So, does Admiral Kirby mean we should keep the lights on for a Sgt. Bergdahl?

We of the old Navy fear that is exactly what he means.

— Craig Ladwig

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