Archive for the 'Writing' Tag

8th

The Call of the Deep

August 2014

By

LT Alex Smith and LT Rob Kelly aboard USS Milius in 2010.

LT Alex Smith and LT Rob Kelly aboard USS Milius in 2010

Since coming ashore as an NROTC Assistant Professor, I have come to wonder why poems and literature at sea are losing popularity amongst our ranks. Perhaps the mystery and feel of navy life has been diminished – Electronic Chart Data Information System (ECDIS-N) does not have the feel of a sextant and receiving storm data vis-à-vis Meteorological Officers in Hawaii isn’t the same as predicting gales using weather gauges.

Many officers and sailors have talked to me about “how interesting navy life used to be,” or have confessed, “it isn’t the same anymore.” These are accurate observations and I think that an organization with a rich history such as ours deserves admiration. Nevertheless, this is the best time to be in the Navy. Women and minorities serve at equal status with their white male counterparts; sailors have more support networks then ever before; and social media allows many of us to communicate with our families in nearly real time. Our sensory connections with the duties we perform at sea are indeed not what they once were, but does this necessarily mean we are less inclined to write about the encompassing power of our planet’s restless and mysterious waters?

A personnel transfer at sea in 1951 (lst1126.com)

A personnel transfer at sea in 1951 (lst1126.com)

Despite the interest our careers inspire amongst men and women of all ages, there has been a considerable decline in literary reminiscences over the last few years. Instead of using turning to pen and paper to share and confess our thoughts, we merely use hash tags and click ‘share.’

The nineteenth century gave us Walt Whitman, Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad; the early twentieth century produced Jack London and Patrick O’Brien. They were sailors with the ability to portray sea life from a variety of perspectives that engaged readers at their core. Although their work was primarily fiction, I’d offer that the difference between fiction and reality is razor thin. The stories poignantly reveal human nature at sea and provide meaning that all of us can relate to. Like these famed authors, we too must strive to make meaning in what we do and then portray this cogently to the public domain and each other.

Popular writers have weighed in, but their contributions are not necessarily accurate. The April 19 New Yorker article “Shipmates: Life on an Aircraft Carrier” by Geoff Dyer, ended with the same dubious colloquialism every landlubber surmises. “When, at last, I was back on the very dry land of Bahrain, I checked in at a hotel, went up to my room, and showered for a long time. The water felt cleaner, more sparkling [. . .] I looked out the window at the empty cityscape and experienced another revelation: I could go for a walk!” Similarly, the only question Thomas Friedman asks a young junior officer when he rode the USS New Mexico for one night was “how do all of you stand being away from your families for so long underwater, receiving only a two-sentence ‘family-gram’ once a week?”

I would contest we are not simply motivated by the same social connotations that our civilian counterparts enjoy. We are sailors. We come from a different breed and our lives by nature do not possess the homogeneous social norms of our civilian counterparts. Although we may have put to sea for a variety of reasons – service to our nation, learn new skills, earn the GI Bill – all of us have been affected by the wonders of navy life; our lives sharpened by the life on the seas. Some of the mystery is gone, but the beauty still remains.

Proceedings and other naval publications primarily exist to discuss and debate naval doctrine, but it should also reflect on our social experiences in a meaningful way. To be honest, I have never mused about the powers of Aegis beneath the vast night sky, with the dust of the Milky Way scattered as far as the eye can see. Even though the Main Propulsion Assistant and the senior gas turbine technician could recite each valve within the main drainage system by memory, we never argued too much about engineering improvements that our senior leaders should be pursuing. We told sea stories, discussed books and history, laughed as we reenacted scenes in our favorite movies, and then went about our duties.

Mahan’s diary as a junior officer is a fascinating read. Many of his entries lament about his fear of drinking too much and his abhorrence of superior officers. “The Captain has annoyed me, and I have felt and spoken angrily and sullenly.” And, like so many of us, he does not always complete tasks on time. “Have failed in my duty concerning the reading of the Articles of War.” Yet, within his complaints and small victories, a portrait of life at sea emerges. His ability to reflect on sea life, both positive and negative, ultimately led to him thinking more critically about naval tactics and the naval profession as a whole. Simply put, it gave him meaning and persuaded him to remain at sea.

Over the years, I have found that life itself is like the sea. Our lives ebb and flow like a foaming tide. We attempt to seize each moment, try to live one day at a time, hang on tightly to lifelines and trust that our faith in each other will get us there. So much we do in our lives as sailors is wandering and I do profess that wandering the ocean is the most exciting profession in the world.

Perhaps John Masefield says it best in Sea Fever.

Oh I must go down to the seas again,

To the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by

And the heel’s kick and the wind’s song,

And the white sail’s shaking

And a grey mist on the sea’s face

And a grey dawn breaking

Before my final deployment aboard USS Milius, my wife gave me the finest gift anyone could: a journal. It was an impeccable idea. After all, there’s nothing like a day at sea, to meditate about this earth and to think of all the challenges that await us afloat and ashore. So, as naval officers who experience the daily grind, let us tell the evolving story of our Navy. One hundred years from now these entries will capture us for who we were and where we were going.

 

Geoff Dyer, “Shipmates: Life on an Aircraft Carrier,” The New Yorker, April 2014, 6; Thomas Friedman, “Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle,” The New York Times Sunday Review, March 29, 2014.

Diary entry on August 6, 1868 and May 11, 1869 in Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, vol. I (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 201; 301.

John Masefield, “Sea Fever” in Salt Water Ballads (1902).



writing struggleAs a liberal arts guy with issues stitching decent prose together himself, who spent a career surrounded by a bunch of technical school types – I’ve always thought that each seabag should include Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, along with Lynne Truss’s, Eats, Shoots & Leaves – but perhaps we need to add two more items.

My pet theory was that our own rather particular Navy writing style came about as a byproduct of a strange mix of the old requirements of HF TTY record message traffic from the warfighter, an other-worldly and opaque self-affirmation cant that we use to write FITREPS and awards from the terminal-N1 – sprinkled with a healthy dose of passive voice CYA concerns from the suffering fonctionnaire with one two many tours with the Potomac Flotilla.

To help get around that habit, a few more should be added in the seabag to join the previously mentioned two. The third on the list should be an email you can find in full here, one that CHINFO, RDML Kirby, recently put out to the PAO Knitting Club titled, “Killing English.” Here are a few of the pull quotes that hopefully will lead you to read the whole thing;

Here’s an… example … about the Zumwalt-class destroyer:
“This advanced warship will provide offensive, distributed, and precision fires in support of forces ashore and will provide a credible forward naval presence while operating independently or as an integral part of naval, joint or combined expeditionary strike forces.”

I count 14 adjectives in that sentence, maybe three of which are necessary. If you remove the 11 others, you come up with this:
“This warship will provide fires in support of forces ashore and will provide a naval presence while operating independently or as a part of expeditionary forces.”

That’s still a bit stodgy, but it’s a whole lot easier to understand. And it gives the reader a better sense of what the ship can actually do, which is what I think we were trying to accomplish in the first place.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, we grew scared of verbs. That’s a shame, because the English language boasts plenty of verbs that convey action and purpose. And the American military, perhaps above all professions, has reason to use them. Action and purpose is what we’re all about.

We can no longer afford to say nothing. Each word must count. Each word must work as hard as we do. With resources declining and the gap growing between the military and the American people, we must at least try to communicate better and more clearly.

… it’s not merely what we say that matters. It’s how we say it. It’s about the words we choose … or don’t choose. It’s about the sentences we build, the stories we tell. Frankly, it’s about how we practice — yes, practice — our own language.

That doesn’t just apply to the people who write the program guide or other policy wonks. It applies to PA professionals and the bosses we advise, too.

Mary Walsh had it right. When it comes to English, we have met the enemy. And they are us.

It’s time to put down the adjectives and back away.

Yes, great Neptune’s trident – YES.

First step is to speak clearly. Then we can lead to speaking directly. Then we can get to a place where in open we can speak as adults about adult problems in a way that can stand up to the follow-on question.

Ah, ha! There we go. A good PAO stays long enough for the follow-on question. I can see why this conversation is starting here.

Well done CHINFO … now let’s see if we can get it to grow roots.

Oh, I promised the reader a 4th bit for the intellectual seabag, didn’t I? You’ll need to read his email in full to see how he applies it, but RDML Kirby mentions On Writing Well.

I might have to give that a spin.



2014 Information Domination Essay Contest