Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2001 / 4 Adar, 5761
Civilians on subs: A civics lesson
that's well worth keeping
IT'S probably safe to predict that there won't be
many untrained civilians standing at the controls
of any U.S. nuclear-powered submarines
The accidental sinking of a Japanese fishing
vessel by the rapidly surfacing USS Greeneville
-- along with the revelation that visiting civilians were standing at the controls
of the submarine -- have combined to create acute embarrassment for the
U.S. military, along with a genuine international incident because of the
Japanese lives presumed lost.
President Bush, in expressing regret, called for the Defense Department to
review the policy that allowed 16 American civilians to be aboard:
"I think what's going to be necessary is for Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and
the Defense Department to review all policy regarding civilian activity during
He had to say that; what else is the president going to say in the face of news
that, at the moment of the accident, civilians were standing at the controls
(although reportedly closely supervised by Navy personnel)?
But it will be a shame if this brings to an end the U.S. military's longstanding
practice of allowing civilians to witness training exercises firsthand. Last year,
the Pacific Fleet hosted 11,000 civilians on 238 trips on Navy ships; the
Army and Air Force have been similarly welcoming to civilian observers. Part
of the experience is often "hands on."
This is a fine idea -- and always has been. It's too easy to dismiss civilian
participation in military exercises as some kind of government-sponsored
Allowing civilians to accompany military men and women for a few days is a
great civic and educational tool -- both for the civilians, and for the soldiers
It's a reminder of a couple of basic truths: that the reason the soldiers, sailors
and aviators are out there is to protect and defend the civilians, and that one
reason the civilians pay their tax money is to finance and supply the best
military the nation can come up with.
There's always a danger of forgetting that. Soldiers, like police officers, are
susceptible to an "us against them" attitude about the citizens they serve.
There are times when the men and women on the front lines -- be they cops
or soldiers -- may feel resentful about risking their lives for unseen citizens
who, they may occasionally feel, don't appreciate the risks their surrogate
protectors are taking. And there are times when the citizens may take for
granted the sacrifices soldiers make so the citizens themselves do not have to
go to war.
Inviting civilians to come along on training exercises is a wonderful way to
alleviate this, on both sides. My dad, just after retiring from his job, went
along on a Navy training exercise in the Atlantic; he didn't have any pull or
political connections. He knew someone in the town where he lived who
knew someone who knew about the opportunity for regular Americans to go
on these maneuvers; he jumped at the opportunity, and it was one of the best
experiences of his later life. It had been 40 years since his own military
service, and to spend his days and nights with the crew of that warship. . . .
Well, multiply that by the thousands of civilians who go along on maneuvers
every year, and it's good for the country. Yes, the press routinely covers
military affairs -- but, fairly or unfairly, the press is usually assumed by the
military to be there to ask uncomfortable questions and look for flaws.
Civilian guests are assumed to be there out of simple curiosity -- and a desire
to watch and listen and understand. It's easier, after these visits, for the
civilians to feel empathy for the men and women who are defending them --
and for the military men and women to feel a renewed human connection with
the citizens for whom they are putting their lives on the line.
And -- in today's media world in which young Americans are often
stereotypically depicted either as dot-com hustlers interested only in making
their first billion, or as Eminem or one of his disciples -- it's healthy for
civilians to spend a few days and nights around young people who have made
the choice to devote several precious years of their lives to military service.
So it will be sorry news if these trips become a casualty of what happened
with the USS Greeneville.
Although from now on it's probably a good idea to keep the civilian guests
away from the controls. For everyone's
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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