I have been asked what Memorial Day means to me. As one who served and got out alive, I’m largely ambivalent. My memories of those who didn’t are thankfully few, and don’t require a holiday to occupy my memory.
There was a point in time where I realized what game was being played, what part I played in it, and the larger implications. Let me tell you a story. I was serving aboard the USS Long Beach (CGN-9), Ronald Reagan was president, and we were cruising the Sea of Okhotsk. Our job was to launch a Tomahawk cruise missile. More specifically, we were to launch a Tomahawk toward a range in the Aleutian Islands, while in the Sea of Okhotsk, so that the Russians could observe a “back-of-the-loop” strike on one of their military bases in Siberia. In other words, we were to go to a specific location, and launch a missile at our own territory, but on a course and distance that if precisely reversed would have targeted one of their bases. Once I understood what were there for, and why, it became obvious that our mission was essentially “Let’s fuck with the Russians.”
While this is going on, I’m up on deck with a friend, just stretching our legs and getting fresh air. We’re looking over the side, and we notice a sub running alongside. Not uncommon, but we also note that it’s precisely the wrong shade of gray. He takes out his camera, snaps a few pictures, and we go down to the Combat Information Center (CIC). We walk into the sonar shack, and ask “What’s the sub running off our port side?” “Sub?” Oh shit. We say what we’ve seen, and they’re totally dismissive, but my friend never got his camera back.
So, the realizations begin to set in. Geopolitically, despite the purported tensions of the day, we were in a comfortable enough place that we could be sent out on a mission to fuck with the Russians, and the Russians were actively fucking with us, too. For sport, it seemed. We could each have destroyed the other, but that either actually would never actually occurred to anyone involved. This was when I realized I could relax. The projection of power was a game. Dangerous in general, but between these “adversaries,” not so much.
As I was getting out of the Navy, many things were happening. The Berlin Wall. Tiananmen Square. And a gun turret exploded on the USS Iowa (BB-61). When we’d left Persian Gulf Tanker Escort operations, we’d turned over to the Iowa, and we’d all been encouraged to take the tour and meet the crew. I’d met, and spent a day working and a night drinking with half the people on the dead list. Then a war happened, and I was not part of it, and I was glad.
"I don't think there are any more Russians, and there aint no yanks, just corporate criminals, playing with tanks." The Call, 1983, RIP Michael Been.