My Nuclear Life, written by Christopher Brownfield, was published recently. It chronicles his ~6 year career in the Navy, which primarily consisted of 3 years on the USS Hartford and 1 year in Iraq. I served on board the USS Hartford with Chris for about a year. This post is a review of his book through the lens of someone who knew him and worked with him.
Setting the scene
There’s probably one in many good-sized organizations… “that guy.” Well, Chris has always been “that guy.” He has always been the odd man out, marching to the beat of a different drummer. He cares about different things, and does things differently to everyone else. It’s not always a bad thing, but it means that Chris is not representative of most Navy officers I’ve ever known.
Also, submarines are very strange places to work. Pack 130 men into a very small space for six months. Then mess with their body clocks by having them work on an 18-hour day (compared to a rational 24-hour day), with six hours on-watch, six hours training/maintenance, and (hopefully) six hours sleep… constantly changing so you never feel fully awake or (sometimes) even fully tired. The norms of human behavior just change when you’re out at sea.
When you’re confined for so long you get bored easily, and the way to be entertained is simply to fuck with people. You’ll do anything to get a reaction out of someone. Once you get that reaction, you know that whenever you get bored you can do the same thing and get the same reaction. Two of the most common ways we would use to get reactions from each other would be by playing off of fears of homophobia and general bad taste. In other words there was a lot of “grab-ass” and disgusting stories (and pornography); all of it to try and get a reaction from other guys on the boat. (Most everyone was immune to the usual “your mom” insults.) As long as you didn’t react you were fine; guys would stop trying and find other things to eliminate boredom.
I explain all of this because Chris just didn’t quite seem to fit in that kind of environment, and also didn’t recognize that people were fucking with him only because he would react. (And it appears that the same problems of not fitting in occured in Iraq, where run-ins with his superiors in Baghdad ended up getting him transferred to another command.)
Most importantly, only think of reading this book if you’re comfortable with melodrama. Below is quite a long quote, but I think it describes exactly what I mean:
Around the base of the statue [in France], the names of various writers, philosophers, and mathematicians from centuries past are inscribed. The names are those of giants like Descartes, Renoir, Sartre, Curie, Fourier, Newton, Shakespeare … every one a genius—someone who had changed the world! As I read the small chiseled names, it occurred to me that the names had been added after the statue was built; it was a work in progress! Encircling the monument, I realized with a sense of amazement that fully half of the space was left blank for more names to be added!
A sense of awe gripped me as the weight of that empty space set in, for in that blank space lay faith in the capacity of mankind—the most powerfully humanistic statement I had ever seen. A tear came to my eye as I stared at the beautiful emptiness of those bronze panels, wondering whose name would come next and what extraordinary thing that person would have accomplished. Then, just as quickly as this audacious faith in mankind had gripped me, the emptiness of another monument seized hold and dragged me down. My spine tensed, the hair on my neck stood on end, and I imagined myself standing once more at attention in the central rotunda of the Naval Academy. On the large memorial to our fallen alumni, several new names had appeared since my graduation, yet the vastness of the empty space seemed unchanged. On that massive wall with movable plastic lettering, the emptiness had become the most salient feature. I realized with a sense of horror that my life had been a pursuit of that emptiness. Until that point, I had struggled to control the things that would prevent the names of my classmates from appearing in that unbearable space. My faith in those white plastic names had dignified my pursuit! But at that instant, I realized that my quest had been hollow because of what lay within the emptiness of that godforsaken wall.
Instead of faith in the capacity of mankind, that emptiness chanted in an austere, commanding tone the insidiously pessimistic dogma War will never end … War will never end! WAR WILL NEVER END!!! “SHUT UP!!!” I shouted in anger at the cold, blackened wall. My voice echoed in the hall as though I were standing alone within a canyon. Suddenly tears were streaming down my face, my fists were clenched, and I howled, “I will not follow you anymore! You can’t have my life!” I sobbed, exasperated and purged. The albatross that hung from my neck broke loose and fell into the sea. I knew what sort of monument I wanted my name to be inscribed upon, and that knowledge carried me forward with a newfound sense of hope.
If you managed to survive reading that quote, you see exactly what I mean. If you couldn’t survive reading that quote, I would avoid the book.
Cheating in the Navy & on the Hartford
The biggest controversy to come out of Chris’ book was his accusations of wide-spread cheating on the Hartford. Overall, this is absolute horseshit. I don’t ever remembering receiving answer keys to any of my nuclear exams before the exam. And I’m pretty sure I passed mine on the first try.
What I think happened is that other guys on the boat recognized that Chris was struggling with the exam. (The book mentions it took him five times to pass it!) The choices for the Navy then are to either kick Chris off the boat and off of submarine duty, or to help him pass the exam so he can at least be evaluated in the context of actually doing the job. Some guys just aren’t good test-takers, but are solid nuclear plant operators. It appears that while Chris could barely pass a test and couldn’t lead a watch team, he could operate a reactor plant safely. In my mind, that’s much better than washing someone out of submarines, wasting a lot of the Navy’s time and money, when it wasn’t really necessary.
Chris extrapolated this to believe that everyone on the boat was receiving exam keys and cheating. That’s certainly not something I ever witnessed. What he experienced was someone who was a bit of a rock getting help. And after doing so, he proved that he could actually do the job.
Were the exams too tough? Possibly. But if that’s the case, I don’t blame the boat, I blame the Navy’s nuclear community and Naval Reactors for putting into place a system that sets unreasonable standards. Was it too each to cheat if you wanted? Yes, but unless the Navy develops Navy-wide exams and hold exams that are proctored not by the boat but by the squadron (the commander of ~5-6 submarines) the current system is the best there is.
Other Hartford stories
Did pressurized septic tanks spray in the galley? Yep, it happened. (Though it’s not as bad as it seems.)
Did Chris have some legendary run-ins with the crew? Oh, yeah. Perhaps the most legendary was the one he describes in Chapter 1, where one of the enlisted guys in the engine room wagged his genitalia near his face when Chris was leaning down to read some electrical meters. It was early in Chris’ tour on the boat and as he writes in the book, “I completely lost control.” That set the tone for a lot of his interactions with the crew for as long as I was on board.
At one point in the book he described how he had to call the senior enlisted supervisor into the engineering control room to enforce discipline. If you know how to lead a watch team, that never needs to happen. (You also learn what’s serious, and what is people trying to fuck with you, and how to ignore the latter.) You earn the respect of your team, and it sounds like Chris had difficulty with that.
The problem I have with Chris’ description of his time in Iraq is that I’ve already read “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” and “Fiasco”. (Both of which I highly recommend, by the way.) He does capture the daily inanity of working as a junior officer on a major command staff, but a lot of this part of the book was a bit boring because it was just from his single-person perspective. It’s more personal, but very limited.
If you read “Imperial Life in the Emerald City” or “Fiasco” there are a lot of stories and perspectives from people across the government and military, and they are woven together into a compelling story that’s really powerful. Chris’ story is interesting, but doesn’t really add anything to the body of work about how screwed up the Iraq war had gotten.
Part of me really liked this book because it brought back a lot of memories of my time on the Hartford. Thinking back, this was a very formative period in my life, and it’s pleasant to revisit (some) of those memories.
But mainly I was really frustrated reading this book, because it reflects the perspective of an oddball outsider. In the grand scheme of history it might be useful for family history to be written by the black sheep of the family, but it doesn’t do much for accuracy of that family history. Those of us who were there know how to filter the author’s offbeat perspective and understand what’s behind it, but for any other reader it’s just not what I would call an full version of the truth.