It is seldom nowadays that a serious work of history actually provides excitement on the level of, say, James Bond or John Wayne films, particularly a subject like naval history. Being a landlubber, I have always thought of naval histories as interesting but un-engaging tomes filled with terms like “foc’sle,” “quarterdeck,” “bobstay,” “starboard” and “boatswain” — not, in other words, a page-turner. Yet, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman’s On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (Free Press, 436 pages, $35; click here to order) is relatively free of esoteric jargon and most assuredly does quicken the blood.
Take, for example, Lehman’s retelling of the 1985 hijacking by Muslim extremists of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, the wheelchair bound Jewish New Yorker on board. Lehman lucidly describes the brilliant job done by the Sixth Fleet — under Admirals Frank Kelso and Dave Jeremiah, and run from the White House by Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter — that effectively intercepted those terrorists only to have defeat imposed over victory by one of our NATO allies.
The operation was like something out of Hollywood. The terrorists fled to Egypt, were instantly set free, and boarded a commercial flight out of Alexandria. The U.S. Navy launched six F-14 interceptors, two A-6 tankers and two E-2C radar aircraft from the carrier Saratoga in an effort to intercept the terrorists’ escape and bring them to justice. The F-14s had to travel 500 miles in pitch darkness over the Mediterranean and then fly silently right up next to the unsuspecting commercial aircraft and read the side number with a flashlight to identify the right plane from among the more than sixty airliners in the air at that time. Once identified, however, there was a communications problem: the F-14s were only equipped with military UHF radios, while the civilian airliner only had a VHF radio. “They communicated instead,” Lehman writes, “through one of the E-2C planes, more than a hundred miles away (the E-2C had both types of radio). One of the controllers aboard the E-2C spoke to the Egyptian pilot, pretending he was one of the F-14 pilots. After making initial contact, the F-14s suddenly turned on all their lights, and the Egyptian crew discovered, to their amazement, that they were surrounded by four F-14s.” The plane was forced to land at a NATO airbase in Italy
A U.S. C-141 Special Forces plane filled with commandos landed directly behind the terrorists’ plane on the runway and surrounded it. But the government of Italy, having had a kind of protection deal with the terrorists, surrounded our guys and made them turn over their prisoners. The Italians quietly released them later.
The Italians, it transpired, had an agreement with the Thugs of Araby that it was okay to kill Americans, so long as no acts of terrorism took place on Italian soil. In return, the Italians agreed to look the other way. Such arrangements are fairly common among many of our moderate-Arab friends, as well as our allies in Europe. What is maddening, however, is the insidious nature of U.S. complicity in this sort of thing. Lehman’s narrative, in this regard, not only quickens the blood, but occasionally raises one’s blood pressure.
He details, for example, how the U.S. has contributed over the last 25 years to building the international terrorist network by not having the resolve to retaliate effectively and to cut off the tacit support by our friends. Consider, for example, the tragedy we suffered in Beirut in 1983, when we lost 241 Marines. According to Lehman, we knew who did it, and we knew where they were, the Navy put together a forceful and precise retaliation plan, and the President endorsed it. Yet, Lehman recounts, the U.S. sat by and watched our bureaucracy, in the larger sense, defeat and thwart the nation’s response to terrorism.
Nothing ever was done about Beirut. The U.S. did launch an air strike almost three months later, but that was really in response to the firing of an SA-7 missile at one of our F-14s, which was a kind of subterfuge. The retaliation was a botched air strike almost as bad as President Clinton’s lobbing a few cruise missiles at meaningless targets. It just strengthened the terrorists’ belief that we didn’t have the guts to take them on, that we would do things only by remote control and didn’t even have the capability to hit valuable targets. The people who planned that Marine massacre are still, today, planning other massacres — still supported and trained in Syria by Iran and equipped out of the Wal-Mart of terrorism in Iraq.
Fortunately, however, most of Lehman’s book substantiates one’s pride in our Navy. On Seas of Glory is, in large part, an appreciation of naval people and culture. After all, sending people out in little wooden or steel containers for three or four years at a time creates a unique culture. And that has, in turn, fed into every part of our civilization.
Lehman focuses on three broad categories of people — the courageous swashbucklers, the great leaders, and the common sailors — and the contributions they’ve made over the past 250 years. He writes, for example, about John Paul Jones and Stephen Decatur, the guys who stormed the mouths of cannon and jumped aboard and took over enemy ships. They lived for the glory and for the right motivations. They were exciting, and they’ve made for some great movies.
And then there are the equally courageous but much steadier leaders in naval history: men like John Barry, who, Lehman convincingly argues, probably was the greatest naval leader of the American Revolution; men like Jim Holloway, the former Chief of Naval Operations and James Forrestal, first Secretary of Defense. They didn’t have the flash, perhaps, of the John Paul Joneses, but they still made huge contributions.
The third category of people Lehman introduces us to are the citizen-sailors. These were the landsmen or yachtsmen who rallied to the colors and served brilliantly and courageously in time of war, then went home to their Wall Street yachts or their farms. This is a great tradition of our naval power that most other navies do not share.
Lehman also offers readers a flavor of the different types of ships that have contributed to our naval history — the super frigates, like the Constitution, the Iowa (BB-61)-class battleships, or the Civil War Commodore-class gunboats. Sailors, Lehman demonstrates throughout the book, have very different relationships with their ships than soldiers have with their tanks or Air Force people have with their fighters. For one thing, ships last a lot longer. They embody a long history, including craftsmanship and design philosophy.
Perhaps the most unorthodox element in Lehman’s history is his emphasis on the importance of privateers to our naval history. Naval histories always tend to look at privateers in the 19th century as pirates who were out for loot and would run from a fight. There was something to that, in that their purpose was not to get in fights with British frigates, but to grab British merchantmen and get prize money. But the fact is, 3,000 British merchantmen were captured during the American Revolution.
That was 15% of the entire British merchant fleet. And they were all insured at Lloyd’s, which bankrupted many wealthy members of Parliament. The work of those privateers produced the famous petition to George III after Yorktown, demanding that he stop the war or else. Unlike Lehman, military and naval historians tend to look at military and naval things and ignore the economic factors.
On Seas of Glory offers, in a readable and accessible form, tremendous insight into what makes our naval culture unique and demonstrates how much it has been woven into the development of our country’s institutions. Considering our nation’s current war on terrorism, one can only hope that Lehman’s larger themes and lessons become more widely known.