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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

One Chance

Wednesday, September 26, 2007
USS ColeRum Island, The Hebrides 57°02N 006°14W

The USS Cole is on station for tomorrow’s war. According to the scenario, diplomatic and other negotiations are to have failed, so the naval and air forces of the contending nations—“Albinistan” in the case of the squadron of which the Cole is a part—begin action against one another. The aim? To defeat the forces of the “invader” state and to defend the “mineral resources”—imaginary oil platforms (what else?) represented by the replenishment oiler Laramie—supposedly the property of the state that’s been invaded.

Sound familiar? Of course. What’s concealed by all this planning and practice is the certainty that such classic military operations—“surface warfare” in Navy terminology—will never again take place. Just as they are not in the current “war” caused by the invasion of Iraq. No other countries have, or ever will have, the naval and air forces of NATO. It’s both a triumph and a relic of the cold war. Invasions will likely continue to be perpetrated, surely. But even they will not result in classic “surface warfare.” A fact which the current administration of the U.S. has learned, but refuses to believe.

For if it’s acknowledged, the continued expenditure of time and money on present enterprises—like the maintenance and training of surface warfare forces—becomes not only questionable but futile. All of the young officers aboard are studying for their “SWO” (Surface Warfare Officer) badge, an ornate embroidered insignia patch worn over the left breast pocket of one’s coveralls. For the enlisted crew, the comparable badge is the “ESWS” (Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist). And in the midst of all this strategic planning and tactical maneuvers, the humble work of daily ship maintenance goes on. From the standpoint of an observer like me, the contrast is frequently comic. However exalted—or fanciful—the plan or purpose, the actual work is always routine.

Indeed, unless one practices the work until it is routine, the performance of which it’s a part, however grand, will most often fail. In the end, as in the moment, what you’re doing now is all. One of my older students, who has advanced from enlisted to warrant officer, spoke this morning of the importance of goals. Taking advantage of my role, I pointed out that, however pleasing or fulfilling the completion of a plan may prove to be, it’s never achieved on account of the planning—or “dreaming,” as another popular metaphor has it—but on account of the daily work one does. We set goals for the same reason that we find ourselves training and maintaining a navy which will never be used for its supposed purpose: in order to conceal the inevitability of loss and death.

If my goals are far off, surely I have to survive to reach them. To admit this is nonsense is to face the fact that all accomplishment—and all potential for joy—must take place now, or never. To delight in what you’re doing now is the only chance you have.


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