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Sea Power Confronts The Twenty-first Century
An Interview With Edward L. Beach The captain who first took a submarine around the world underwater looks at the U.S. Navy past and present and tells us what we must learn from the Falklands war
April/may 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 3
Well, in the first place I don’t fully agree. Of course, if a battle group is atom-bombed, ships close to the bomb would be sunk; but they all won’t necessarily be sunk. We have procedures for decontaminating them if they get splashed with radioactive water or hit by radioactive spray or smoke or fumes, or whatever. Even at Bikini, where the bomb was detonated in the water with the ships grouped around it in a very close area, many were damaged but only a few were sunk. The farther away they were, the better they survived. This is one of the reasons we don’t have the close formation we used to have. Ships now are widely dispersed. A carrier task force, or carrier battle group, would have its ships as much as twenty to thirty miles apart. They’d be linked by radar and by computer and by communications of all kinds. But they wouldn’t be so close that one atom bomb would knock them all out. As I said before, the Navy’s purpose in nuclear war is to fight the war over the sea if possible. There’s a lot of fighting that can take place before a war goes nuclear. If it does, though, it’s still better for it to happen at sea than over land.
I understand the Navy has recently had problems keeping trained manpower, particularly officers.
Yes, that’s true. Things are somewhat better now.
Is there any plan that you would suggest for keeping these people?
There are various things that have been tried, and all have had some success. It seems to me that the biggest thing that has to be done is that the country’s got to accept the idea that the military are not somehow low-class. The military guy is a top-grade fellow who is taking a lot of risk to do something that’s important for the country. True, we drafted people and sent them off to Vietnam, and I think the way they were treated was a travesty and an injustice. Everything about it was done wrongly, and it gave the military service a black eye that it doesn’t deserve. Also, it’s been fashionable for columnists and newspapers and people in general to refer to military people in somewhat derogatory terms. This is part of the heritage of our country, and yet, if you look back at our history, some of the most admired men were military people: George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor. Even Abraham Lincoln fought; he was a captain in the Black Hawk War. Black Jack Pershing was highly admired, as was Eisenhower, and there’s George Marshall, of course.
No one today has the foggiest idea what electronics really is and what it can do at this point. What do you think it’ll belike in fifteen years?
The military are honorable, strong people who are doing a terrific job, and the country ought to recognize it. If a sailor walks down the street, people should be proud of him. Instead of saying, here comes one of those dummies who joined the Navy because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else, they should tip their hats. And yet somehow it’s ingrained in the American people to always knock down the person in authority. I think it’s terrible. Adequate pay is one thing, and very important. But there’s also this private, personal thing. If men can’t get both private and professional satisfaction, in addition to the financial compensation they must have, they won’t stay around. If this could be changed, I think we’d solve the problem.
How could you go about changing this ingrained outlook?
If I knew the answer, I’d run right up to the White House and tell the President. I’m sure he’d like to know too. We should try to imbue pride in our forefathers. One of the things that makes Japan a strong nation is this tremendous feeling for ancestors. The Japanese don’t worship their ancestors but they have a reverence for them. I believe some of this is slowly coming back in the United States. The Vietnam War, as I said, was the nadir, because for the first time in our history young men were drafted for something other than the defense of the country. On that basis I think the draft was used in an immoral way. It’s not intended for that. Nobody objected to the draft during World War II, because people realized it had to be fought to prevent something even worse from occurring. But this could not be said about the Vietnam War. The whole thing from the very beginning hurt our country terribly. We are getting over it at last, and I hope the wounds continue to heal.
We spoke about the battleship earlier. Do you think the Navy is wise to bring the New Jersey out of mothballs?