American Culture

Politicians play general, generals play politics (part 2)

Written in the same trenchant tone as his column at, military analyst Jeff Huber’s first novel, Bathtub Admirals, has just been published by Kunati. Publishers Weekly calls it a “profane parody.”

When we meet protagonist Jack Hogan, he’s been appointed assistant navigator to a aircraft carrier, the USS Constellation. He already made his reputation — as a world-class tactician in “The Great Big Backfire Raid.”

The American carrier group in the Pacific with which he was serving caught wind that the head admiral of the Soviet navy ordered its Backfire bombers out on a practice run against the group. Tasked, along with other junior officers, to create a response, Hogan’s plan was chosen. It called for using an attack submarine, hundreds of miles ahead of the carrier battle group, to broadcast radar and radio signals simulating the activities of the group.

Goaded to target the sub instead of the carrier group, the Backfires were met by a massive launch of American naval planes that, if necessary, could shoot air-to-air missiles at the Backfires who backed off. Hogan’s scheme proved a single carrier wing could wipe out Russia’s entire Pacific Naval Air Force as soon as it ventured from Soviet airspace.

He enhances his reputation while assistant navigator on the “Connie” during an exercise in the Aleutians. Admiral Bull Palsy, in command of the ship leading the formation, decides to do a “bottom blow” of one of his boilers without informing the ships behind him and stops his dead in the water. We’ll leave the details for the reader to discover on his or her own how Hogan prevents “The Almost Great Big Train Wreck.”

You can be forgiven for wondering why you should read a military spoof that’s set during peacetime instead of the Afghanistan or Iraq war. In fact, it reveals patterns of behavior that have been festering in the military for decades, but have now hardened. Such as rewarding officers who either place their ambition above their commands or, incompetent, rely on others to pull them out of fixes while they keep their focus on advancing their careers.

This is seconded in a passage from Laila al-Arian and Chris Hedges’s new book, “Collateral Damage,” as excerpted at Tom Dispatch: “The senior officers, protected in heavily fortified compounds, rarely experienced combat. They sent their troops on futile missions in the quest to be awarded Combat Infantry Badges. This recognition, [conscientious objector Sgt. Camilo] Mejía noted, ‘was essential to their further progress up the officer ranks.'” Bathtub Admirals is filled with self-serving characters that we identify with ease, like Admiral Fix Felon and Senator Ex-Prisoner-of-War, and those we can’t, like Senator Tailhook (Kay Bailey Hutchison?).

Not only does Huber have a sure ear for military-speak, he takes great pains to explain it terminology, such as how the counterintuitive deck system on a naval ship work. Meanwhile, the wit on display in his columns is allowed to run riot in his book.

For example, “If we can’t have a real war, we need to play war, so the sandbox generals and bathtub admirals can fight among themselves over who get to control the toy soldiers and ships and airplanes.” In response to a naval tactic, a character responds, “How very Sun Tzu.”

Bathtub Admirals also ventures into the realm of Catch 22’s logical irrationality. A captain and his aide are discussing Admiral Wild Bill Hitchcock’s demand for a red phone directly connected to the president of the United States.

The captain: “One might reasonably assume that a red phone would be red, but it might not be. After all, ‘red phone,’ that’s really just a euphemism, isn’t it? Meant to describe the function of the phone, something one uses in emergencies, not necessarily the actual color of the phone. . . . Suppose their red phones only come in green or black or what.”

Aide: “Maybe you could explain that to Admiral Hitchcock, sir.”

The captain, after making a “low frequency, feral-sounding survival noise”: “I’m not entirely certain Admiral Hitchock would understand.”

Tomorrow, a wide-ranging discussion with Jeff Huber.

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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