I’ve never owned a gun.
I take that back.
As a taxpayer, alongside every other taxpayer, I own a portion (the firing pin? the magazine well?) of millions of guns of nearly 100 types that the American military uses. But the fact of my vicarious gun ownership seems so impersonal, so far removed from the story of my life as a member of the United States Armed Forces.
I’ve never owned a gun, but the Navy gave me plenty. For 12 years, I carried them (and aimed, fired, cleaned and cleaned them again). In Boot Camp and Plebe Summer and Anti-Terrorism Training, I shot pistols, rifles, shotguns, and machine guns. During Fleet Marine Force Corpsman school on Camp Pendleton and Individual Augmentee drills at Fort Jackson, I carried a rifle devoid of ammunition, a BFA (which would be better — to spell out each acronym [in this case, blank firing attachment] or just give it to you and hope you can figure it out as we go?) screwed tight over the muzzle, playing war in the California night or in the Carolina snow. (Winter in South Carolina surprised me; my conception of the South is heat, smothering and muggy.) I pointed the guns at targets, imaginary and real (paper or plastic, stationary and pop-up), and cleared my weapon before I entered the DFAC (or “dee-fack,” formerly known as chow hall, then renamed, at some point, the dining facility — see how awkward this can get, how the language creates distance?).
I’ve shot weapons at sea, literally hundreds of miles from anywhere. (Maps show the planet is three-quarters oceanic, but this glosses over the deeper truth — the ocean is not the same all over. Like people, like awareness, it changes constantly.) The Navy requires that Sailors qualify on their weapons (learning the mechanics of guns and the procedures to use them), then insists Sailors refresh their knowledge of and familiarity with the things that will protect our ship. (We shot as often as we could, because it was important and because it was fun.) When firing weapons at-sea, whether a five-inch (diameter of the shell) deck gun or a nine-millimeter pistol (or anything in between), we simply checked the radar, scanned the horizon, and (if all appeared clear) opened up. Our intention was not to kill fish (though how many died later of lead poisoning?); even at maximum range, however, a round or shell or projectile retains some lethality.
We fired thousands of rounds into the ocean, aiming for nothing but water.
I’ve never owned a gun and I never pointed one at anything other than a target, or the great big blue or green or grey (depending on latitude and longitude) watery planet. I did, once, tell someone to point their (taxpayer-owned) weapon at a person, or rather: persons.
It was less telling, in fact, than ordering. I was standing watch, as I did during all transitings, as the Gun Liaison Officer, and everyone with a gun took their orders from me for four hours, until the other GLO relieved me for his four hours. Four hours later I would return and relieve him. (Repeat as needed.) The Sailors manning the guns also stood four-hour shifts; anything longer and they would start to lose focus.
It wasn’t like the movies (spoiler alert: nothing in the military is like the movies, except for maybe the Boot Camp scenes in Full Metal Jacket, right up to the moment when Private Pyle blows away Gunny Hartman) (“full metal jacket” refers, of course, to the ammunition, the round itself; the bullet, to use the colloquial). When I gave my order, there was no shouting, no running to the guns, no smoke and explosions and music. (Of course there is smoke, and of course there are explosions, if something were to catch fire or blow up; absent this, it’s rather quiet.)
I ordered the young man to point his gun at another human being. Rather, it was two guns. And it was three (looked like three, per the fuzzy green night-vision goggles) human beings.
Straits are narrow bodies of water between bodies of land, transited from one large body of water to another. Straits are constricted (depth of water determines course and speed) and straits are crowded (no one transits between unimportant bodies of water). The bodies of land on either side of straits belong to countries, usually ones indifferent to us, sometimes “hostile” (though not usually overtly hostile). Rules governing international conduct on the high seas (there being little interest in international conduct on low seas) dictate that, provided the ships in transit follow established rules, the people from those bodies of land on either side of the straits should leave the people in their ships unmolested, allow them to pass. These nations can (and do, and probably should) per protocol, maintain “situational awareness” and monitor their progress, even up to and including shadowing their course.
In this instance, our ship transited, and their boats shadowed. We were en route to get an engine fixed and they watched us on our way.
Hard to cast shadows, of course, at night, though my memory fails at whether we had a moon. (I know, of course, that the moon is always there, never really gone, and only through angles and shades does it appear new or full or anywhere in between, but that night — when our previous months of tension, boredom, paranoia, and surges in emotion came to a head — I don’t think we had her with us. The moon casts too much illumination for the night-vision goggles and infrared scopes to work properly; starlight does just fine.)
A small boat had sped behind us hours previously, darting from one country to another, most likely laden (intelligence reports suggested) with Levi’s blue jeans, as these were the most popular (and therefore most lucrative) things to smuggle at that time and place. (And could be, still, these years later.) We’d expected smugglers, had no interest in smugglers (so long as they kept their distance), and the smugglers obliged, appearing when and where we expected them and paying us no heed.
It was other men in other boats that kept us watching, kept us vigilant. Smugglers were predictable; religious extremists in speedboats were not.
A ship is always manned, day or night, sun or rain, in port or at sea, because a ship is complex and demanding and her myriad systems require monitoring and care. Navigating a ship places extra demands on the crew (plotting course, speed, position; running the proper number of engines, generators to meet demands; scanning for, responding to threats; do you get the picture?). Navigating a ship through a strait multiplies demands (not straying into shallow waters; not straying into territorial waters; not hitting other ships, since this particular body of water was then and is now used by oil tankers and tramp steamers and cargo ships full of sheep, which — when dead — were simply tossed overboard). Navigating a ship through a strait at night amplifies demands (you get the picture). And doing all this so close to a country with a history of professed hostility (it popularized the chant “Death to America”) and a demonstrated blatant disregard for the rules of international high-sea conduct (coming too close to our ships, not responding to radio calls, attacking neutral shipping … in other words, agitating and bullying) ensured we all stood watch with our eyes wide open.
It was on this night, against this backdrop, in this set of circumstances, that I was in charge of a team of a dozen men (all 300 of the Sailors onboard USS Princeton were men; some of our officers were women, but none were on the guns that night). On the bridge wings (small platforms extending from the bridge, or pilothouse, or where we drive the ship) we had two machine guns (to be specific: M-240B, firing 7.62mm rounds, the same size as the one Pyle zapped Hartman with, using a different kind of weapon) (chances are, reader, these statistics are new to you — because chances are you are not ex-military, not a vet, and, therefore, you must either defer to my lived experiences and cross your eyes when I use acronyms and designators, or you doubt my veracity as I most likely am, after more than a dozen years of a military life, jaded or some kind of PTSD-plagued sob-story) (or anything in between). The two machine guns on the bridge wings, set 60 and more feet above the waterline, nothing below them but night air until water. We also had a pair of .50-cal machine guns on the bow of the ship, two men out alone, one per gun, plugged in with headsets to communicate with the rest of the gun crew. Two more Sailors sat inside the pilothouse (a rare thing, sitting while on duty) at Remote Operating Stations, controlling the two Mk (pronounced “Mark”) 38 25mm cannons back aft, hundreds of feet away, approximating the video games that my generation grew up with (better than the ones they have now), using joysticks and buttons to do what the other Sailors on watch did with muscles and eyes. The rounds these cannon shot were tracers — when fired at night (but not this night) each round zipped through the darkness ablaze until it met its target or the sea. The rounds these cannon shot were huge: 25 millimeters in diameter and about the height of a beer bottle. These Sailors stationed in the pilothouse did not wear headsets; I could speak directly to them.
The last four men on the gun crew stood amidships with four more .50-cals, mounted in twin positions, one pair on each side (port and starboard, left and right), plugged in with headsets and waiting for orders. The type of guns (though not the guns themselves) dated to World War I, almost 100 years before (as of this retelling it has been more than 100 years). Simple in design, they didn’t need much improvement. The guns would probably be what the average uninitiated would imagine when asked to picture a machine gun (what do you picture, reader?). The guns were heavy and brutal, and we believed we couldn’t aim at people, couldn’t actually shoot people with them (a myth, though I never saw it expressed in written orders); instead, you had to “aim for the boat they’re in” or “aim for the plane they’re in” or “aim for the uniforms they’re in” in order to “render it unserviceable.” As terrible as these guns were, we couldn’t use them on people, only on equipment.
The end result, of course, is the same.
I never pointed a gun at a person or a uniform (or anything in between), but I ordered (quietly, on the headset) (I want to emphasize that I did not yell that night or as I tell it now) the gunner on the starboard twin-.50 mount to “Watch that boat” and “If they’ve got night vision, I want them to see you watching them” and even now I hesitate to pull the words out of the past and place them here: I told the gunner, “Let them see you tracking them.”
The remote scope allowed us to see a level of detail that, while not complete, was uncanny. We saw three men. One drove the high-powered boat, paralleling our course and matching our speed; the other two held on to some sort of framework, bracing themselves against the motion of the water and the asynchronous motion of the boat against the water (the picture — is it there in you yet?), and none of them made a threatening move. We knew they had weapons — that was the point. They would not be shadowing us and be unarmed. We knew they were watching us, content not to provoke — that was the point. Had they been transiting our waters we would have watched them, too.
Part of me wished for provocation beyond their micro-aggressions. A confrontation would not have been at all fair or even, but fair and even are obsolete concepts as soon as you pass over the horizon you’ve seen all your life, when you sail far enough away from home for the ocean to lose its familiar hue and move in unfamiliar ways, when you arrive in a part of the world where even the constellations look strange. We weren’t at war with the men on the boat or the country whence they sailed (we weren’t at war with anyone, really, save perhaps disorder), but I was on edge. The previous months of tension, boredom, paranoia, and surges in emotion shadowed us here. I felt the full steel weight of Princeton below my feet and might have (must have) closed my eyes.
We had M-240Bs and Mk 38s and .50-cals and M203 grenade launchers, the little tubes under-slung on rifles that thoonk send 40mm grenades downrange, we had these and flares (shot from pistols, or pencils) and the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS, “Sea-Whiz,” “R2-D2 with a hard-on”) which could brrpt send 100 rounds (each the size of a beer bottle and cast from tungsten, I think; the memories stay but the facts start to fuzz) (our CIWS was only rated for airborne threats; the upgrade to allow us to brrpt surface targets like boats was a few years in the future). We had these and two Mk 45 5″/54-caliber deck guns, fore and aft, the closest thing remaining to the days-of-old battleships (and not close by any means; the last battleships had three triple-mounted 16″ guns, sending rounds the size of VW Beetles more than 20 miles, which is across the horizon you can see from an un-elevated position) (are you still there?). These two deck guns we had, the only ones left from the days-of-old, they could hammer boats and ships and things far inland, but one of our guiding principles, even when considering the kinds of death we could dispense, was to use the least amount of force necessary to eliminate the threat.
The least amount of force necessary to eliminate the threat.
In the dark pilothouse of that 9,600-ton ship, it settled in me. Wars don’t start with declarations; instead, it could be the slip of a finger that result in shots fired and shots returned, an escalation of violence with an unknown end.
We were far from home, and I ordered a man to point his gun at other men. The moon (if it had ever been there) sank and night passed and we woke the next morning, all of us alive.
TRAVIS KLEMPAN grew up in Colorado, joined the Navy, saw the world, and came home. He received a BS in English from the U.S. Naval Academy and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Jack Kerouac School. His work has appeared in Line of Advance, Ash & Bones, and Proud to Be. He is the founder of Barnacle Mountain Press and is working on a novel about ghost stories in Iraq.