Politics & Policy

Five Stars for a Four-Star

The commander is a novelist.

The tale of a wandering homesick warrior with duties to discharge before being reunited with his family has been a staple since Homer’s Odyssey. For a primer on leadership, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits… series is the blockbuster choice of millions. For inspirational stories of ships and men and the sea, Jack London, Patrick O’Brien, and others invented and nurtured a timeless genre. For a personal catalog of humility and insignificance against the greatness of life and a higher power, The Confessions of St. Augustine are available.

Destroyer Captain, written by one of our nation’s most senior military officers, has a tincture of these works and more. Painfully well-written, poignant, and complete, this book opens a window onto a world that hums along with quiet, powerful, efficient ordinariness everyday across the globe: the U.S. Navy defending the empire of liberty.

Admiral Jim Stavridis, currently serving as commander of the United States Southern Command, has published the journals he kept while a first-time commanding officer of a ship at sea in the mid-1990s. Stavridis is a friend of many years; he is of great good humor and truly inspirational leader. Even so, there is nothing like the well written word for the possibility of true insight into a person’s character. These journal entries offer brutal, raw honesty as the young captain describes his expectations, his fears, his longing for home and hearth while thousands of miles away, and the timeless bonds that develop among the crew of a ship at sea.

Stavridis describes in wonderful detail — and with an easy but extraordinarily fine style — the 24/7 nature of what it means to be a captain of a weapon-packed man of war, with a crew whose average age is probably about 22 years old, and the captain himself in his thirties. He paints with equal skill in bold brush strokes and pointillist precision as he colors the everyday routine at sea, and the non-stop demands on the captain.

As the author puts it — and the book is infused with the obviousness of it — “for no one is the term service more applicable than the commanding officer who is doing his job.” He describes what it is like to sit in judgment of others at “captain’s mast,” the navy’s unique system of self-discipline that reaches back to ancient times. Forget what you may think you know of the all-powerful captain at sea; here’s the real deal as Stavridis describes a mast at which he restricted to the ship a young petty officer who had been thrown in jail for a shoreside brawl: “As the captain’s mast concluded, I walked out, feeling diminished myself. Judgment is the hardest of human tasks…”

But this is no “woe is me for the burdens of command” cri de coeur. The book tingles with the sheer pleasure Stavridis takes in being “the captain.” He knows he is a lucky man, entrusted with the most advanced warship ever built, a crew of 350 men he clearly loves, and ordered by his country to ply “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water,” as Stavridis quotes Conrad. An avid reader, Stavridis writes of his early decision to sit in his elevated chair on the bridge of the ship while at sea, generally observing the daily routines but benignly ignoring them as he reads — not from important dispatches or operational manuals, but “a good novel.” Why? “I think it’s important to show the younger folk that (a) reading matters and, more important, that (b) it is a good deal being the captain. If I can’t communicate the joy of command to my wardroom, why would any of them want to stick around? It sure isn’t for the pay!”

You will love this book, if you want to know of honesty, humility, humor, the courage of everyday acts of service by others, and the peaks and valleys of leadership. Not to mention wonderful writing, anecdotes, and insights by a distinguished military commander writing as a young officer, a decade and a half before pinning on the four stars of an admiral.

Captain Bligh, step aside. You have been relieved as proto-typical literary commander at sea. READ THIS BOOK and know about duty, honor, country…and seasickness, liberty call, carving turkeys for a Thanksgiving dinner of 350, and a lot more.

– Larry Di Rita was a naval officer and served in a variety of seagoing assignments from 1980-1993.


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