Credit to Author: Elliot Ackerman, Admiral James Stavridis| Date: Tue, 09 Feb 2021 12:00:00 +0000
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They charged out of the east, two silvery flashes on the horizon, and made an orbit around the badly wounded John Paul Jones. Nearly half the crew, more than one hundred sailors, had perished since that morning, either incinerated in the blast from the pair of successive torpedo impacts or entombed in the flooded compartments belowdecks that their shipmates had been forced to secure with them still trapped inside. There were very few wounded, mostly dead, as was usually the case in naval engagements, where there was no battlefield for the injured to rest upon, only the consuming sea.
When the two planes didn't come in straight for the attack, a collective silence fell over the crew, like a breath sucked in. Within that breath was a fleeting hope that these planes had been sent from Yokosuka, or perhaps launched from a friendly carrier dispatched to their aid. But as soon as the crew of the John Paul Jones glimpsed their wings, which were laden with munitions, and observed that the two aircraft kept a cautious distance, they knew they weren't friendly.
But why didn't they strike? Why didn't they drop their ordnance and finish the job?
Captain Sarah Hunt couldn't waste her time on speculation. Her full attention remained where it had been since the first torpedo hit the day before. She needed to keep her flagship afloat. And it was, sadly, her ship now. Commander Morris hadn't been seen since the second impact. Hunt hadn't heard from the Levin or Chung-Hoon either. She'd only watched, helplessly, as each was crippled and then sunk. This was the fate that would soon befall her and the surviving members of her crew. Although they'd contained most of the fires on the John Paul Jones, they were taking on more water than they could pump out. As the weight of the water contorted the steel hull, it creaked mournfully, like a wounded beast, as minute by minute it came closer to buckling.
Hunt stood on the bridge. She tried to occupy herself—checking and rechecking their inoperable radios, dispatching runners for updates from damage control, replotting their position on an analog chart, since anything that required a GPS had failed. She did this so her crew wouldn't despair at their captain's inactivity and so that she herself wouldn't have to imagine the water slipping over the mast. She glanced up, at the twin attack planes from the Zheng He. How she wished they would stop taunting her, that they would stop their impudent circling, drop their ordnance, and allow her to go down with her ship.
“Ma'am … ” interjected one of the radiomen standing beside her, as he pointed toward the horizon.
She glanced up.
The flight of two had changed their angle of attack. They were darting toward the John Paul Jones, flying low and fast, staggered in echelon. When the sun glinted off their wings, Hunt imagined it was their cannons firing. She grimaced, but no impacts came. The flight of two was closing the distance between them. The weapon systems on the John Paul Jones had been taken out of action. On the bridge there was silence. Her command—the hierarchy that was her ship and its crew—it all melted away in these, their final moments. The radioman, who couldn't have been more than 19, glanced up at her, and she, surprising herself, placed her arm around him. The flight of two was so close now, so low, that she could observe the slight undulation of their wings as they passed through the uneven air. In a blink their ordnance would drop.
Hunt shut her eyes.
A noise like thunder—a boom.
But nothing happened.
Hunt glanced upward. The two planes turned aerobatic corkscrews around each other, climbing higher and higher still, losing and finding themselves in striations of cloud. Then they descended again, passing a hundred feet or less above the surface of the ocean, flying slowly, right above stall speed. As they passed in front of the bridge, the lead plane was so close that Hunt could see the silhouette of the pilot. Then he dipped his wing—a salute, which Hunt believed was the message he'd been sent there to deliver.
The planes ascended and flew back the way they came.
The ship's bridge remained silent.
Then there was a crackle of static. For the first time in more than a day, one of their radios turned on.
The video teleconference shut off. The screen withdrew into the ceiling. Lin Bao and Minister Chiang sat alone at the vast conference table.
“Do you think your friend Admiral Ma Qiang is upset with me?”
The question took Lin Bao off guard. He never imagined that someone in Minister Chiang's position would concern himself with the emotional state of a subordinate. Not knowing how to answer, Lin Bao pretended that he hadn't heard, which caused Minister Chiang to ruminate a bit about why he'd asked.
“Ma Qiang is an excellent commander, decisive, efficient, even cruel. But his effectiveness can also be his weakness. He is an attack dog only. Like so many military officers, he doesn't understand nuance. By sparing the John Paul Jones, he believes that I've denied him a prize. However, he doesn't understand the true purpose of his mission.” Minister Chiang arched an eyebrow. What the true purpose of that mission was hung in the air as an unanswered question, one that Lin Bao wouldn't dare ask aloud but instead asked through his silence, so that Minister Chiang continued, “Tell me, Lin Bao, you studied in the West. You must've learned the story of Aristodemus.”
Lin Bao nodded. He knew the story of Aristodemus, that famous Spartan who was the sole survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae. He'd learned it at the Kennedy School, in a seminar pompously titled “The History of War” taught by a Hellenophile professor. The story went that in the days before the final stand of the famous Three Hundred, Aristodemus was stricken with an eye infection. The Spartan king, Leonidas, having no use for a blind soldier, sent Aristodemus home before the Persians slaughtered what was left of his army.
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“Aristodemus,” said Lin Bao, “was the only Spartan who survived to tell the story.”
Minister Chiang leaned back in his armchair. “This is what Ma Qiang doesn't understand,” he said with an amused half smile. “He wasn't sent to sink three American warships; that was not his mission. His mission was to send a message. If the entire flotilla was destroyed, if it disappeared, the message would be lost. Who would deliver it? Who would tell the story of what happened? But by sparing a few survivors, by showing some restraint, we will be able to send our message more clearly. The point here is not to start a needless war but to get the Americans to finally listen to us, to respect the sovereignty of our waters.”
Minister Chiang then complimented Lin Bao on his effectiveness as the American attaché, noting how well he'd managed the baiting of the John Paul Jones with the Wén Rui, and how American culpability in the seizure of that intelligence vessel disguised as a fishing trawler would undermine the international outcry that was certain to begin at the United Nations and then trickle from that ineffectual international organization to others that were equally ineffectual. Then, being in a pensive mood, Minister Chiang held forth on his vision of events as they might unfold in the coming days. He imagined the surviving crew members of the John Paul Jones recounting how they had been spared by the Zheng He. He imagined the Politburo Standing Committee brokering a deal with their Iranian allies to release the downed F-35 and its pilot as a means of placating the Americans. And lastly, he imagined their own country and its navy possessing unfettered control of the South China Sea, a goal generations in the making.
By the time he'd finished his explication, Minister Chiang seemed in an expansive mood. He placed his hand on Lin Bao's wrist. “As for you,” he began, “our nation owes you a great debt. I imagine you'd like to spend some time with your family, but we also need to see to your next posting. Where would you like to be assigned?”
Lin Bao sat up in his chair. He looked the minister in the eye, knowing that such an opportunity might never again present itself. “Command at sea, Comrade Minister. That's my request.”
“Very well,” answered Minister Chiang. He gave a slight backhanded wave as he stood, as if with this gesture alone he had already granted such a wish.
Then as Minister Chiang headed for the door, Lin Bao plucked up his courage and added one caveat, “Specifically, Comrade Minister, I request command of the Zheng He Carrier Battle Group.”
Minister Chiang stopped. He turned over his shoulder. “You would take Ma Qiang's command from him?” Then he began to laugh. “Maybe I was wrong about you. Perhaps you are the cruel one. We'll see what can be arranged. And please, take those damn M&M's with you.”
For ten days Sandeep Chowdhury had slept on the floor of his office. His mother watched his daughter. His ex-wife didn't harass him with a single email or text message even after internet and cellular service resumed. His personal life remained mercifully quiet. He could attribute this détente to the crisis consuming the country's attention and his family's knowledge that he was playing a central part in its management. On the political left and political right, old adversaries seemed willing to dispense with decades of antipathy in the face of this new aggression. It had taken the television networks and newspapers about a day, maybe two, to understand the magnitude of what had occurred in the South China Sea and over the skies of Iran:
A flotilla wiped out.
A downed pilot.
The result was public unity. But also, a public outcry.
This outcry had grown louder and louder, to the point where it had become deafening. On the morning talk shows, on the evening news, the message was clear: We have to do something. Inside the administration a vociferous group of officials led by National Security Advisor Trent Wisecarver subscribed to the wisdom of the masses, believing that the US military must demonstrate to the world its unquestioned supremacy. “When tested, we must act” was the refrain echoed by this camp in various corners of the White House, except for one specific corner, the most important one, which was the Oval Office. The president had her doubts. Her camp, of which Chowdhury counted himself a member, had no refrain that they articulated within the administration, or on television, or in print. Their doubts manifested in a general reluctance to escalate a situation that seemed to have already spun out of control. The president and her allies were, put simply, dragging their feet.
This excerpt appears in the February 2021 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.
Ten days into this crisis, the strategy of de-escalation seemed to be failing. Like the sinking of the Lusitania in the First World War, or the cries of “Remember the Maine!” at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, a new set of names had replaced these historical ones. Within days, every American knew about the sinking of the Carl Levin and the Chung-Hoon, as well as the survival of the John Paul Jones, which hadn't really survived but had been scuttled by the submarine that had rescued its few dozen remaining crew members, to include the commodore of the flotilla, whom the Navy had kept out of the limelight as she faced a board of inquiry.
If Sarah Hunt had, at least up to this point, managed to remain relatively anonymous, the opposite held true for Marine Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell. After the Battle of Mischief Reef, as the media dubbed the one-sided engagement, senior Chinese officials reached out to the administration. Minister of Defense Chiang was particularly engaged, insisting that this crisis was one large misunderstanding. As a gesture of goodwill, he offered himself to the Americans as an intermediary between them and the Iranians. He would personally negotiate the return of the F-35 and the release of its pilot. When a delegation of Chinese emissaries arrived with this message at the US embassy in New Delhi—their own embassy in Washington having been shut down in the wake of the crisis—the administration replied that it was the height of dishonesty to pretend that the F-35 would be turned over before the pilfering of its many sensitive technological secrets by the Chinese and Iranians. As for the pilot, the administration was under an intense amount of pressure to recover him.
Three days after Major Mitchell went missing, his name was leaked by someone in the administration to a cable news network. An anchor at that network then paid a visit to the Mitchell family home outside of Kansas City, Missouri, where she found quite a story: four generations of Marine fighter pilots. The anchor conducted her interview in a living room with nearly one hundred years of memorabilia hanging on the walls, from captured Japanese battle flags to a blood-splattered flight suit. On camera, Major Mitchell's father described his son, from time to time staring vacantly into the backyard, out toward a tree with the two rusted steel anchor points of a swing set drilled into its thickest branch. The elder Mitchell spoke about the family, the decades of tradition, all the way back to his own grandfather, who had flown with the vaunted Black Sheep squadron in the Second World War. The segment integrated photos of the young, handsome Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell alongside photos of his father, and of his “Pop,” and of his “Pop-Pop,” the passage of generations linking the America of this time to the America of another time, when the country had been at the height of its greatness.
The video went up online, and within hours it had been watched millions of times.
At a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room on the fifth day of the crisis, the president asked if everyone had seen the segment. They all had. Already, #FreeWedge had begun to trend heavily on social media. One only had to look out of any West Wing window to see the proliferation of black POW/MIA flags that overnight picketed the Washington skyline. The president wondered aloud why the plight of this one pilot seemed to resonate more profoundly than the deaths of hundreds of sailors in the South China Sea. The room grew very quiet. Every staffer knew that on her desk for signature were the letters of condolence to the families of the Levin, Chung-Hoon, and John Paul Jones. Why, she asked rhetorically, does he matter more than them?
“He's a throwback, ma'am,” Chowdhury blurted out.
He didn't even have a seat but was standing against the wall among the other backbench staffers. Half the cabinet turned to face him. He immediately regretted that he'd opened his mouth. He glanced down at his hands, as if by looking away he might convince the room that someone else had spoken, that his comment had been some strange act of ventriloquism.
In a firm but measured tone the president asked him to explain.
“Wedge is a link in a chain,” Chowdhury began hesitantly, gaining confidence as he went. “His family ties us back to the last time we defeated a peer-level military. The country can intuit what might be coming. Seeing him reminds people of what we as a nation are capable of accomplishing. That's why they're so invested in him.”
No one either agreed or disagreed with Chowdhury.
After a few beats of silence, the president told the room that she had one goal, and one goal alone, which was to avoid an escalation that would lead to the type of peer-to-peer conflict Chowdhury had mentioned. “Is that clear?” she said, leveling her gaze at those around the conference table.
Everyone nodded, but a lingering tension made it evident that not everyone agreed.
The president then stood from her seat at the head of the table and left, a trail of her aides following behind her. The hum of conversation resumed. The various secretaries and agency heads engaged in sidebar discussions, leaning in to one another as close as conspirators as they filtered out into the corridor. A pair of junior aides swept into the room and checked that no sensitive notes or errant document had been left behind.
As Chowdhury migrated back to his desk, his boss, Trent Wisecarver, found him. “Sandy …” Like a child who can tell whether he is in trouble from the inflection of a parent's voice, Chowdhury could tell immediately that Wisecarver was upset with him for speaking out of turn in the meeting. Chowdhury began to equivocate, apologizing for his outburst and making assurances that it wouldn't happen again. More than a decade before, Wisecarver's young son had perished in the coronavirus pandemic, a personal tragedy to which many attributed Wisecarver's hawkish political awakening and which made him adept at projecting fatherly guilt onto those subordinates he treated as surrogate children.
“Sandy,” repeated Wisecarver, though his voice was different now, a bit softer and more conciliatory. “Take a break. Go home.”
At first Wedge thought he was home. He'd woken up in a dark room, in a bed with clean sheets. He couldn't see a thing. Then he noticed a single bar of light beneath what must have been a shut door. He lifted his head to take a closer look. That's when the pain hit him. And with the pain came the realization that he was very far indeed from home. He returned his head to the pillow and kept his eyes open to the dark.
He couldn't quite remember what had happened at first, but slowly, details began to emerge: his starboard wing dancing along the border … losing flight control … his attempt to eject … his descent toward Bandar Abbas … his smoking a Marlboro on the tarmac … the man with the scars … the pressure of that three-fingered grip against his shoulder. It took an entire night for these details to resurface.
He ran his tongue through his mouth and could feel the gaps among his teeth. His lips felt fat and blistered. Light began to suggest itself at the rim of the curtains. Wedge was soon able to take in his surroundings, but his vision was blurred. One of his eyes was swollen shut, and he could hardly see through the other.
Without his vision, he'd never fly again.
Everything else would heal. Everything else could be undone. Not this.
He tried to reach his hand to his face, but his arm couldn't move. His wrists were cuffed to the frame of the bed. He pulled and then pulled again, his restraints rattling as he struggled to touch his face. A hurried procession of footsteps advanced toward his room. His door opened; balanced in the brightly lit threshold was a young nurse wearing a hijab. She held her finger to her mouth, shushing him. She wouldn't come too close. She formed both hands into a pleading gesture and spoke softly in a language Wedge didn't understand. Then she left. He could hear her running down the corridor.
There was light in his room now.
Hanging from a metal arm in the far corner was a television.
Something was written on its bottom.
Wedge relaxed his throbbing head against the pillow. With his unswollen eye, he focused on the television and the piece of text embossed at its base. It took all of his concentration but, slowly, the letters became sharper, shoring up around the edges. The image gathered itself, coming into focus. Then he could see it, in near twenty-twenty clarity, that fantastic and redeeming name: PANASONIC.
He shut his eyes and swallowed away a slight lump of emotion in his throat.
“Good morning, Major Wedge,” came a voice as it entered. Its accent was haltingly British, and Wedge turned his attention in its direction. The man was Persian, with a bony face cut at flat angles like the blades of several knives, and a precisely cropped beard. He wore a white orderly coat. His long, tapered fingers began to manipulate the various intravenous lines that ran out of Wedge's arms, which remained cuffed to the bed frame.
Wedge gave the doctor his best defiant stare.
The doctor, in an effort to ingratiate himself, offered a bit of friendly explication. “You suffered an accident, Major Wedge,” he began, “so we brought you here, to Arad Hospital, which I assure you is one of the finest in Tehran. Your accident was quite severe, but for the past week my colleagues and I have been looking after you.” The doctor then nodded to the nurse, who followed him around Wedge's bedside, as though she were the assistant to a magician in the midst of his act. “We very much want to return you home,” continued the doctor, “but unfortunately your government isn't making that easy for us. However, I'm confident this will all get resolved soon and that you'll be on your way. How does that sound, Major Wedge?”
Wedge still didn't say anything. He simply continued on with his stare.
“Right,” said the doctor uncomfortably. “Well, can you at least tell me how you're feeling today?”
Wedge looked again at the television; PANASONIC came into focus a bit more quickly this time. He smiled, painfully, and then he turned to the doctor and told him what he resolved would be the only thing he told any of these fucking people: His name. His rank. His service number.
He'd done as he'd been told. Chowdhury had gone home. He'd spent the evening with Ashni, just the two of them. He'd made them chicken fingers and french fries, their favorite, and they'd watched an old movie, The Blues Brothers, also their favorite. He read her three Dr. Seuss books, and halfway through the third—The Butter Battle Book—he fell asleep beside her, waking after midnight to stumble down the hall of their duplex to his own bed. When he woke the next morning, he had an email from Wisecarver. Subject: Today. Text: Take it off.
So he dropped his daughter at school. He came home. He made himself a French press coffee, bacon, eggs, toast. Then he wondered what else he might do. There were still a couple of hours until lunch. He walked to Logan Circle with his tablet and sat on a bench reading his news feed; every bit of coverage—from the international section, to the national section, to the opinion pages and even the arts—it all dealt in one way or another with the crisis of the past ten days. The editorials were contradictory. One cautioned against a phony war, comparing the Wén Rui incident to the Gulf of Tonkin, and warned of opportunistic politicians who now, just as seventy years before, “would use this crisis as a means to advance ill-advised policy objectives in Southeast Asia.” The next editorial reached even further back in history to express a contradictory view, noting at length the dangers of appeasement: “If the Nazis had been stopped in the Sudetenland, a great bloodletting might have been avoided.” Chowdhury began to skim, coming to, “In the South China Sea the tide of aggression has once again risen upon the free peoples of the world.” He could hardly finish this article, which sustained itself on ever loftier rhetoric in the name of pushing the country toward war.
Chowdhury remembered a classmate of his from graduate school, a Navy lieutenant commander, a prior enlisted sailor who'd gotten his start as a hospital corpsman with the Marines in Iraq. Walking past his cubicle in the study carrels one day, Chowdhury had noticed a vintage postcard of the USS Maine tacked to the partition. When Chowdhury joked that he ought to have a ship that didn't blow up and sink pinned to his cubicle, the officer replied, “I keep it there for two reasons, Sandy. One is as a reminder that complacency kills—a ship loaded out with fuel and munitions can explode at any time. But, more importantly, I keep it there to remind me that when the Maine blew up in 1898—before social media, before twenty-four-hour news—we had no problem engaging in national hysteria, blaming it on ‘Spanish terrorists,’ which of course led to the Spanish-American War. Fifty years later, after World War Two, when we finally performed a full investigation, you know what they found? The Maine blew up because of an internal explosion—a ruptured boiler or a compromised ammunition storage compartment. The lesson of the Maine—or even Iraq, where I fought—is that you better be goddamn sure you know what's going on before you start a war.”
Chowdhury closed his newsfeed. It was nearly lunch time. He walked home lost in thought. His desire for de-escalation didn't stem from any pacifistic tendencies on his part. He believed in the use of force—after all, he worked on the National Security Council staff. His fear of escalation was more instinctual. Inherent in all wars, he knew, was a miscalculation: When a war starts, both sides believe that they will win.
As he walked, he struggled to put words around his reservations as if he were writing a white paper to himself. His opening sentence came to him. It would be, The America that we believe ourselves to be is no longer the America that we are …
He thought this was a true statement. He pondered just how fraught a statement it was, how an overestimation of American strength could be disastrous. But it was lunch time, and there was nothing he could do about such existential questions, at least at this moment. This crisis, like every other, would likely pass. Cooler heads would prevail because it seemed that they always did.
He rooted around in the fridge. Not much there.
In the background, CNN was playing. The anchor announced some breaking news. “We have obtained exclusive video of downed Marine pilot Major Chris Mitchell.”
Chowdhury banged the back of his head as he startled up from the fridge. Before he could get to the television, he heard the warning that the video was graphic, that it might prove disturbing to some audiences. Chowdhury didn't wait around to see it. He already knew how bad it was. He climbed into his car and rushed to the office, forgetting to turn off the television.
He texted his mother to see if she could pick up Ashni from school, lest he appear negligent to his ex-wife. His mother wrote back immediately and, uncharacteristically, didn't complain about yet another change in plan. She must have already seen the video, thought Chowdhury. He was listening to the radio on his fifteen-minute drive into work; MSNBC, Fox, NPR, WAMU, even the local hip-hop station WPGC—everyone was talking about what they'd just seen. The image quality was grainy, pixelated, but what they all fixated on was how Wedge—lying on his side, with that brute of an Iranian officer standing over him, kicking him in the ribs and head—kept repeating only his name, rank, and service number.
The divergence of views Chowdhury had read in the paper that morning was quickly yielding to a consensus. Every voice he heard on the drive into work agreed: The defiance displayed by this downed flyer was an example to us all. We wouldn't be pushed around, not by anyone. Had we forgotten who we were? Had we forgotten the spirit which made us that single, indispensable nation? Chowdhury thought of yesterday's debate in the Situation Room and the president's policy of de-escalation. With the release of this video, such a policy would become untenable.
When he barged into his office, the first person he saw was Hendrickson, whom he hadn't seen since the crisis began. The offices of the national security staff were packed with Pentagon augments who were helping with—or at times getting in the way of—the administration's response to the Iranians. “When did the video come in?” Chowdhury asked Hendrickson.
He pulled Chowdhury into the corridor. “It came in last night,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, glancing side to side as though he were about to cross the road. “A signals intercept from Cyber Command—weird that it didn't come from NSA. It seems this Iranian brigadier in the video lost his cool. He's well connected, and his superiors didn't quite believe what he'd done until a video circulated internally of the interrogation. We picked it up in their email traffic. Cyber defense has never been a strong suit for the Iranians. They have a tendency to focus on offensive cyber but kind of forget to guard the barn door.”
“How did it get to the press?” asked Chowdhury.
Hendrickson gave him a look, one Chowdhury had seen many times before when they'd attended the Fletcher School and either Chowdhury or one of his classmates had asked a question with an answer so obvious that its very asking annoyed Hendrickson. Nevertheless, Hendrickson obliged with an answer. “How do you think? A leak.”
Before Chowdhury could ask Hendrickson who he thought had leaked the video, Trent Wisecarver stepped out from the office and into the corridor where the two stood. His frameless glasses were balanced on the tip of his nose, as if he'd been reading. Under his arm were several binders marked TOP SECRET//NOFORN. Based on their thickness and on the fact that they were paper, not electronic, Chowdhury assumed them to be military operational plans of the highest sensitivity. When he saw Chowdhury, Wisecarver made a face. “Didn't I tell you to take the day off?”
Captain Sarah Hunt ventured out to the commissary on foot. For three weeks she'd been trapped on base without a car, living in a room at the bachelor officers' quarters, its only amenities a television that played the antiseptically boring American Forces Network and a kitchenette with a mini-fridge that didn't make ice. Why the Navy chose to perform her board of inquiry here, at Yokosuka, instead of her home port of San Diego, was a mystery to her. Her best guess was that they wanted to avoid any undue attention paid to the proceedings, but she couldn't be certain. The Navy wasn't in the business of explaining its decisions, not to anyone, and most certainly not to itself, at least at her level of command. And so she'd spent the intervening weeks since the Battle of Mischief Reef stowed away in this crappy room, reporting to a nondescript office building once or twice a day to give recorded answers to questions and hoping that the deliberations in progress might clear her name so that the administrative hold she'd been placed under would soon lift, allowing her to retire in peace.
She'd begun to think that the board of inquiry might never reach its conclusion when an optimistic note arrived in the form of a voicemail left by her old friend Rear Admiral John Hendrickson, in which he announced that he “happened to be on base” and asked if he could stop by for a drink. When he was a lieutenant on faculty at Annapolis, Hendrickson had volunteered as one of the softball coaches. As a midshipman, Hunt had been one of his star players. She'd been the catcher. And Hendrickson and the other players had affectionately nicknamed her “Stonewall” for the way she guarded home plate. On occasions too numerous to count, a runner rounding third would find herself flat on her back along the baseline, staring up at an expanse of sky, while Midshipman Sarah “Stonewall” Hunt stood triumphantly over her, ball in hand, with the umpire bellowing, “Ouutt!”
Sarah Hunt now stood in the checkout line of the commissary. She'd bought two six-packs of IPA, a jar of Planters mixed nuts, some crackers, some cheese. While she waited in line, she couldn't help but feel as though the other sailors were eyeing her. They knew who she was, stealing glances while trying to pretend that they didn't notice her. She couldn't decide whether this reaction was awe or contempt. She had fought in her country's largest naval battle since the Second World War.
She was, at this moment, the only officer who had ever held command at sea during a peer-level naval engagement, her three subordinate commanders having gone down with their ships. As she worked her way through the checkout line, she wondered how the sailors at Pearl Harbor felt in the days after that iconic defeat. Although eventually they had been celebrated, were the veterans of that battle first vilified? Did they have to suffer through boards of inquiry?
The cashier handed Hunt her receipt.
Back in her room, she put the nuts into a plastic bowl. She laid the crackers and cheese on a plate. She popped open a beer. And then she waited.
It didn't take long.
Knock, knock, knock … knock … knock … knock … knock, knock, knock …
Unreal, thought Hunt.
She called out for him to come in. Hendrickson opened the unlocked door, crossed the room, and sat across from Hunt at the small table in the kitchenette. He exhaled heavily, as though he were tired; then he took one of the beers that sat sweating condensation on the table, as well as a fistful of the salty nuts. They knew each other so well that neither had to speak.
“Cute with the knocks,” Hunt eventually said.
She nodded, and then added, “But this isn't Bancroft Hall. I'm not a 21-year-old midshipman and you aren't a 27-year-old lieutenant sneaking into my room.”
He nodded sadly.
“Fine,” he answered.
“Also fine … grandkid soon,” he added, allowing his voice to perk up. “Kristine's pregnant. The timing's good. She just finished a flight tour. She's slated for shore duty.”
“She still with that guy, the artist?”
“Graphic designer,” Hendrickson corrected.
“Smart girl,” said Hunt, giving a defeated smile. If Hunt had ever married, she knew it would've needed to be an artist, a poet, someone whose ambition—or lack thereof—didn't conflict with her own. She had always known this. That was why, decades before, she'd broken off her affair with Hendrickson. Neither of them was married at the time, so what made it an affair—because affairs are illicit—was their discrepancy in rank. Hendrickson thought after Hunt's graduation from Annapolis they could be out in the open. Despite Hunt's feelings for Hendrickson, which were real, she knew she could never be with him, or at least never be with him and have the career she wanted. When she explained this logic weeks before her graduation, he had told her that she was the love of his life, a claim that in the intervening thirty years he'd never disavowed. She had offered him only the same stony silence they now shared, which in that moment again reminded him of her namesake from those years ago—Stonewall.
“How you holding up?” Hendrickson eventually asked her.
“Fine,” she said, taking a long pull off her beer.
“The board of inquiry's almost finished with its report,” he offered.
She looked away from him, out the window, toward the port where she'd noticed over the past week an unusually heavy concentration of ships.
“Sarah, I've read over what happened. The Navy should've given you a medal, not an investigation.” He reached out and put his hand on her arm.
Her gaze remained fixed on the acres of anchored gray steel. What she wouldn't give to be on the deck of any of those ships instead of here, trapped in this room, at the end of a career cut short. “They don't give medals,” she said, “to commodores who lose all their ships.”
She glared at him. He was an inadequate receptacle for her grievances: from the destruction of her flotilla; to her medical retirement; all the way back to her decision never to have a family, to make the Navy her family. Hendrickson had gone on to have a career gilded with command at every level, prestigious fellowships, impressive graduate degrees, and even a White House posting, while also having a wife, children, and now a grandchild. Hunt had never had any of this, or at least not in the proportions that she had once hoped. “Is that why you came here?” she asked bitterly. “To tell me that I should've gotten a medal?”
“No,” he said, taking his hand off her arm and coming up in his seat. He leaned toward her as if for a moment he might go so far as to remind her of their difference in rank, that even she could push him too far. “I came here to tell you that the board of inquiry is going to find that you did everything possible given the circumstances.”
“What circumstances are those?”
Hendrickson grabbed a fistful of the nuts, dropping them one at a time in his mouth. “That's what I was hoping you might tell me.”
The board of inquiry wasn't the only reason Hendrickson had flown from Washington to Yokosuka. This should've been obvious to Hunt, but it hadn't been. She was so ensconced in her own grief, in her own frustration, that she hadn't given much thought to broader events. “You're here to coordinate our response?” she asked.
“What's our response going to be?”
“I'm not at liberty to say, Sarah. But you can imagine.”
She glanced back out to the port filled with ships, to the twin carriers at anchor studded with parked fighters on their decks, to the low-set submarines brooding on the surface, and then to the new semisubmersible frigates and the more traditional destroyers with their bladelike hulls facing out to sea.
This was the response.
“Where are you and your bosses going to send these ships?”
He didn't answer, but instead held forth on a range of technical issues. “You told the board of inquiry that your communications shut down. We haven't figured out how they did this, but we have some theories.” He asked her about the frequency of the static she heard from her failing radios, about whether the Aegis terminal turned off or simply froze. He asked a series of more runic questions above the classification level of the board of inquiry. She answered—at least as best she could—until she couldn't stand it anymore, until Hendrickson's questions began to prove that whatever response he and his masters at the White House had planned against their adversaries in Beijing was fated to be a disaster.
“Don't you see?” she finally said, exasperated. “The technical details of what they did hardly matter. The way to defeat technology isn't with more technology. It is with no technology. They'll blind the elephant and then overwhelm us.”
He gave her a confused, sidelong glance. “What elephant?”
“Us,” she added. “We're the elephant.”
Hendrickson finished off the last of his beer. It'd been a long day and a tough few weeks, he told her. He'd return in the morning to check on her, and then he had a flight out the following afternoon. He understood what she was saying, or at least wanted to understand. But the administration, he explained, was under enormous pressure to do something, to somehow demonstrate that they wouldn't be cowed. It wasn't only what had happened here but also this pilot, he said, this Marine who'd been brought down. Then he ruminated on the curse of domestic politics driving international policy as he stood from his seat and made for the door. “So, we'll pick up again tomorrow?” he asked.
She didn't answer.
“Okay?” he added.
She nodded. “Okay.” She shut the door behind him as he left.
That night her sleep was thin and empty, except for one dream. He was in it. And the Navy wasn't. It was the two of them in an alternative life, where their choices had been different. She woke from that dream and didn't sleep well the rest of the night because she kept trying to return to it. The following morning, she woke to a knock at her door. But it wasn't him; it wasn't his familiar SOS knock, just a plain knocking.
When she opened her door, a pimply faced sailor handed over a message. She was to report to the board of inquiry that afternoon for a final interview. She thanked the sailor and returned to her dim room, where the darkness congealed in the empty corners. She threw open the drapes to let in the light. It blinded her for a moment.
She rubbed at her eyes and looked down onto the port.
It was empty.
Adapted from 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis to be published March 09, 2021, by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis.
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