Cruise Control


EACH DAY began with roll call on the deck. We stood at once, swaying gently to match the rocking of the ship, and waited for the chief to come and tell us the plan of the day. I would try to guess, before going topside, if long shadows would lie in front of me on the grey hull, or if the early morning sun would make me squint at the glare off the blue waves. Of course there was no way to tell; the ship just steamed in circles, in the same area of the Caribbean, for 22 days.

It was a summer training cruise both for the crew and for me. They were preparing for a seven month deployment in the winter and spring to the Indian Ocean. We weren't scheduled to go to Central America, only a few hours away at full speed. I was learning facts about the Navy that I could take back with me to Harvard. The men did their jobs, some well, some poorly, some enthusiastically, some reluctantly; I watched and sometimes worked with them. The sea was calm, the food was variable. Nicaragua and Lebanon weren't big topics of conversation. But they were in the backs of most minds.

One day the Chief of Naval Operations, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came aboard. He was visiting our task force, which was just training, and the rumor went around that he was on his way to the ships patrolling the Nicaraguan coast. He told us that two Marines had died in Lebanon a few hours earlier. A collective gasp went through the assembled crew. Half of it was from anger and sadness; half was worry that the ship would be sent straight to the Mediterranean. The men wanted their scheduled time in port, with their families and friends. Seven months is a long time. And there isn't much to see or do in the Indian Ocean.

The facts I learned over the summer will help me in ROTC and, later, in the Navy. But on a larger scale I also saw firsthand some of the underlying factors at work in situations like Nicaragua and Lebanon. The Caribbean Sea and the Pacific coast of Central America are de facto American lakes, completely open to our naval forces and nearly inaccessible to anyone else's. Readily available supply and refueling facilities, a large number of friendly ports, and especially the proximity of the continental United States allow the U.S. to enjoy a constant advantage over the only non-NATO deep water navy in the world--the Soviet Navy. At no time during my cruise were we unaware of the crushing predominance of the United States; sailors told me that many of the Caribbean islanders refer to America as the "Northern Colossus."

But this lopsided power is a decidedly two-edged sword in terms of American regional policy. On the one hand, the U.S. can utilize enormous force mere miles from the Central American coast. A single large aircraft carrier (of which there were sometimes three, and never less than one, in the Caribbean while I was there) possesses more airpower than all of Central America combined. The Nicaraguan and other governments in the region are fully aware of this. And no matter what these officials may say in public, it is impossible for them not to take seriously the kind of high-level naval and air operations I witnessed nearly every day for three straight weeks.

But this leads to the other side of the sword. We must not misuse this enormous power against nations like Nicaragua. On a pragmatic level, even vastly superior naval forces are vulnerable to some kinds of stealthy attack, like the Exocet missiles used against Britain in the Falklands conflict. But on a much broader, moralistic plane, it would be simply wrong to abuse our strength, even if there were a reason to use it at all. Reminding unfriendly regimes of American power is fully within the legitimate parameters laid down in the Constitution, and recognized by international law. Attacking nearly defenseless countries is most definitely not. Negotiations and social initiatives must be the cornerstone of any Central American policy, but the Reagan Administration this summer still managed to use a show of military force in a completely legitimate, non-confrontational way.

Perhaps the flexibility shown at different times this summer by the Nicaraguans, El Salvadoran rebels, and Fidel Castro was caused in part by these exercises. I witnessed one small part of this effort, and found it to be not only highly professional, but quite moderate.

A MORE TICKLISH situation prevails in the Middle East, and some of my peers in ROTC were actually there. The fundamental questions of our involvement in Lebanon--why we are there in the first place, how long the Marines will remain ashore, and most important, whether our military effort will intensify or slacken--are still a matter of heated public debate. Numerous faults can be found on the diplomatic level as well. As far as strictly military maneuvers are concerned, however, the United States has so far shown admirable restraint and careful execution. The Marines are clearly still in a defensive and policing mode of operation, even if that defense has broadened to include help for the Lebanese Army. The use of naval gunfire has so far been limited to retaliation against direct shelling of American or Lebanese Army positions. Carrier-based warplanes have thus far held themselves to reconnaissance missions only. In general, American use of military power, although more direct than in Central America, has been very moderately and wisely used in support of legitimate objectives. As in the Caribbean, a striking contrast can be seen between limited and successful use of force on the one hand, and rather ineffective diplomatic action on the other.

Now that Congress has extended by 18 months Reagan's decision-making prerogative concerning the Marines in Lebanon, real dangers exist if the original objectives are forgotten in a desperate search for a solution. Diplomatic initiatives, just as in Central America, must continue to take priority. But the president should remedy this misplaced emphasis not by unnecessary and even dangerous scaling back of military exercises, but by an infusion of equal effort and expertise on the diplomatic front.

The domination of the United States on the world seas is very nearly uncontested. Carrier operations of the type I saw are still a virtual monopoly for us. In some other areas of seapower, the Soviet Union is well-equipped to match our forces. But such superpower considerations are almost secondary in the Nicaragua and Lebanon situations, where we possess crushing superiority. Reagan's record on use of this superiority received a healthy boost this summer; it is an approach he should not abandon.