Once upon a time, military life was familiar to most civilians. The arts rendered it comprehensible even to those who had never served. At midcentury, shows like Mister Roberts (1948) and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1953) were all the rage on the stage, to say nothing of the rush of World War II fiction. Even the “service comedy”—a film genre that has since gone the way of the dodo—pollinated the minds of the public with some sense of what it meant to be in uniform. Operation Petticoat (1959) may not have been an accurate portrayal of life at sea, but at least it didn’t make the U.S. Navy seem exotic.
Yet if this new volume from the British writer Geoff Dyer is any indication, a career devoted to the service of one’s country is presently regarded as a curiosity. To be sure, Dyer writes that he was in thrall to “war and soldiering” as a youngster, devoting much time to “making and blotchily painting Airfix models.” He even writes, rather unbelievably, that he once pondered whether he might have been better off as a member of our Marine Corps, daydreaming about being a “jarhead” and having “ ‘Semper Fi’ tattooed on a properly muscular forearm.”
The conceit of this book is that Dyer observes a variant of his purported fantasy in a two-week spell on the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, during which time he was writer-in-residence. Yet his tone bespeaks bewilderment at the U.S. Navy and its ethos. Dyer is a pleasingly candid writer, but he reveals perhaps more than he intends to when he is dismayed by the absence not only of “booze” on board but also any “trappings or decorations of alcohol,” such as bars. “This was not life as we know it or want it,” he glumly reflects. Again and again, he tests what he finds at sea against what he is familiar with on land—even the most trivial of things, such as the kind of mustache worn by his chaperone, Ensign Paul Newell, which he describes as being “almost entirely extinct in civilian life.”
Not an obsolete RAF handlebar extravaganza, just a little under-the-nose, over-the-lip number that had no desire to take itself seriously, that spent most of its time in a state of discreet embarrassment at the mere fact of its continued if meagre existence.
Dyer ruefully notes that, back home in London, the “most irritating noise” he has to put up with is the “occasional leaf-blower” (“You know how loud—how maddening—that is?”) leaving him unprepared for the booming clamor on the ship. He asks Ensign Newell, incredulously, “And this goes on all night?” Was he expecting a Trappist monastery? At least he records the ensign’s hilariously matter-of-fact answer for posterity: “Round the clock. It’s an aircraft carrier. We’re sort of in the business of flying aircraft.”
A few pages later, Dyer sets up his description of mealtime on the George H. W. Bush by noting that he is “the worst kind of fussy eater,” whose pickiness about food goes back to boyhood. “I grew up hating all the food my parents cooked, [and] was always being told I didn’t eat enough to keep a sparrow alive,” he writes. Predictably, Dyer finds the food provided to commissioned officers in the wardroom “revolting.”
“The smell of cooked meats and the jet fuel they were cooked in made me heave,” he writes. Later, he concedes that there was nothing really wrong with the steak he was served at a “Steel Beach Party” except that it was “an undisguised lump of meat”—and, of course, unaccompanied by beer. “It was extraordinary, in a way, that there could be a party like this without a keg in sight, just bath-sized troughs filled with ice and soft drinks, Cokes and waters,” he writes.
At another point, Dyer recounts an episode when he was made to wait to go online on one of the carrier’s scarce laptops, only to have his account unceremoniously freeze up: “Inside I was screaming but I didn’t howl or whine, didn’t even raise my voice. I was haemorrhaging tears, my head was a balloon pumped full of blood.”
I will say this for Geoff Dyer: He is not afraid of overstatement. But his griping makes him seem absurd in his surroundings. After reading of his “dread” at the prospect of having to share quarters (“six in a room!”), we must take his Marine dreams with a healthy dose of skepticism. References to avant-garde European filmmakers (Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog, Claire Denis) do not enhance his credibility, nor does his proposal that the USS Ronald Reagan be rechristened the USS Emily Dickinson.