I was a passionate anti-war activist as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 60's and early 70's, and did everything I could to avoid being drafted. Looking back, I still clearly see the horrifying images of Mi Lai, the napalmed villages and the panicked retreat from Saigon -- frantic sailors pushing attack helicopters into the ocean as fast as they could -- everyone scrambling to get out as the victorious Viet Cong were storming the city.
Since that time -- and until fairly recently -- the military, the military-industrial complex and the Pentagon have been principal symbols for me of the blind and brutal U.S. interventionism that has been so tragically misguided and devastatingly costly, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though my cynical and contemptuous view of military institutions had remained intact, I've gradually become much more sympathetic about our veterans themselves, particularly since my wife introduced me to New Directions, an LA-based NGO devoted to the struggles of homeless and drug-addicted vets and the daunting challenges they face. Through these men and women, I began to understand the distinction between the machine and the soldiers. At New Directions it's clear that these young people aren't "the military" nor are they part of any conspiracy between our war machine and big business. I was embarrassed and humbled by these realizations -- that these soldiers were just the collateral damage resulting from the decisions that politicians -- not the military -- had made about their deployment.
While this shift in my thinking was still evolving, I was invited to join the Pacific Council on International Policy, a confederation of active and former diplomats, politicians, legislators, academics and military leaders -- an incredibly impressive group of concerned and committed thought leaders. The Pacific Council meets regularly to hear national and international policy experts discuss the most pressing issues of our time, and organizes trips around the world to experience these challenges and the players first hand. I'm in show business so I'm still not completely sure how I qualified to be a member.
That said, I quickly accepted the Pacific Council's recent invitation to be one of its 15 members invited to spend the weekend aboard the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier at sea in the Pacific on April 6 and 7. I was excited about the scheduled thrill-rides of the arrested landing and catapult take off -- and they turned out to be even more exhilarating than I had expected -- but this wasn't even close to the high point of the trip. Nor was the awesome USS Nimitz the star attraction. For me, it was the 5,000 fiercely devoted, focused and patriotic men and women who make the Nimitz one of the most awesome and impressive operations I've ever witnessed.
Sailors, firefighters, surgeons, fighter pilots, mechanics, dentists, cooks and technology specialists are working together under almost unimaginably tight quarters, often at sea for months at a time, working 12-18 hour shifts -- running a mind-bogglingly complex city at sea that's also one of the most powerful and versatile weapons on the planet.
A week away from this amazing experience, I have to say that I'm incredibly proud of those 5,000 people and the ship that's out there in the Pacific, but I'm probably even more wary of the politicians who decide when and how to deploy these forces around the world putting our marines, sailors and airmen in harm's way.
I'm a civilian with little understanding of the strategic value of aircraft carrier battle groups in the modern world, but I do know this: The ship is impressive, but the people who make it work are fantastic. I wish them all safe passage, hope that our politicians are much more careful about unleashing their breathtaking power, and look forward to a time when they won't be needed at all.