ASKED BY THE WRITER and cultural critic Alain de Botton where he might want to be a writer in residence, Geoff Dyer, an author who has published books on subjects as diverse as jazz, photography, the First World War, D. H. Lawrence, and Tarkovsky’s Zona, hesitated only between an American aircraft carrier and Camp Pendleton, a Marine base outside of San Diego. Eventually he chose, arrangements were made (the difficulty of which we can only speculate about), and in October of 2011 he spent two weeks aboard the USS George H. W. Bush. Another Great Day at Sea, recently published by Pantheon, is his remarkable account of that stay.
Embedded journalism became a mainstay of American media coverage during the Iraq war, but Dyer takes pains to lodge himself as a civilian — rather than a professional journalist — and a neurotic civilian at that. He is too tall, too thin, a finicky eater, a light sleeper, and not inclined to adapt. “Of all the kinds of writer I was not,” Dyer quips at one point, “‘reporter’ was top of the list.” Although he might extoll writers like Dexter Filkins, whose journalism is nothing short of heroic, he admires him from afar. For his own part, Dyer refrains from sharing a room with six others (the carrier contains 5,000 people and most bunk in rooms of 200) in favor of angling for his own suite, which he gets. Numerous details escape him — there are several times he can’t identify the person who is speaking, or where he is, or exactly what is happening — and he readily admits as much, stating that facts are not his strong point, and in fact “strong points are not [his] strong point.” In so doing Dyer makes his own anxieties and shortcomings, as a person and a writer, as much his subject as life aboard the carrier. And this persona, present to varying degrees in other books, is rendered more acute by the military context, the unremitting discipline and purposefulness acting as a straight man to Dyer’s innate digressiveness. This contrast is the source of Dyer’s humor, and the book is very, very funny, from beginning to end. It is also incredibly moving, in the way only fresh and generous writing can be.
Dyer’s self-deprecation, of course, belies how much he does notice in this world that has “its own rules, cultures, norms and purposes.” Much in the way the noise-canceling “cranials” (headgear and eye-protectors) that must be worn on the flight deck increase the visual information being communicated by the scene, so too does Dyer’s selective attention convey the experiences of the place perhaps better than a more comprehensive or factual account ever could. The aircraft carrier, where military jets take off from and land, is the “tip of the spear,” concentrating “all of the devastating power and glamour of military aviation,” he tells us. To most civilians, whom Dyer represents, this is a world that exists beyond language. Even for a writer it exists at the limits of language. Here’s how Dyer first describes the sound of jets taking off on the flight deck above his bedroom:
This was like a train rumbling overhead. It was nothing like a train rumbling overhead; it was like a jet taking off overhead — or in one’s head. It was a noise beyond metaphor.
Or the size of the flight deck:
How big was it? Impossible to say. It was as big as it was. There was nothing to compare it with.
But, inevitably, he does find the language to describe his experience — language utterly his own — lyrical, evocative, and incisive. A few pages after that early description of the flight deck, he elaborates:
It was like entering the dreamtime up there, a martial realm of the supersonic, where the sky gods G and Negative G had constantly to be assuaged and satisfied.
Although Dyer isn’t very comfortable aboard the carrier, he finds much to praise, not the least of which is what he identifies as the American faith in hard work, self-improvement, and the “improvable superlative.” At every point people are being charged to exceed and aspire — to be faster, stronger, swifter. I was surprised, as was Dyer, by the disproportionate number of people on board who seem to love their jobs, each person more than the last.
Everywhere you looked, everyone was doing something, if not working on the planes then pushing or towing things on trolleys. It was like Whitman’s ‘Song for Occupations’ in an entirely military setting (with a special emphasis on avionics): a vision of a fulfilled and industrious America, each person indispensable to the workings of the larger enterprise, no friction between the person and the task.
Most of the book is comprised of interviews and conversations Dyer has with various members of the crew, including (among others) the fitness coach, the chief medical officer, the psychologist, the drug counselor, the captain, and the captain’s cook. Each appears to impress upon Dyer the range and depth of his experience, which Dyer finds all the more alluring because it is so foreign.
Dyer’s like a city dweller in the country, moved, in spite of himself, by the simple and fulfilling lives of ordinary folk. Nevertheless, his frank admiration for the people he observes and speaks with is genuinely poignant. Who wouldn’t feel a swell of patriotism when Dyer, sitting after dark on the catwalk with the Captain, the Air Wing Commander, and the Air Wing Commander’s deputy, hears one of them say, “It’s a respectable profession,” followed by, “An honourable profession.” Swept along by the moment, like Dyer, I, too, absolutely believe.
But there is a canker in the rose. The Edenic nature of life aboard the ship is troubled by the idea, bluntly stated by one ordnance chief, as to why they sign up in the first place: “For some people there’s the pull of patriotism or a career but they’re in a minority. For the rest it’s just the best option at the time. That hasn’t changed and won’t change.” Dyer doesn’t dwell meaningfully here, quickly moving on to critiquing the food the ordnance chief is consuming “with gusto.” (In fact, it’s food that gets some of Dyer’s most focused attention — also the worst rap — at least until Dyer gets the captain’s chef to cook him a meal.)
Neither does Dyer dwell for long on what the carrier is doing in the grand scheme of things, floating as it is in the Persian Gulf, sending off planes to who knows where, in order to participate in what he describes as “the safe unleashing of extreme violence.” He relates a moment of “mental seasickness,” brought on by the monotony of routine and the monotony of the sea,
whereby the clarity and fixity of the carrier’s unquestioned purpose gave rise to feelings — and questions — of purposelessness. Did the presence of these carrier-launched planes in the skies over Iraq accomplish anything at this moment in history? Wasn’t it in some ways an unbelievably expensive and noisy provocation? Weren’t the planes flying missions primarily because the boat was here and because that’s what planes do?
This volley of questions is about as far and as deep as Dyer goes in this vein, perhaps because life on the boat exists, in his words, “in a state of constant potential threat,” and therefore depends upon a basic faith in and adherence to the essential purposefulness of the mission. Or perhaps spending time on this boat made these questions much more difficult to answer.
For some this might be where the book falls short, but, personally, I was happy to read such a wonderfully vivid and ultimately affirming portrayal of a world to which I have few points of access. As I was reading I reflected that perpetual war has dulled most of us to the tremendous service the military performs on a daily basis, as have the near-constant reports of sexual abuse, undue torture, and discrimination. As if anticipating potential skepticism about his portrayal, Dyer stresses that he has “recorded what I saw and heard, and my impressions of what I saw and heard.” I would never otherwise pick up such a book: it’s only because Geoff Dyer wrote it, because I know, having read his work, he will render the experience to me in a relevant and meaningful way.
Despite being a straightforward account of his time on the carrier, Dyer’s narrative has a sense of denouement, when two deserving sailors are promoted, one of whom was Dyer’s point person and guide for the duration of his stay. This event, coming where it does in the narrative, functions to emphasize the values Dyer has found pervasive on the ship, finally culminating in his reflecting about where he has been and what he has seen, and how all this has affected his civilian life. Glibness gives way to sincerity, and to an appreciation for the fragility of all lives lived at sea. By the end of the book Dyer can state unabashedly that he’s had one of the greatest encounters of his life on this boat, and I’m right there with him.