Stranger in a Strange Land

For obvious reasons, BuNine tends to be a rather naval-centric organization. There are members who are active duty naval personnel, naval retirees, naval veterans, and naval analysts. My military background is the Air Force. I attended navigator training, navigator-bombardier training, and was operational as a B-52G navigator. My acquaintance with naval issues is from reading history, watching war movies, and wargaming. Subsequently, I was an attorney with a state agency in Connecticut. With that background, and despite having read history since I was a child (I’m 64 now), the culture of the navy is foreign to me.

Obviously, the vast majority of the military forces in the Honorverse (and Star Trek, and Babylon 5 and the Royal Cinnabar Navy series and… well, you get the idea) are based on naval ranks and organizations. Looking at it from viewpoint of a fan, it’s perfectly understandable. Whether it’s Captain Kirk, Captain Harrington, or Captain Sheridan, it’s a naval captain. Even bomber pukes like me know that’s equivalent to a USAF bird colonel. And if the tactics of the Honorverse and the geometry of space combat (“It’ll be a little tighter than optimum, Sir,” Honor’s astrogator said, “but we can make it. If we get underway within ten minutes, we can match courses at one-four-one-zero-eight KPS in three hours and five-two minutes. They’ll be approximately three-five minutes past turnover at a velocity of three-four-two-seven-eight KPS,” from The Short Victorious War) were a bit too abstract for me, I could still understand that space ships were maneuvering and shooting was about to begin.

I came to the Honorverse, as so many others have, by innocently picking up a copy of On Basilisk Station. On page 5, when I read about a treecat named Nimitz, I was hooked. The rest, as they say, was history. For my own amusement, I created an alphabetical index of the Honorverse books and I shared it with the head of The Royal Manticoran Navy: The Official Honor Harrington Fan Association. He in turn shared it with the powers that be in BuNine and I was invited to meet BuNine at their annual meeting. Apparently they liked what I had done, because a year later I was extended an invitation to join BuNine, which I rapidly and gladly accepted.

So there I was (which for those of you who may not know is an old flyer’s phrase for something is about to happen), thrown in with all these navy guys and listening to navy talk. I have had many instances of thinking and saying, “What am I doing here?” This was induced by the fact that my skill-set is entirely non-technical. (I was an aerospace engineering major until Thanksgiving of my freshman year. That’s when I sussed out what college math was all about. My BA is in International Relations and Soviet Studies. Yeah, I know. Real useful, these days.) I’m listening to guys talking about the design of space ships and the science behind how grav waves work and…yeah. Right?

But more than that, I recognized that the orientation of BuNine was very naval. And I felt like a fish out of water. (Okay. Pun intended.) Aside from having absolutely no talent, training, education, or abilities in scientific, technical, or mathematical areas, here I was in the same room with these guys who did have all those attributes.

Some of the discussions that have gone on around me have been: the function of the combat information center on naval ships and starships and why it mattered; the technical aspects of opening a hole in the sidewall of a starship in order to fire a graser through it; the problem of guiding missiles after they have reached several light seconds from the launching starship with and without FTL communications capabilities; and how many admirals can dance on the head of a pin. (Okay. Just checking to make sure you were paying attention.)

Although I was a navigator, I have a fairly extensive knowledge of flight operations, partly from my own experience and partly from many, many hours of Microsoft Flight Simulator and at least a dozen different combat flight sim games. I understand atmospheric flight and getting an aircraft from place to place to accomplish a variety of assignments. Where I was almost totally deficient was how to internalize operations in space. Admittedly, it’s a three-dimensional environment but, Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars notwithstanding, ships in space don’t maneuver in the same way that aircraft do in atmospheric flight. And trying to wrap my head around hyperphysics, wormholes, and translations to and from n-space is literally beyond my ability to understand on any but the most superficial level.

It’s difficult to feel like you can speak intelligently about things that (a) are the next thing to magic, (b) exist only in a theoretical sense, and (c) are based on a military culture that is different from the one with which you’re familiar. Determined not to be completely at sea (yes, pun intended), I started acquiring and reading books on how navies functioned past and present. One of my favorite finds, at a library book sale, was a textbook for plebe midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy on learning to be a sea officer. I haven’t read it all but I have paged through it to become at least passingly familiar with what it takes to be a sea officer.

Just this morning, we were talking about the different orientations and approaches of the USAF and the USN. I expressed the opinion that in terms of flight ops, the USAF base commander is subordinate to the wing commander but in the Navy it was the opposite with the commander of the air group being subordinate to the aircraft carrier (the base) captain. That resulted in a twenty minute explanation for my edification as to why that was not a correct statement and how the chain of command at sea works.

Make no mistake. There are actually things that I understand, such as the government and judicial systems that go into populating the Honorverse. But let’s be honest. It just ain’t as cool as starships, missiles, and space combat. I often feel like the nerd who gets to hang out with the cool kids, but those moments have become rarer and less often. And if I’m completely honest, I have to admit I’m learning more about the navy than I ever thought I would or would have reason to learn. But the bottom line is that you can lead a USAF guy to water…but you can’t drown him without dire consequences.

(Mark Gutis)

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2 Responses to Stranger in a Strange Land

  1. MJ Person says:

    “That resulted in a twenty minute explanation for my edification as to why that was not a correct statement and how the chain of command at sea works.”
    Damn. I thought that was a correct statement. Now we need a whole post telling us what you learned!

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