Heavy Metal: The Hard Days and Nights of the Shipyard Workers Who Build America’s Supercarriers
Michael Fabey. New York: HarperCollins, 2022.320 pp. Glossary. $28.99.
Reviewed by Captain Kavon Hakimzadeh, U.S. Navy
Heavy Metal is journalist Michael Fabey’s tribute to the men and women who build America’s “supercarriers” at Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.
The book follows the construction of the John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), the second ship in the Gerald R. Ford class, from the first metal cut in 2011 to late 2021, still three years away from completion. With flashbacks to shipyard history, budgetary decisions in the Pentagon, and the increasingly divisive politics of the past decade, Heavy Metal reminds us that building these 100,000-ton leviathans is an inherently human endeavor.
Fabey displays his journalistic chops by delving deeply into the lives of those who trek to the shipyard every day. He explores the individual stories of riggers, construction supervisors, shipyard presidents, sailors, and officers. The anecdotes about parking wars, schedule changes, and COVID-19 mitigations make clear their deep sense of patriotism and a desire to get the job done right.
The Gerald R. Ford class was set up for trouble from the start. In the early 2000s, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt the time was right for a generational leap in capability for each new weapon system the services proposed. He rejected the Navy’s plan to incrementally add new technology into three carriers in favor of building 20 transformational technologies into the first-in-class Gerald R. Ford.
NNS faced a paradox. It was the only shipyard capable of building these ships, but it also so depended on carrier work that every new contract means life or death for the shipyard and the city it supports. It had no choice but to accept the challenge. Multiple delays and cost overruns in the ensuing years proved that this was a leap too far for the shipyard.
By focusing on the human stories, Fabey sidesteps the fact that the Gerald R. Ford class has thus far been a disappointment for NNS. Consistent systemic failures are either ignored or presented as matter of fact. Most readers will know that Congresswomen Elaine Luria (D-VA) once referred to the Gerald R. Ford as a “$ 13 billion berthing barge” because of these problems. The book spends a lot of time discussing delivery delays as workday challenges. But by not addressing the underlying organizational faults behind these delays. Heavy Metal may leave some readers wanting.
Fabey’s descriptions of the electromagnetic aircraft launch system, advanced arresting gear, dual band radar, and other topside systems are excellent. He provides a clear explanation of the ship’s new flight deck layout, fueling system, and advanced weapons elevators. These advances will make the Gerald R. Ford class among the most formidable ships in history.
The author explores NNS history and culture, including workers’ pursuit of labor rights, with the “hard hats” pitted against the “suits” and the eventual decision to affiliate with the United Steelworkers of America. There also is a rich discussion about the quest for racial equity in a company that once was the quintessential “plantation” model for heavy industry.
Finally, Fabey’s descriptions of Captain Todd Marzano and his precommissioning crew’s efforts to build a culture of excellence on board the John F. Kennedy are genuine and heartfelt. He provides a fitting testament to the sailors that Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael M. Gilday has called “the Navy’s asymmetric advantage.”
Heavy Metal presents a fresh, sympathetic perspective on the human aspects of the shipbuilding industry. It is an excellent read for anyone looking to understand the technology behind the design and construction of the Gerald R. Ford-class carriers. This book would be useful to crews preparing for complex shipyard periods.
■ CAPTAIN HAKIMZADEH is the aircraft carrier requirements branch head at OpNav N98. He previously commanded the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75).
To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision
Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired). New York: Penguin Press, 2022. 352 pp. Notes. Biblio. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, U.S. Navy
“Would I measure up to the crisis?” Retired Admiral James Stavridis explores this question for himself and his readers in his 12th book, To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision. From John Paul Jones to Brett Crozier, Admiral Stavridis mines U.S. naval history for critical moments, the people who led through them, and how their fives and principles informed their decisions.
Each chapter weaves Stavridis’ vast Navy experience into the story of the historical actor, provides a brief biography, tells a compelling narrative, and examines how readers can apply the lessons to their own lives and careers. For those who enjoyed Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (Penguin Press, 2019), To Risk It All serves as something of a sequel while exploring exclusively U.S. sailors of various ranks and backgrounds, such as Doris Miller of Pearl Harbor fame, or then–Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, who as commander of Combined Task Force 151, led the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.
The vignettes are not hagiographic recitations of great victories; these are deliberately selected hard choices in which the path forward was a choice between bad or worse results. Particularly striking is the story of Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Bucher, commanding officer of the USS Pueblo (AGER- 2), which was seized without a shot by North Korea in 1968. The devil of the decision is in the details—whether to condemn his crew to certain death by fighting back or to suffer (as they ultimately did) torture and perceived dishonor in surrender, all with the likely loss of intelligence in either scenario.
Admiral Stavridis carefully provides his perspective on the decisions made in these crises, praising or critiquing each in context, whether it is the role of honor and ambition that drove Stephen Decatur to burn the USS Philadelphia or the single-minded drive to destroy Japanese carriers that distracted Admiral Bull Halsey from his operational assignment at Leyte Gulf.
Even more rewarding is the role each sailor’s short biography plays in filling out the person at the center of each crisis. Though often heroic, the people are grounded and approachable, allowing their lessons to be realistic.
More than anything, this book reinforces that we cannot choose which crisis to confront, or prepare for the myriad challenges we see in a career. Particularly meaningful for me was the depiction of Captain Brett Crozier and his dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). While on board and attached to the strike group staff, I watched Captain Crozier’s calm and competent leadership amid a spiraling crisis, and his story is relayed with justice and honesty.
To Risk It All tells many Navy stories, but it can easily apply to the business world or the common challenges in life. Reflecting on the habits, virtues, and failures of each of the nine individuals shows that we must find the “golden mean” for the right action in every context. Stavridis’s superb writing and commitment to leadership development are reflected in these pages and will resonate with anyone interested in risking it all.
■ LIEUTENANT CREGGE is a surface warfare officer. He has served on board a destroyer, cruiser, and aircraft carrier as air-defense liaison officer. He is a master's degree candidate at UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy and a future department head.
Looking for the Good War: American Amnesia and the Violent Pursuit of Happiness
Elizabeth D. Samet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 368 pp. $28.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Commander Michael Axel, U.S. Navy
Uncomfortable reading is often essential reading, and Looking for the Good War is no exception. Nearly every U.S. service member has been indoctrinated on some level with the notion of American exceptionalism—that the United States, and its military, is an unbeatable and infallible force for good. Even though undercurrents of exceptionalism exist in every chapter of the American canon, the current iteration of exceptionalist mythology arose in the aftermath of World War II. Elizabeth Samet, an Enghsh professor at West Point, challenges this mythos in this deeply researched and sourced book about the lasting effects of World War II on Americans’ own sense of national purpose and identity.
Samet’s body of research encompasses a wide swath of print and film media spanning decades. In exhausting and at times overwhelming detail, she tracks the evolution of themes in film and printed media during and after World War II.
She does so to show the range of differing views about the war itself, the people who fought it, and public sentiment toward both, expressed in fiction and nonfiction works of the time. The modem idealistic archetype of the American Everyman shipping out to defeat Nazis in the service of global liberty whitewashes a surprising amount of depth and breadth of opinion contained in contemporary depictions of the war. It is clear, Samet argues, that public opinion on the war was neither as unified nor as idealistic as modem depictions of World War II would have us believe.
This has not stopped the nation from lifting up the “Greatest Generation” as the paragon of American excellence. Even their generational label proves the point. Depending on the idealistic World War II narrative has resulted in a perception of the U.S. military as an unassailable force for global good, and of American intervention always producing positive outcomes.
Samet is careful not to denigrate the positive accomplishments of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who fought the war; there was, after all, plenty of bravery and heroism. What she does is lend equal weight to the other side, showing examples of films and novels depicting the cowardice, corruption, and fallibility of warfighters.
The balance of positive and negative depictions of the war and its people represents the full scope of who Americans were and what they believed. As the World War II generation passes on and the living memory of the war fades, the unsavory parts of warfighting and conflicting opinion are easily forgotten. Eventually, all that remains are celebratory tales of idealistic GIs bravely charging to victory, America’s infallible defenders of global liberty.
What this book is not, though, is an indictment of media bias, an ethical discussion of the rightness or wrongness of U.S. wars, or a discussion of the truth or falsity of war accounts. Samet’s observation is simply on the great danger of collective amnesia about the unsavory parts of war. Such amnesia results in misguided perceptions of the U.S. role in the world and of the horrors of war, which most of the U.S. population has never experienced. Dismissing valid counterpoints about the wars the United States fights, in service of a mythological narrative framework, prevents clear-eyed decision-making about wars yet to come. Thus, as much as Good War is an indictment of American nostalgia for old conflicts, it also is a cautionary plea to historians, media figures, and military leaders who guide and document current conflicts.
Those who were brought up on the doctrine of exceptionalism will find this book challenging and uncomfortable to read, but with the discomfort comes a sober and clear-eyed view of what U.S. warfighting means to the United States and the world and a rethinking of the notion of unchallenged U.S. goodness in war.
■ LIEUTENANT COMMANDER AXEL is a naval flight officer. He is currently serving as an air warfare officer at the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center.
Air Power in the Age of Primacy
Edited by Phil M. Haun, Colin F. Jackson, and Timothy P. Shultz. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2022. 316 pp. Figs. Tables. Index. $34.99.
Reviewed by Commander Graham Scarbro, U.S. Navy
Part retrospective, part history, part analysis and augury, Air Power in the Age of Primacy investigates the evolution of air warfare throughout the “unipolar moment”—the era of American geopolitical primacy that followed the end of the Cold War.
A coterie of experts takes a roughly chronological approach to detailing the events and lessons of air campaigns, beginning with 1995’s Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia and ending with anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria. Bookending these vignettes are chapters on the evolution of unmanned aircraft and a particularly useful evaluation of the past 30 years of aerial combat.
The book is a series of essay-length chapters that thankfully avoid both dense academic language and obscure aviation techo-jargon. The language can be dense but not overly so, and non-aviators should have no problem following the conversations, which are written with care for the casual reader. The essay structure allows the reader to read the book in order as quasi-chronological history or to drift from conflict to conflict as desired.
The chapters focused on U.S. air power carry along threads that aviation enthusiasts will recognize easily: increased reliance on precision weapons, frequent calls for the seeming cure-all of air power to show up and do something, and the growing prowess of American cross-service coordination and mission execution. These chapters form an important story of what U.S. air power has gotten right (technological evolution, tactical execution, intelligence, and precision) and how it has failed to live up to the dreams of early air power theorists as a war-winning wonder weapon and stumbled in the face of ambiguous political objectives.
Not to be missed are several chapters written from outside the U.S. perspective. These essays bring fascinating insight to how other countries have operated under the shadow of U.S. aviation.
A chapter on Israel’s 2006 air campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon explores whether the expectations set for the Israeli Air Force in that conflict were ever achievable. A second chapter analyzes Saudi Arabian operations in Yemen, where the Saudis have attempted to shape the Yemeni civil war without close coordination with forces on the ground and without a centralized enemy to coerce. A third—the one perhaps most germane to 2022—is an essay on Russian operations in Syria. (This essay includes the terrible warning that “for Russia, violence against noncombatants is a feature, not a bug.”)
The essays provide readable, comprehensive, and relatively concise summaries of their respective conflicts or subject areas, and this reviewer recommends reading several of them before reading the final essay, “Retrospect and Prospect.” This chapter takes a balanced view of the debates over the efficacy of air power to achieve political successes in conflict, a topic with immense relevance as the Russian invasion of Ukraine grinds on, with, at the time of writing this review, the airspace over Ukraine still contested.
The final essay includes a prescient take on current calls for intervention in Ukraine by NATO:
It should come as little surprise that air power became the weapon of first resort during the age of primacy. The risks to air forces had never been lower and the independent influence of air power, at least under certain circumstances, had never been higher.
The authors of Air Power, however, recognize that this landscape is changing in the face of potential conflict with Russia and China:
All the things that were easy in the age of primacy—most important, the ease of maintaining unchallenged air supremacy—will become hard and costly again. In this new world, the cost of errant strategic choice will be far higher.
As the United States and its partners and allies around the world confront the potential end of the age of American primacy, air power enthusiasts and practitioners would do well to pick up Air Power in the Age of Primacy and review the lessons of the past and what they might mean for the future.
■ COMMANDER SCARBRO is an active-duty naval flight officer.