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Originally published Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'My Nuclear Family': Coming of age in the U.S. military

A review of Christopher Brownfield's memoir "My Nuclear Family." It tells his story of service in both the U.S. Navy and Army and his ultimately critical view of U.S. efforts to affect the course of history in the Middle East.

Special to The Seattle Times

'My Nuclear Family: A Coming-of-Age in America's Twenty-first Century Military'

by Christopher Brownfield

Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95

Christopher Brownfield graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and in the last decade served in the Navy and the Army. He has written a book about it — the life and the people in today's military. Like good authors, he tells stories on himself, but he tells them on others, too, and they sometimes have an edge to them. His tone is tolerant and understanding but ultimately critical.

"My Nuclear Family" refers to his life on the USS Hartford, a nuclear attack submarine. He begins with salty-dog stories of men's life on a sub, and of various foul-ups. The foul-ups culminate in his first-person account of how the Hartford ran aground on Oct. 25, 2003 — an event that ruined the careers of two senior officers.

Then he has a serious thought. At the end of his time at sea, he asks of what value a $2 billion attack submarine — and the Navy has 70 of them — is to the freedom and security of the United States. "I was completely unable to answer," he writes.

He leaves the Navy and goes to Yale — and then, in a seizure of patriotism, decides to join the Army and go to Iraq, where there is a real war. The Army assigns him to a staff job in Baghdad's Green Zone. At 26, in the fourth year of the Iraq occupation that began in 2003, Brownfield finds himself producing PowerPoint slides for the top brass.

Occasionally he ventures into the real Iraq. Describing a convoy, he writes:

"Every passerby on the sidewalk turned to behold the fearsome train of vehicles that automatically assumed the right of way ... Every café patron and child kicking a football stopped to glare at our commanding, transient presence. Occasionally an adolescent flashed a thumbs-up or a toddler waved in awe, but the adults all cast the same looks: resentment, jealousy, anger."

Like George Orwell in Burma, Brownfield comes to question his country's right to push around foreigners in their own country. His epiphany comes at a staff dinner, when an Army officer is berating a foreign waiter for serving too many slices of fish. Brownfield feels for the browbeaten servant, and for a moment, hates America. The feeling subsides into the italic thought, "Someday this ridiculous behavior will come to an end."

Much of this book is about the nest-feathering, butt-covering and rank-pulling of Brownfield's fellow officers, and of the difficulties of getting anything done.

In one story, Brownfield attempts to rescue a shipment of big diesel generators shipped from the Wärtsilä factory in Finland and stuck in Aqaba, Jordan — a town readers may remember from the movie "Lawrence of Arabia." The generators have cost the U.S. taxpayers half a billion dollars. They are needed in central Iraq, and it is too risky to move them there by truck. Brownfield figures out a way to fly them in a Russian plane bigger than a Boeing 747, but he cannot get permission from his superiors to do it. The Wärtsiläs never arrive.


Brownfield spoils his book at the end with an earnest lecture on energy policy. Once he thought he was a naval officer, and now he thinks he's a politician. His book makes it obvious what he is. He is a writer.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times

editorial writer.

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