It’s a gloomy winter day in the Northern Arabian Gulf, with choppy seas below, as our Navy H-3 helicopter swoops in toward the USS Milius, a gray destroyer that from a distance looks like a flint arrowhead in the water. When war comes — as nearly everyone in the Gulf expects it to soon — the Milius will likely be among the ships firing the opening shots. It is loaded with Tomahawk cruise missiles, America’s first-strike weapon of choice. Our helicopter thunks onto the aft deck of the Milius with a jarring, sideways lurch.
There are about a dozen of us onboard the chopper, mostly sailors returning from leave for training or medical emergencies. (During my time on the Milius, the only medevac case occurs when a young sailor cracks two molars on some Corn Nuts.) By Navy standards, the Milius is not huge. It’s a little more than 500 feet long, a windowless steel box that right now holds a crew of 280. Since leaving its home port of San Diego in November, the ship has been zigzagging off the coast of Iraq, ready at a moment’s notice to unleash a devastating missile barrage upon Baghdad.
The Navy has invited Rolling Stone onto the Milius as part of a policy of putting reporters as far forward with U.S. forces as possible. The military wasn’t as forthcoming in the early days of the war in Afghanistan. As a result, some in the Pentagon believe, the media focused too much on the downside of that conflict — friendlyfire incidents, accidental bombings of villages. “This time,” a Navy public-affairs officer tells me, “we want you telling the American side of the story.” The Pentagon calls sending reporters into frontline positions “embedding.” It’s sort of like the ultimate backstage pass to war.
I am determined to use my pass on the Milius to search out isolated pockets of bitterness, fear and discontent. It would only make sense: No conflict since the Vietnam War has provoked such division at home and abroad — and this war hasn’t started yet. Even among reporters, questions of war provoke bitter dissent. A couple of nights earlier, there was a full-on fistfight between an American photographer and a Canadian reporter in the lobby of Bahrain’s mediahangout hotel, the Diplomat Radisson. While stunned Arab security guards looked on, the Canadian, who had been arguing for peace, knocked down the American and put him in an LAPD-style chokehold. As I figure it, there have to be undercurrents of tension on the ship, as well.
The Milius is one of an unspecified number of Aegis-class destroyers currently patrolling the Arabian Gulf. Each one costs more than $1 billion. Commissioned in 1996, the Milius is about the most technically advanced vessel in the Navy. What makes the Milius so expensive is the automated Aegis weapons system. A surface-waffare officer on the ship describes Aegis as offiering “the most secure environment ever created” by the Navy. Under the Aegis system, all of the ship’s missiles, guns, sonars and radars are networked into a massive “command and decision” computer system. Aegis keeps constant vigil over the skies and seas for hundreds of miles in all directions, continually hunting for threats, telling the ship’s weapons which targets to track and, if necessary, when to shoot. Under Aegis, the ship functions like a single electronic organism. Humans serve more as overseers who sign off on decisions that Aegis has already made. Everyone believes in the system. Lt. Cmdr. Chris Barnes, the ship’s executive officer, assures me that Aegis is “just about perfect.”
The Milius is also one of the cleanest ships you have ever seen. There’s hardly a drop of oil on the decks, which are themselves almost barren. The ship’s radars are hidden behind flat panels, and most of its firepower — the Tomahawks and other missiles — is concealed below decks. Among the few visible weapons onboard are two odd-looking machine guns mounted at either end of the ship. Each has a barrel sticking out from under a white dome that looks like an igloo. The Close-In Weapons System, called Sea Whiz after its acronym, is the ship’s last-ditch defense against high-speed missiles. These guns are essentially robots. Like the ship’s other primary weapons, they are not directly operated by humans.
To enter the ship, you pass through steel compression chambers. The air inside is pressurized above normal levels — a feature of the ship’s Citadel nuclear, biological and chemical defense system, designed to prevent external toxins from entering. Inside the ship’s hospital-white passages, all you hear is the rush of clean filtered air and the faint, soothing whine of the Milius‘ jetturbine propulsion system. You can walk for several minutes without encountering a soul. The absence of humans is a striking feature of the Milius. Older destroyers typically had crews that were significantly larger. Now there’s little for humans to do but monitor Aegis, as well as service the ship’s motors, clean the toilets and swab the decks — jobs that are, frankly, beneath the level of a state-of-the-art, multimilliondollar computer system. When you do meet sailors, all of them seem to have the same air of blissed-out cheerfulness. Everyone smiles and greets you with a friendly nod. It’s almost creepy.
The largest common area inside the Milius is the mess deck, which seats about sixty. It’s done up in a 1950s-diner theme, with framed posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe on the walls. There are TVs at either end, as there are everywhere on the ship, entertaining the crew with a constant stream of Hollywood movies and CNN.
One day at lunch I sit across from Luke Beyer and Scott “Mongo” Weller. Both in their early twenties, they are enlisted men — Navy grunts — who work in damage control and in engineering, respectively. Beyer and Weller always seem to be laughing at some inside joke. Weller’s hair is razored to sharp stubble, framing an almost cruel smile. Beyer, with blond hair worn a bit long, breaks out with insane laughter every time Weller nudges him with a private comment. Maybe, I think, these guys are the ship’s cynics.
I ask them why everyone seems so happy on the ship. “We do a lot of fun things,” Weller insists. “We have nacho night. We have bingo night, popcorn night. We have Snapple-and-cigars night, where we get to go out on the deck and smoke cigars and drink Snapple.” Weller — the one I’d thought looked kind of dangerous — expresses the same corny enthusiasm for the dull pastimes offered on the Milius, So does everybody else I encounter.
The crew of the Milius sees the same news as every other American — the pro-war speeches, the denunciations, the diplomatic divisions, peace protests and terrorist-threatalerts issued back home. And yet, here at the nexus of conflict in the northern Arabian Gulf, the news of the world seems as remote as transmissions from another planet. No one talks about politics aboard the ship. “We’re trained not to think about the big picture too much,” says crew member Teshonne Joy Harper, a twenty-five-year-old sonar tech. “We try to believe that the president and our commanding officers are telling us to do the right thing.”
The unspoken rule against talking politics is grounded in practical realities. “You have all these people living on top of each other for months on end,” says one lieutenant. “There’s a basic need to keep passions cooled.” He adds, “None of these politicians’ speeches mean shit to enlisted people. It doesn’t mean anything until they order us to go twelve miles off Iraq. Until then, some speech by a politician at the United Nations just sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher going, ‘Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa.”‘
A few sailors on the Milius do come face to face with Iraqis. The Milius is charged with enforcing United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Several times a day, in the hunt for contraband, boarding teams from the Milius scramble into small speedboats in order to board cargo ships headed to and from Iraq. The sailors go lightly armed, with pistols and shotguns. They seldom meet any resistance, since no crew of poorly fed Iraqis wants to face the wrath of an angry Milius. On one of these missions, I ride along with tall, serious Ohioan named Joshua Harless. He’s twenty-one and joined the Navy fresh out of high school with the dream of one day becoming a civilian cop. “I’m interested in counternarcotics interdiction and fighting gangs,” he says. “I’m interested in excitement, carrying a gun.” Harless grins when we zoom up to intercept a freighter. “I get a thrill every time we do this,” he says, palming the 9 mm Beretta strapped to his thigh. For him, these missions are almost personal: “We are helping to keep Saddam down.”
One afternoon, on the ship’s smoking deck, I overhear a guy talking about the Tomahawk missiles: “If the president ever says it’s time for us to kick ass, I’ll just say, ‘Roger that, sir,’ and launch my Tomahawks.” The speaker is a twenty-one-year-old named Johnny Wilgenhof, and it turns out he’s the guy I’ve been looking for: the actual person who might push the button to fire the first Tomahawks at Iraq. The fate of thousands of Iraqis may well lie in his hands. More than anyone else aboard, he is the face of modern warfare.
That face is a bit roundish, beneath scruffy hair, with eyes that are shifty in a way that’s oddly likable. Wilgenhof smokes cigarettes awkwardly, like a kid who hasn’t mastered the habit. “I don’t really think about what I do that much,” he insists, growing suddenly shy and modest about his job — blowing up people in distant cities whom he will likely never know anything about. “I just sit in front of a computer. Every day’s about the same.”
Turns out Wilgenhof is just a regular guy who, like a lot of others, joined the military for job security. Before enlisting, Wilgenhof scraped by as a wedding photographer in Van Nuys, California. What’s on his mind more than anything else right now isn’t war but his ex-girlfriend, who dumped him right before he deployed. “She was like, ‘Peace, dude. I’m not waiting around.”‘ Wilgenhof grins. “Still, I like it out here. I get lots of cards from my seven-year-old sister.”
A while later, Wilgenhof turns back to the subject of Tomahawk missiles, suggesting that the philosophical implications of his job do occasionally enter his thoughts. “It’s crazy to think we have people’s lives in our hands,” he says, blowing cigarette smoke out of his mouth in his awkward way.
Crew members sleep in “coffin racks” — steel-lined bunks, stacked three high, with barely enough room to roll over in. And yet, as I fall asleep deep inside the Milius, sealed off from the cares of the world by armored hatches and double airlocks, I feel more comfortable than I have in ages. The chilled, sanitized air from the Citadel protection system envelops me with the soothing weight of a feather comforter. The ship sways gently as its silky-smooth jet-turbine engines propel us across the Gulf. In a nearby rack, someone plays Norah Jones. Laughter echoes from a late-night poker game. Outside, all-seeing, all-knowing Aegis monitors the skies for danger. A meteor could fall from outer space, and the Sea Whiz guns would probably obliterate it. A few feet from my head sit enough Tomahawks to destroy any city in any country that threatens my American way of life. The sense of security I feel aboard the Milius is as vivid as the wildest acid trip I have ever been on.
But occasionally, troubling signs intrude. Sometimes on a clear day you walk across the deck and suddenly, for no apparent reason, one of the Sea Whiz guns goes berserk. Like an old man waking from a nightmare, the robot gun jumps to life, clicking and whirring, barrels whipping back and forth, tracing unseen enemies in the sky. I always duck when this happens. Lt. Cmdr. Barnes, the executive officer, assures me that Sea Whiz is merely running a self-test. “Sea Whiz can’t shoot any person on the deck,” he adds, with a faintly mocking smile.
Later on, I’m on the smoking deck when some crewmen bring up a troubling story. It’s an incident they refer to as the Tumble Hawk Launch. A few months ago, during a training exercise, they claim, the ship fired a Tomahawk that went out of control. “Tumbled straight down into the water next to the ship,” one crewman says. (A Milius representative denies this, saying, “Practice launchings are simulated.”)
Maybe the system isn’t infallible. What if Aegis goes blind, or Sea Whiz loses its mind? I’m in the mess deck eating breakfast when a sailor strikes up a conversation in low, confidential tones. “Some of us do get scared about the terrible things that could happen,” she says. “When we refuel at sea, that ship that pulls alongside us is a floating bomb. You wonder if terrorists could hit that. Some people I talk to say they wouldn’t try to fight the fire, they’d just hide in a safe place. “Then she whispers, as if passing on a vital, lifesaving secret, “This ship has a big antenna. We could climb to the top if the ship ever goes down. The Gulf isn’t that deep.”
Later, we pull alongside the resupply ship USS Rainier — what the sailor referred to as the “floating bomb.” The Milius and the Rainier cruise side by side as cables are strung between them. The sun breaks out gloriously as pallets bursting with fresh fruit, frozen chicken wings and Snapple roll aboard. Harless, the future cop, strides over, taking it all in. “Right now, I’d rather be here than any other place in the world,” he says.
The sailors blast Creed over the ship’s PA as the crew hauls in the bounty of supplies. Some sing along, while above, Aegis holds silent vigil over us all. Maybe my fears of catastrophe are misguided. Maybe the system does work perfectly. I am once again enveloped in the comforting delusion of absolute security. I now believe they are dead wrong about Disney World being the happiest place on earth. It’s here, off the coast of Iraq on the eve of destruction aboard the USS Milius.