Imagine going more than two straight months without seeing the sun. Then, put yourself under water in a steel missile where your only personal space is the coffin-sized bed you sleep in every night... or is it day above? Who knows? This is how Christopher Brownfield spent his first years after graduating from the United States Naval Academy. In My Nuclear Family: A Coming-of-Age in America’s Twenty-first Century Military, Brownfield, a former lieutenant in the Nuclear Submarine Service, recounts the triumphs and follies he experienced as a commissioned officer, on land and sea, during his six-plus years of service.
The Nuclear Submarine Service is not for everyone. First, you have to be willing to live in the recycled air of a small ship, sharing precious space with over 150 fellow officers and seamen. Brownfield had the added responsibility of maintaining the ship’s driving force, the nuclear reactor housed on board. The Navy guards its perfect nuclear safety record by allowing only the most intelligent and driven officers to serve among the nuclear ranks.
Unfortunately for Brownfield, one of the few nonengineering majors in his nuclear school class, earning his nuclear stripes was not very easy. After failing the basic nuclear qualification exam four times, Brownfield was not qualified for duty until two years after his graduation from the academy. Unfortunately, Brownfield’s struggle was largely a result of his refusal to use what had become an unofficial bible in the nuclear submarine world: a “study guide.”
In this case, study guide was a misnomer for cheat sheet. This guide was readily passed among soon-to-be nuclear officers because the qualification test was widely considered to be needlessly and excessively difficult. Brownfield eventually passed the test on his own merits – without the assistance of the study guide – but agreed with his fellow officers that the qualification test comprised a set of unrealistic measures of competence.
Institutional critiques of the Nuclear Service aside, Brownfield’s account of submerged service is helpful for two reasons: first, to share with the common reader how miserable submarine life must be. Second, to congratulate the nonsubmariner reader on not choosing such a confined line of work. Aside from the tales that serve to illustrate these points, the submarine chapters contain very little action.
But Brownfield’s prose gains momentum when he moves from the depths of the sea to the sunnier sands of Iraq. Nearing the end of his mandatory service, Brownfield volunteered to serve a tour of duty in Iraq. After a few months of training for land war, Brownfield shipped off to Iraq where he worked as one of the junior members of a Civil Affairs team charged with restoring and improving the otherwise failing power grid of Iraq.
The seemingly crucial task of resurrecting Iraq’s power grid was not necessarily staffed with the most impressive team. The majority of US personnel were individually recalled reservists – men and women who had day jobs and drilled with the military one weekend a month, two weeks a year. Even worse, many of these individuals had little to no professional experience in the energy sector. One of the senior colonels on the team was a plumber who looked forward to extending his tour in Iraq because the paycheck was enticing.
Brownfield’s experiences in Iraq coincided with the command of two generals, George Casey and David Petraeus, and the beginning of the latter’s implementation of the “surge” strategy. Brownfield admires Petraeus’s intellect and management style, and lavishes praise on the general with the same intensity that he criticizes other senior officers he deems to be incompetent or generally clueless.
“My Nuclear Family” is a worthwhile read. Brownfield’s witty, sarcastic style belies a man who was very serious about serving his country and improving the lives of everyday Iraqi people. This memoir shares valuable insight into the nuclear submarine world, an opaque and foreign topic to many, while also capturing a critical moment of transition in the Iraq war.
Unfortunately, Brownfield’s otherwise clear thinking does not extend into the afterword, an awkward addendum to the memoir that he seems to view as an 11-page opportunity to share his public-policy views on almost everything, even areas peripheral to the content of his book.
Final flourishes aside, however, Brownfield’s take on the uncertainty and ad-lib nature of US involvement in Iraq serves as a valuable read and an important history.
Jackson Holahan is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ga.