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

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

by Christopher Brownfield

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The unsentimental education of an idealistic, brilliant American naval officer.

It begins in 2001. Christopher Brownfield is a naïve young midshipman. His heroes at the time: Oliver North and John McCain.

In My Nuclear Family, Brownfield writes about how he loved the navy for its “rigidity and its clarity in separating right from wrong&


The unsentimental education of an idealistic, brilliant American naval officer.

It begins in 2001. Christopher Brownfield is a naïve young midshipman. His heroes at the time: Oliver North and John McCain.

In My Nuclear Family, Brownfield writes about how he loved the navy for its “rigidity and its clarity in separating right from wrong”; how he cut his teeth there on the principles of energy and violence, strategy and thermodynamics, on war doctrine and weapons systems. The question was never if he was capable of killing; it was simply about methods and rationales.

He writes about his years serving on a nuclear submarine, with its hundred-ton back-up battery—the first hybrid vehicle capable of sustaining its environment and mission independent of oil.

We see Lieutenant Brownfield making his way, receiving his advanced nuclear supervisory certification from the departments of defense and energy, and, after years of training to become a nuclear submariner, being able to supervise an entire reactor plant aboard a nuclear warship.

He writes about his ship’s secret missions in the global war on terror and how he begins to experience his own eroding faith in the entire operation . . .

He describes his decision to leave the navy to attend graduate school at Yale, as his colleagues in the submarine force are faced with a new morbid reality—an involuntary lottery for service in Iraq. And how, for the sake of his country, his naval forefathers, and his mother (who believed in cleaning up after one’s own messes), Brownfield is determined to do something good in the name of the United States.

With one foot in the door at Yale, Brownfield jumps on the hand grenade and volunteers to fill a one-year tour of duty in Baghdad, working in the strategic headquarters, reporting to the top general on matters of oil and electricity.

Brownfield, a submariner in the sands of the desert, writes about how he finds himself better equipped to handle the energy problem than his much more senior colleagues, many of whom had no prior experience in energy or management. With the arrival in Iraq of General Petraeus, and with policy changes and an overhaul in strategy, Brownfield is put center stage in the unit, supervising the colonel who was his former superior in rank; briefing cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and generals, who endorse his groundbreaking plans for energy efficiency, development, and counterinsurgency . . .

From the Hardcover edition.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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In the Belly of the Beast

"Awoooooogaaa! Awoooooogaaa! Dive! Dive!"

That was what I heard in my head every time we dove the USS Hartford below the waves. I pretended to hear that sound with a sense of wistful nostalgia as I surveyed the seascape through my periscope, cherishing every last second of sunlight before the optics dipped below the water and we descended into the utter darkness of the ocean. The real sound of the Hartford's diving alarm, however, was no cause for nostalgia. Rather than the unmistakable tone of World War II Klaxons, the Hartford's aural signal to "take her down" more closely resembled a wounded chicken. "Baawwkk! Baawwkk! Dive! Dive!" was the sonic reality in this modern marvel of engineering. And so it came to pass that I settled for driving a nuclear warship that executed its primary design feature with the undignified sound of common poultry. It was this sound that first clued me in to the fact that life on a submarine is decidedly not what it used to be.

"Smith! Put your balls away! How many times do I have to tell you to keep your dick in your pants while you're on watch?" I yelled across my small elevated desk from the stool where I sat, supervising the men who controlled our ship's nuclear reactor.

"But, sir, it's hot in here...and besides, you know you like it," replied Petty Officer Smith, the overweight, smelly, and highly intelligent sailor who knew exactly how far he could push it before getting fired (and liked to prove so on a regular basis). The fat-ass winked at me.

"Whether I like it or not is iiii-fucking-rrrelevant! Stow your cock! End of discussion," I growled, slamming the heavy Reactor Plant Manual I was reading down on the metal desk. I said "End of discussion," but my rant was just getting started.

The Maneuvering Area, as it is formally known, is a room the size of a walk-in closet where more than five hundred gauges, meters, indicator lights, switches, and every other bell and whistle imaginable reside. It is the principal location from which three highly trained nuclear operators and one supervisor keep constant watch over the most important parameters of the ship's nuclear reactor plant. The late Hyman G. Rickover, Father of the Nuclear Navy, to whom The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns bears a remarkable resemblance, believed that the Maneuvering Area was sacred. The Reactor Plant Manuals use the word "inviolate" to describe Rickover's expectation of formality within Maneuvering's boundaries. And yet this was a typical day in Maneuvering, when a watch-stander, tired and hot, decided to unzip his trousers and brandish his genitals. Let's get something else out in the open--none of us actually enjoyed Smith's awkward testicular presence, but it was unusually hot in there and we couldn't really blame him for wanting to air out. Somewhere in nuclear heaven, Rickover was beginning to vomit.

"Listen up, fuckers." I continued my rant, annoyed.

"I used to be a fucking gentleman before you pricks corrupted me!"

The ghost of John Paul Jones was nowhere to be seen.

"Did you say you were fucking gentlemen?" interrupted Jenkins, another petty officer (and petty wit), who never missed an opportunity to make someone else look stupid.

"No, shit-scrap!" I shouted, eliciting chuckles (any novel permutation of basic vulgarity was enough to make them giggle). I was still annoyed, but they'd found the chink in my armor. With my momentum fizzling, I recommenced my rant. "As I was saying, I used to be a gentleman, and I'll be god-damned if I let you knuckleheads wag your dicks around in Maneuvering on my watch! Let's have some fucking professionalism!" I breathed deeply while dismounting my soapbox, but the bastards had done me in. I choked back a laugh but was unable to conceal my smile. The troops spotted my break in character and howled with delight. Smith zipped up his pants, sheepishly admitting defeat.

"Does it get any lower than this?"

"Technically, sir, we can go down another four hundred feet."

"Shut up, Jenkins."

"Aye, aye, sir."

The first time a sailor wagged his testicles before me as I knelt to read an instrument gauge, I completely lost control. It quite literally flew in the face of every example of professionalism that the Naval Academy had trained me to uphold. I was so angry by the overt harassment and the indignity of stumbling face-first point- blank into another man's balls that I threatened to have the pervert taken to captain's mast, the navy's version of a court-martial at sea. While morally and legally correct in that course of action, I know in hindsight that it was the wrong way to handle things aboard a real submarine.

When the hatch of a submarine shuts, the vessel becomes its own little universe, with a very different set of rules. Bollocks to Einstein-the modern submarine redefines relativity. In that universe one should never admit one's weaknesses. Aboard a submarine, to reveal that a particular thing irritates you is to invite repeat occurrences of that irritant ad infinitum. It was a mixed-up maxim, a Kantian kerfuffle that promised, through the miracle of socialized military medicine, to make our lives nasty, brutish, and long. For example, when our ship's executive officer (XO) divulged that he was "somewhat of a homophobe," our fellow officers responded by taping pictures from gay porn magazines onto the ceiling above his stateroom bunk. The first time he lay down to read and looked up at the pictures, he ran screaming through the door in his skivvies. The man's public display of hairy near-nakedness opened the field for more comments-nothing was off limits, except the captain himself. Days later at sea, several members of the "all-balls" crew sent the man anonymous love notes and signed pictures of shirtless male models posing on sports cars, all graced with loverly terms of endearment and XOXOXs. One envelope was even sealed with a lipstick kiss. I don't know which man brought the lipstick aboard, and it's probably better for some questions to remain unasked.

But just as the XO had erred in admitting his fear of homosexual behavior, it was my mistake to admit that the sight of another man's penis in close proximity to my face was...well, odious.

"You should have just grabbed it," my colleague Jake opined after my first encounter. Jake was always the pragmatist.

"Or pretended that you liked it or something-that would have freaked him out. Now every enlisted man on the ship knows that you can't abide cock."

I thought about it for a second and agreed that Jake's tactic of carpe scrotum was indeed a better alternative than threatening the sailor with penal action. A thorough hand-washing would've been required, of course.

"Think about it, Chris," he continued. "If you had simply grabbed his sack and dragged him around the ship like a fleshy little puppet, nobody would have ever fucked with you again-you would have been a god."

Jake was right. I could have been a god. We paused for a moment, lamenting the lost opportunity for ultimate respect, albeit respect bounded in the nutshell of that horribly finite space. And so it came to pass that instead of being a god among the sailors of the Hartford, I writhed within my mortal coil, a prick supervisor, irritated by the sight of other men's schlongs. From that point forward, in accordance with standard submarine practice, I saw, unwillingly, more schlong than any other officer aboard the ship.


Please recall that this is a family story. It's true that I've seen more of certain tiny things than I'd ever hoped for in life, but every family has its quirks. I don't recall my less gentlemanly shipmates with any particular fondness, but I can no more divest myself of their underwater antics than disown my brothers. The experience was all part of growing up in that strange watery world. Welcome to my home.

The modern nuclear submarine is the most extreme machine on the face of the planet. By comparison, space shuttles and fighter jets and even armored tanks are fragile and basic. The vacuum of space is nothing compared to the cold, crushing pressure of the deep. The thrust of an afterburner is nothing compared to the silent force of atomic engines. It is a well-known fact that a nuclear submarine is capable of traversing the depths of the oceans to strike practically anywhere with lethal precision. It is far less well known that the nuclear submarine can create and maintain its own atmosphere. Now, at the dawning of the third millennium, it is strangely novel to recall that the nuclear submarine-equipped with a hundred-ton backup battery- was the first hybrid vehicle that could sustain its environment and mission independent of oil.

Energy has always sharpened the cutting edge of violence, especially in the world's navies. In the first millennium, Greek Fire swept the Byzantine navy toward stunning victories. At the beginning of industrial modernity, Roosevelt's Great White Fleet circumnavigated the globe on coal. But the greatest shift in the forces of violence that energy brought to the world came in the discovery of oil. More than any other source of power in history, oil-the most efficient, mobile, and useful energy source-empowered nations to seek and maintain control. It was a legendary American admiral, Alfred Thayer Mahan, who coined the term "Middle East" in his monumental geo-strategic book, The Influence of Seapower upon History. But it was the British who learned seven years later the influence of oil upon empire.

By dint of capitalist zeal, a British prospector unearthed the massive oil reserves in "petroliferous" Persia. Like an explosive gusher of crude, the discovery of oil propelled the ancient homeland of the Zoroastrians (who worshipped burning oil seepages) to the forefront of the twentieth century's greatest power struggle. American captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller had been building empires of capitalism for thirty years, and the British saw Iran as a strategic step toward controlling their own massive energy supplies. The grand secret was out: with oil came wealth and power.

By 1913 Winston Churchill, at the helm of the Royal Navy, changed the course of his empire with the historic decision to shift the British fleet from coal to oil. At the time Churchill feared the rising power of Germany. It was this fear that finally convinced him to agree with the founder of Shell Oil that change was necessary-even before a steady oil supply could be secured. The switch to oil gave Her Majesty's fleet a fighting edge, making Britain's ships more fuel- efficient and faster than the steamships fired by coal. The switch was more than tactical-it was a matter of evolution or extinction.

Ironically, Churchill's move encountered considerable resistance at home. Sheffield had plenty of coal, but nary a drop of oil. Thus Britain faced the choice of forgoing a reliable supply of coal and basing its naval supremacy upon a single, enormous question mark. Conservative parliamentarians and admirals argued against foreign oil in favor of energy independence. To these men, homeland security meant keeping coal alive as a reliable and profitable source of energy. The switch to oil flew in the face of conventional wisdom by necessitating an unprecedented level of global interdependence. Yet even more critically, Churchill's progressive switch to an oil-based navy encountered tremendous resistance at home because it required the Britons to embrace a changing world.

Despite the resistance that Churchill faced in moving his country forward, the Great War had a way of forcing Britain to grow up. As Daniel Yergin explained in his history of oil, "Many would look back upon those spring and early summer days of 1914 as the dusk of an era, the end of a childhood." By the end of World War I, the strategic importance of oil had proven itself beyond all doubts. The mechanization of militaries and the introduction of the Tank (a secretive project that got its code name from its liquid-fuel tank), broke the hopeless stalemate of trench warfare. For England, oil had been crowned the new king. And for the soon-to-be prime minister, Churchill, the thirst for oil was all too clear: "Mastery itself was the prize of the venture."

After World War I, England's need for foreign oil was obvious, though as Yergin explains, "explicitly pronouncing Mesopotamia as a war aim would seem too old-fashionably imperialistic." Thus British Foreign Secretary Balfour succinctly explained the required evolution of imperialism: "I do not care under which system we keep the oil, but I am quite clear that it is all-important for us that this oil should be available."

For the next several decades, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum) exploited the unsophisticated Iranians with the legalistic power of oil concessions, becoming one of the most profitable companies in the history of the world while driving the Royal Navy at full speed ahead.

For America, World War II began and ended over the pivotal forces of oil. It was not the temptation of power but the fear of dwindling energy supplies and the American oil embargo that spurred the Japanese to strike at Pearl Harbor before seizing the oil fields of Borneo. It was not the bravery of the Allied forces but the critical shortage of gas that stopped the tanks of Nazi Field Marshall Rommel literally in their tracks; the Desert Fox died of thirst for oil.

For postwar America, energy security meant engaging the Middle East in developing its oil. The war's last secretary of the navy and America's first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, led a concerted effort to shift American dependencies to Middle Eastern oil, effectively putting an end to America's energy independence. While the major oil companies faced antitrust lawsuits at home, the U.S. government gave them carte blanche to collude in Saudia Arabia, ushering forth the greatest oil discoveries in history and an era of unmitigated consumption.

While profits of multinational oil companies soared and the coffers of petrol states began to fill, the people of the Middle East slowly awakened to the reality that they'd been bought and sold by the West. The spark of nationalism was fanned into flame in Tehran when a brilliant secular lawyer, educated in France, surprised the world by having the audacity to stand up to the British. Mohammed Mossadegh vowed to rid his homeland of the exploitive British concessionaires and restore what he believed to be the birthright of all Iranians. Nationalizing the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1951 and reclaiming Iran's oil for its own people was an earthquake that sent a tidal wave of nationalistic self-determination around the globe. England was too weakened by war to break its addiction to foreign oil; the ravages had been enormous. Without Iranian oil at her disposal, the last remnants of the British Empire were doomed to collapse.

A plot was formed.

Churchill, desperate to salvage his country's strength, implored President Truman to help overthrow Mossadegh and reinstate the Shah of Iran. Truman rejected the proposal flatly; to replace an elected leader of a democratic country with a monarch was insultingly backward for a world that was supposed to have been "made safe for democracy" by the terrible sacrifices of two world wars. Truman, however, did not remain president for long. When Eisenhower took office, Churchill found his ally for the plot against Mossadegh, overthrowing the elected leader in a secret CIA-led coup.

Ironically, Eisenhower supported the coup not because he wanted Iranian oil but because he feared that the nuclear-armed Soviets would engulf Iran if the West did not intervene. At the onset of the nuclear age, the paradigm of energy and violence had split into two. For energy, Oil was still King, but for warfare, the Atom had been crowned Emperor.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Christopher Brownfield was born in Michigan and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. He has a master’s degree in international energy policy and international economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a master’s degree in engineering management from Old Dominion University. Brownfield has also been a visiting scholar on nuclear policy with the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative at Columbia University. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

From the Hardcover edition.

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