Alas, Babylon

Yesterday I had one of those moments when you hear a sentence or a phrase and it triggers an entire story – filled with memory – that comes flooding in to your mind. I was listening to the news on the radio and in a story about tensions between the United States and Russia the commentator made that point that, despite the difficulties in the relationship, it was necessary for both countries to coordinate in Syria because they both have military aircraft operating in the area and we would not want there to be an “accident.”

The metaphorical light bulb in my head went on. I immediately got up and went to a bookcase I had just reorganized a few days before and pulled down Pat Frank’s 1959 novel, Alas, Babylon. (It is still in print.)  When I read this excellent – though now quite dated – novel as a young man, I had been struck by two aspects of the book. First, it is an apocalyptic novel of the nuclear age that starkly paints the picture of life beyond nuclear war between the United States and Russia (then, the Soviet Union). This struck a chord with me, having grown up in the midst of the Cold War with its “duck-and-cover” drills and (nuclear) fallout shelters. Second, the U.S.S. Canberra, my father’s ship in the Navy, makes an appearance in the novel. Did he have this on his bookshelf because of this? Frank would have been writing this book while my father was serving aboard the ship. At that time, the Canberra was the epitome of defensive military technology and was put on display, showing the flag all around the world – and transporting the President to a conference with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, I learned that while my father was aboard and while Frank was writing, the Canberra participated in NATO Exercise Strikeback in the Mediterranean which simulated an all-out Soviet attack on NATO.

But yesterday, I was remembering something else. In Alas, Babylon, nuclear war between the two super-powers begins in, of all places, Syria. There are tensions in the region, and Russian support of the Syrian military and the presence of its own forces there result in an aircraft incident – and a mistake by a young American Navy pilot.[i] The stuff of fears past and present. The end result is cataclysmic for the world. It also reminded me that, while it is no longer 1959, or 1989, our two countries still have the capacity to destroy life on this earth. And this should give us pause.

Reading Alas, Babylon as a young man helped to inspire me along the path that I would take. Defending against the possible horror of nuclear war; battling an ideology that crushed the freedom and individuality of the person; liberation of those under oppression; these were causes worth fighting for. And so, upon graduating from high school I joined the service of my father, the U.S. Navy. After this, I graduated from college with a degree in Russian and Soviet Area Studies and went on to work for the military. The world changed with the fall of the Soviet Union, yet the bulk of my career was and remains focused on national security, including when I departed private law practice to re-join the government after 9/11.  I was afforded the great privilege of working with talented and dedicated people such as Homeland Security Secretaries Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, and Janet Napolitano, along with so many others dedicated to the security of this nation and who were thoughtful and careful in how they carried out their responsibilities.

Through the years of looking at different threats and changing priorities, I have learned that prediction of the future is often difficult, despite the necessity to plan. Things are in a constant state of change regardless of whether we perceive it. We do not know what tomorrow will bring. This is why it has always been important to be prepared and have the right people in the right place at the right time. The leadership of our country must often make weighty and difficult decisions. Sometimes these are done publicly and with great debate or even fanfare. Sometimes they are necessarily done quietly and carefully, and most will never know what has taken place. Sometimes we make mistakes.  But the station of Commander-in-Chief is ultimately responsible for all of them, and that person must exercise the greatest of care, skill, and judgment. When the difficult moments come it will not be a piece of legislation or a tax policy or an appointment that matters. For in a world that can very quickly turn dangerous, sometimes in an hour, it is necessary to be able to calmly, soberly, and responsibly take on the weight of the world. It matters that much.

And where does the title Alas, Babylon, come from? From the Book of Revelation:
“Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! for in one hour is thy judgment come.”[ii]

[i] The Canberra, in the eastern Mediterranean near the Syrian coast (not unlike in NATO Exercise Strikeback), plays a minor role in the incident.
[ii] Rev. 18:10.