On Americans, Iranians and the rest of us sailors

On Americans, Iranians and the rest of us sailors

A long time ago, in an era when toy guns and games of soldiers did not provoke the parental polemics inevitable today, I was very much a child of the late 1950s and early 1960s: I loved war movies, with characters played by folks like Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Humphrey Bogart.

Mostly the film titles and plots are lost to me today. Only the odd scene, an act of bravado, a moment of tragedy or an irony unexpected by a 10-year-old’s mind, remain. One of those old black and whites was set in a neutral port during World War II. I suppose it was Lisbon, Tangiers or Goa. The point, rather innovative for me at that stage of understanding, was this was a place where people otherwise busy killing one another had to get along. So the port was full of soldiers and sailors and airmen of all stripes. Several dozen of them wound up at the same bar, loudly and drunkenly singing their national anthems.

Some slight occurred. A German struck an American, or the reverse. A melee naturally ensued. But the surprise twist in the plot was the German sailors came to the aid of the American seaman struck by a German officer. It was a typical Hollywood bar fight, chairs broken across heads and bodies tossed across the bar. The “Greek Chorus” in this case was the piano player cueing the audience. “What’s going on, you’re helping the enemy?” he demanded of one of the chair-wielding jousters.
“Hey, we’re all sailors, they’re infantry,” responded Quinn (I think it was Quinn) just as he lowered the chair on one of his countryman’s heads. Okay, this was hardly an epic film that moved paradigms around. But it did have the effect of making a 10-year-old reflect for a moment on nationalism, allegiance and the common lot of commoners.

Stirring my memory of the film this weekend was the real-life irony of a destroyer, the USS Kidd, steaming temporarily away from the showdown with the Iranian Navy along with its flagship, the aircraft carrier USS Stennis. The Kidd got a distress call from the fishing boat Al Molai, the captain explaining him and his 13 crew had been taken hostage by Somali pirates. It turns out the fishermen were Iranian.

In short, the Kidd boarded the Al Molai. The Americans arrested the pirates. They fed the Iranians, provided medical care and then sent them on their way.

Even the reflexes of the brass reflect the power of this kind of irony to cool otherwise hot tempers. The Pentagon immediately released a photo of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta telephoning the ship’s commander to congratulate him.

“When we get a distress signal, we’re going to respond,” Panetta said in the widely quoted press release. “That’s the nature of what our country is all about.”

The Iranians lost no time in making a reciprocal gesture. 

“We consider the actions of the U.S. forces in saving the lives of Iranian seamen to be a humanitarian and positive act,” said Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast. “We think all nations should display such behavior.”

Do I think this moment of respite from rattling sabers will still the will to war? No. But I do hope at least a few a 10-year-olds in San Francisco or Tehran caught the news and briefly thought, “Sometimes, we’re all just sailors.”

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