“Nuke the Oil Spill,” said the headline.
The website called Brownfield a “former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University.” But the picture that accompanied the article — a strong-jawed young man in a tuxedo, wearing a wild-eyed grin — looked more like an unhinged high schooler on prom night than an Ivy-League policy expert.
“On Day 1 of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, my gut instinct was to nuke the well shut,” Brownfield began the article. Phrases like “the most beastly weapons of our mighty American arsenal” followed. The overall effect was, to say the least, a little extreme.
Fox News picked up on the article the same day it was published, and Brownfield was whisked into the cycle of cable-news punditry. He spent the summer commuting from New Haven to New York in company limos, dishing out sound bites on why the U.S. should destroy the well for “Geraldo at Large” and CNBC.
What would be lost on those who only glimpsed Brownfield as a talking head, or who merely skimmed his article, is that he’s not the explosion-hungry quack that the Beast headline might imply. In fact, he’s highly qualified to talk about oil spill demolition, having racked up years of on-the-job experience in oil, nuclear technology and underwater pressure systems. This is a man who has received supervisory certification as a senior engineer officer on a nuclear submarine, who’s delivered briefs directly to Gen. David Petraeus, who was then the commander of multi-national forces in Iraq. And his proposition wasn’t actually that crazy: He was just urging Obama to consider destroying the well — even with conventional explosives — rather than waste time trying to preserve BP’s assets. His logic was sound, even if his idea was a little out there.
The thing you have to know about Brownfield is that he himself is, fundamentally, out there — out of the box, out of the club. As a soldier and writer, Brownfield has never fit well into established orders. And having just published his first book, My Nuclear Family — a muckraking swashbuckler of a memoir that The New York Times says “will rattle some cages” — Brownfield may be on the verge of bringing his “out there” ideas onto the national stage.
WMDs in rubber rafts
Brownfield looks nothing like his youthful photo on The Daily Beast. Nor does he look like the picture on the back of his book: a well-scrubbed cadet with a boyish face dwarfed by a big-rimmed uniform cap. The picture on his website — the consummate professional, crisp suit and tie with a hint of a smile — comes closer, but doesn’t quite get it.
He’s short, with a face that manages somehow to be both wide and chiseled. He moves with economy and words flow out of him, sounding at once carefully rehearsed and formulated on the spot — peppered equally with terms like “furthermore” and with wry jokes. Like this one: “What do you do with a Cold War submarine in the war on terrorism? Are we driving billion-dollar ships around waiting for Osama Bin Laden to get in a rubber raft with WMDs?”
Brownfield first toyed with the idea of writing a book while serving on the crew of the U.S.S. Hartford, a fast-attack sub built to destroy Soviet nuclear submarines. It was there that he realized something was wrong.
The U.S. Navy’s official public relations website for the Submarine Force contains list after list of their ships’ strategic benefits. “Stealth and survivability … assured access … knowledge superiority … ” The force, the site insists, is the greatest of its kind, uniquely able to “support national objectives through battlespace preparation, sea control, supporting the land battle and strategic deterrence.”
This is just an empty list of buzzwords, Brownfield says. The submarine force became moot after the Cold War ended. But it’s attached to an enormous and enormously profitable industry, especially here in Connecticut (Electric Boat Corporation, a division of military contractor General Dynamics headquartered in Groton, generates over 80,000 jobs and rakes in almost $30 billion annually). And so, it’s managed to invent enough missions to keep itself afloat.
Brownfield isn’t allowed to discuss the specifics of the missions in which he took part on the Hartford, and that’s part of the problem. Only a tiny group of high-level military and government officials have the clearance to really see what the subs are doing. The former are monetarily incentivized to maintain the status quo; the latter are unaware that there’s a problem in the first place and don’t bother to change anything. The individual crew members on the ships see only their own missions: Because of bureaucratic compartmentalization, they lack the perspective to notice the larger issues with their organization.
“If held up to scrutiny, this thing wouldn’t last,” he says. “People would say, ‘This is ridiculous.’”
But it’s not and they don’t. So crews like Brownfield’s on the Hartford continue trolling the seas without any substantial purpose. “It was definitely a Waiting for Godot kind of thing,” he says. Then he pauses for a moment and reconsiders the allusion. “Actually, we were more like Don Quixote. We were chasing after illusionary enemies.”
Misfit of science
If that seems a little more literary than what one might expect from a hardened soldier, it’s because Brownfield was an English major. At the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he ran from courses in 18th-century literature to classes on Control Systems with Applications for Weapons Design. He earned, weirdly, a Bachelor’s of Science in English. In one wonderful passage in My Nuclear Family, he recalls getting intimidated by his engineering classmates in submarine school and learning thereafter to call himself a “grammatical engineering” major.
Perhaps it was his unusual academic background that kept him from fitting in on the Hartford. He couldn’t, like many of his shipmates and superiors, resign himself to the quixotic status quo of submarine life. It struck him that they were a wasted resource: highly trained but idle, “capable of sustaining [their] environment and mission independent of oil,” but without any real mission to sustain.
Brownfield advocates cutting defense spending and hiring contractors who now build submarines to develop alternative-energy techonologies instead.
‘Elephant in the swimming pool’
Initially, he imagined a book as a call to repurpose the submarine industry, to haul it all onto dry land and turn it into something useful for a green economy. The book he ended up writing is a little different.
One early passage reads thusly: ”I sat upon my small metal stool, deep within the bowels of my submarine, pondering the principles of energy and violence. My ass hurt.”
Another chapter opens with an image of a rowdy shipmate shoving his genitals in our protagonist’s face. Amid these colorful episodes, Brownfield makes points about a broken submarine system — what he calls “the white elephant in the swimming pool.”
He exposes fleet-wide cheating on nuclear qualification exams, telling how his fellow trainees passed around an answer key and told him not to “let knowledge stand in the way of qualifications.” He describes in wrenching detail the fallout of the resulting bureaucratic incompetence, when the Hartford nearly beaches itself off the coast of Italy. Afterward, his superiors were relieved of command.
These are all symptoms, he suggests, of a system crippled by its own fundamental lack of purpose.
But these passages are only half the story. It doesn’t take long to realize you aren’t just reading a treatise on policy. You’re reading one hell of an adventure narrative. As Dwight Garner writes in The New York Times, the book reads “as if a subversive young novelist had decided to rewrite a Tom Clancy thriller after first piloting some nuclear submarines as a gonzo practice drill.”
“It wasn’t until I realized it was a coming-of-age story that it became a publishable book,” Brownfield says. After attempts to sell the book as a tract on politics and moral philosophy, he let editors at Alfred A. Knopf convince him to tell a story as his story — a bildungsroman. And the U.S. Navy, which had raised him to be who he was but with whom he’d never quite fit in, was his “nuclear family.” “After that title, it all sort of fell into place,” he says. “It made sense that I was going to be this sort of misfit.”
Brownfield had previously taken classes in short fiction, producing C-grade work that he calls “horrendous.” But he found memoir more natural: With a world of vivid characters and high-pressure situations from which to draw, he never had to look far for an idea. And soon after leaving the Hartford and before writing the book, he found himself in a world even stranger and more intense.
He was a nuclear submariner caught in the desert.
The rise of paycheck patriots
In 2006, Brownfield was preparing to leave the Navy. He’d been admitted to the Yale School of Management and was set to begin when the captain of the submarine school where he was teaching received orders from Washington to send six men to the Army through an “individual augmentation” program. Knowing the war effort was shorthanded and eager to see Iraq with his own eyes, Brownfield “jumped on the grenade,” he says, and deferred his enrollment in order to ship off to Baghdad.
He was placed in a team of consultants and Army officers (Brownfield was a Navy lieutenant) assigned to revamp Iraq’s energy policy. At 26, he was decades younger than his Army colleagues, but also the most experienced among them.
Brownfield had trained in energy technology in his submarine days, whereas many of his older Army colleagues had worked their whole careers at a desk job or in unrelated fields. He also worked with very smart, very experienced (and very well-paid) consultants, who nevertheless had “very provincial outlook[s]: “They envisioned a new Iraq as an American ‘client state’ rather than an integrated part of a larger Middle-Eastern economic landscape.”
Some were genuinely good people, he says, but many were enticed by meaty paychecks in a tax-exempt war zone. Brownfield could mostly just watch as an ingrained hierarchy tried to make Iraq into “Horatio Alger, pulling [itself] up by [its] bootstraps, refusing to take help from anybody.”
He did make some gains. Most notably, he spearheaded a plan for using energy-efficient lightbulbs to reduce Iraq’s energy costs. That plan made it to the highest levels of American command, and he briefed a room full of generals, including Gen. Petraeus, about it. (His job entailed daily video briefings to Petraeus; this was the first in person.)
But mostly, he made observations, and wrote them down in a sand-encrusted notebook. The first page listed possible book titles. Anyone could have figured out what he was up to, but no one did, not even the colonel who said: “Chris, you really get this stuff. You should write a book about it.”
An energy policy of ‘interdependence’
Brownfield’s website bears the title “Praxis Unitas.” It’s a conjunction of two ancient Greek terms that together translate roughly to “the practice (as distinct from the theory) of being in accord.” It could be substituted, with only mild imprecision, for a single word that Brownfield is very fond of using: “interdependence.”
It’s the big, messy concept at the center of Brownfield’s thinking, the principle that he insists is both theoretical worldview and practical philosophy. It’s hard to define, and Brownfield explains it by contrasting it with the prevailing notion of “energy independence.”
It’s become standard parlance in public discourse to speak of developing an energy policy that allows the U.S. to power itself, to provide its own energy without relying on imports from other countries. There are, for Brownfield, three components to that strategy of independence.
The first two, conservation and efficiency, he fully supports. But the third component — the political notion that a state can “go it alone” — is an idea toward which he’s deeply suspicious. Economic cooperation, Brownfield believes, is healthy and inevitable, and placing barriers between countries is a recipe for eventual disaster. “It’s much better to be interdependent,” he claims. Countries should strive not to isolate themselves economically but to become healthily interdependent with other states. In a time of diminishing resources and increasing political instability, interdependence is the only sustainable policy.
This philosophy crystallized in Iraq, where he witnessed the State Department’s bullheaded struggle to make Iraq self-sufficient, refusing to consider importing oil and other resources from neighboring countries. Only at the very end of his year in Baghdad, after advocating for more cooperation, did he finally see an oil deal orchestrated with Kuwait.
He first imagined an indictment of the submarine industry, but his book grew to be something bigger, messier, and more complex. He tells his readers the real solution to the mounting challenges of the post-atomic age is a change in perspective: abandonment of strict self-sufficiency, and an increased flexibility toward how countries can interact.
A wonky action hero
It’s a great-sounding ideology. Who doesn’t love cooperation? But even though Brownfield is full of broadly-drawn examples of how to implement interdependence — more open dialogue with Syria about Iraqi refugees, less vitriolic propaganda regarding foreign oil — he hasn’t had a chance to put it into action. If there’s a flaw in the stirring conclusion of his book, it’s that it’s too open-ended.
That might be because, in some fundamental sense, Brownfield is still in the process of finding his own voice. Having spent most of his life in the Navy, he’s just recently gone fully civilian, cutting all his military ties (in “Why My Former Hero Shouldn’t Be President,” published in The Daily Beast, he burned a few bridges when he blasted John McCain’s ambivalence over torture). His focus on interdependence simply does not mix with an institution that teaches its representatives to “be courteous, be diplomatic, and always have a plan to kill everyone in the room.”
And now that he’s done for good with the defense establishment, he’s unsure exactly where to go. He dropped out of the School of Management, unable to enjoy the wine-and-cheese networking events after spending so long in a war zone. He distrusts academia, with its emphasis on publication for its own sake, and he lacks the funds (or the requisite religious belief) for a political career.
Brownfield, in person, has the confidence of a military man: the direct stare, the upright posture, the sentences that progress cleanly from start to finish. But he has, too, a curious combination of geeky enthusiasm and hypermasculine swagger. This is the sort of man who loves to talk, who engages old ladies at coffee shop counters in long conversations while he waits for his interviewer to arrive.
He’s the sort of public intellectual who speculates that a fellow pundit who died in his hot tub last year was murdered by oil-industry insiders. The sort of author who breaks up passages on oil and nationalism with frank recollections of war-zone dalliances with attractive young diplomats. He’s a strange and intriguing combination: the policy expert with a touch of action-hero bravado, the blogger who makes a balanced argument for nuking an oil spill.
He remains unhappy about that last part, the media circus surrounding his Daily Beast article. His editors shouldn’t have slapped such a sensationalist headline on the post; the Fox News anchors shouldn’t have spun his proposal as a blood-and-thunder outsider notion. In all the hysteria that attended his post, a real opportunity to take decisive action was lost.
Brownfield is currently working on a second book, a more cerebral look at nuclear-age international politics. Perhaps as he moves further away from his days underwater and in the mortar-pocked desert, Brownfield’s tone will mellow. Perhaps his swagger will yield to calm analysis, his wild headlines give way to more measured ones.
Or maybe they won’t. And maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe Brownfield, with his outsider perspective and his novelist’s heart, is exactly the kind of policy expert that this century needs.