My introduction to REALPOLITIK


While the dust is still settling from last Tuesday’s election, I’d like to discuss my own introduction to the realities of the political world.

I had many memorable ship assignments over 36 years in the Navy, but the first one introduced me to realpolitik at an early age.

A political scientist might tell you that there are basically eight types of government: democracy, republic, communism, monarchy, oligarchy, theocracy, fascism, and socialism.

In one three-year tour overseas, I saw them all.

When I enlisted in the Navy in 1959, I scored high enough on the entrance exam that I was able to pick my first duty station.

I told the official filling out my paperwork that I wanted a ship “far, far, away and always steaming.”

He said, “How about going right to the USS Springfield (CLG-7), the Sixth Fleet flagship, homeported in Villefranche sur Mer, France, on the beautiful Rivera? All it does is sail from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, showing the flag.” I said, “Sign me up!” He said, “Dude, you already have.”

As it turned out, the ship was in Boston Naval Shipyard, undergoing a six-month overhaul before going back to the Med.

It was a World War II-era light cruiser that was being converted to one of the first ships carrying the Terrier surface-to-air missile.

The air search radar antenna towers made it look like a floating oil derrick, but the delay wasn’t the first or the last falsehood I ever heard in the Navy.

Still to come were my favorites like “You will always have free medical care,” and “This won’t hurt,” and “I will love you forever.” 

Even after coming onboard ship and getting underway, I was able to maintain contact with the outside world and keep up with current events. 

I wrote a column entitled “Better Than Nothing” for the ship’s daily underway newspaper, just a few mimeographed sheets stapled together, which gave me access to the Associated Press wire for news; I ran the ship’s shortwave, single sideband MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio Station) radio, which friendly telephone operators back in the States would patch into the commercial telephone lines so my shipmates could make free calls home; and since my job as an electronics technician required Top Secret clearance, I couldn’t help reading the operational and tactical messages that came to the ship.

There’s an interesting anecdote about my Top Secret clearance.

When the FBI came to Lumberton to do a background check on me, someone told them that I was a “drunk.”

I had the same name as my father, who had problems with alcohol, and they got us confused.

Luckily, I was enrolled in a very long technical school out in California and had time to get it all sorted out before I graduated and went to sea.

These same fine folks at home later sent me a draft notice, ordering me to Jackson for induction into the Army in 30 days. I didn’t go, because I had been overseas in the Navy for two years.

There’s probably a warrant out there somewhere for my arrest for dodging the draft.

Anyway, became of these two incidents, I resigned from my home town.

You can do that, can’t you?

As we traveled from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, we visited every country on its littoral except Albania, which was still under the thumb of Enver Hoxha’s communist regime.

Most places, we were welcomed. Oddly enough, the only port I ever felt unwelcome in during my entire career was Perth, Australia, where Green Peace demonstrated against us for bringing a nuclear-powered ship into the harbor.

The ancient Romans were able to ensure peace in the Med or “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) as they called it, by conquest; however, during the 1960s many of the countries on its banks were experiencing political unrest, much of it left over from the effects of World War II. France was no exception. It currently considers itself the Fifth Republic, established by Charles de Galle in 1958. The first four republics were ended by Napoleon, political disarray, or war.

You are probably wondering “What is the difference between a democracy and a republic?” The main difference is the extent to which people control the process of making laws under each form of government.

In a true democracy, a voting majority has almost unlimited power to make laws.

The people, in a republic, elect representatives to make laws according to the constraints of a constitution.

In 1960, when I arrived in France, the country was in turmoil over its Algerian problem.

Unlike most European powers which divested themselves of their overseas colonies immediately after World War II, France had hung on to Algeria, across the Med in North Africa, and that country was now fighting for its independence.

Since it was beginning to look like de Galle was going to cut them free, which he eventually did, many “pied noirs” (“black feet,” the name given to French colonists displaced from Algeria because of the fighting) were setting “plastique” (C-4) bombs all over the Rivera and blowing things up in protest, including the big Galleries Lafayette department store just down the road in Nice. “Bienvenue en France!” (Welcome to France!)

Every few months, we would hit some port in Spain: Barcelona, Cartagena, Valencia, Malaga, etc.

Even though Spain had a king, the real power, of course, was Francisco Franco, the “Caudillo” (military leader) who was a prototype Fascist.

He was a dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist and said that he “only answered to God and history.” 

His personal police force, that answered only to him, the “Guardia Civil,” could shoot you and get away with it. They were real “007s.”

They wore these funny plastic, trifold black hats (“tricornio’), but nobody laughed. Now they wear green berets.

Fascism is just another form of totalitarian rule.

About the only real monarchy, with a king actually in charge, at that time was Morocco.

Our two regular stops were Casablanca and Tangier. I remember once when we came into Casablanca and we were going to tie up alongside a wooden pier.

Some really big shots, representatives of the king, and the Royal Drum and Bugle Corps were on the pier waiting and playing for us.

Our captain misjudged his approach, came in too fast, couldn’t stop, and knocked down about 30 yards of the pier.

I was on the bridge, and I can still see the whole Moroccan entourage running for their lives.

We also got into Portsmouth, England, a few times, but that’s a constitutional monarchy.

About all the queen does is wave.

Even though Yugoslavia, under Marshal Josip Broz Tito, was officially communist, we docked at Split and Dubrovnik regularly. Tito, a World War II partisan leader, was a maverick and never really fell for the Stalinist line.

Although we had stopped at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on the way over and during one of the times when Castro had shut off the water supply, it was still strange to be greeted by a big hammer and sickle billboard at the head of the pier in Split.

While several of the western European countries flirted with socialism after the war, it was probably most evident in Italy, with nationalized railroads and utilities, a distrust of capitalism, and heavy-handed government control of the economy.

Considering the damage done by Mussolini and the real threat of a communist take-over after the war, I suppose it was the best compromise, but I never felt very safe there. In fact, I saw my first floating dead human body in the “beautiful bay of Naples.”

I thought it was a strange place to put the NATO headquarters.

I had to run for my life in Greece. I was on Shore Patrol in downtown Athens one night during the unrest that eventually led up to the military junta of 1967, the coup d’état known as the “Regime of the Colonels,” and a mob got after anyone in uniform.

Seven disgruntled Greek army officers took over the country and formed a dictatorship that ruled the country until 1974.

Such a group holding power would be an oligarchy; others might call it a “Khakistocracy” since they all wore khaki uniforms. 

The symbol of their revolution, on posters plastered everywhere, was a phoenix bird, rising from the ashes. I never could reconcile that symbol with their destruction of democracy in the country where it was born.

We made the run to Thessaloniki often to resupply the Voice of America (VOA) transmitter station that was located there, broadcasting democratic concepts and values into eastern Europe.

I came face to face with theocracy in Israel. Haifa and Tel Aviv were on our rotation of port visits.

In Israel, there’s no such thing as separation of church and state. They have religious political parties in the Knesset, or legislature.

In fact, the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in power through a shaky coalition of such minority parties. It works for them.

Years later, I had the pleasure of hosting the first Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Shlomo Goren, on my ship in San Diego.

We don’t have a comparable position in our military.

It’s sad to see how the political landscape in the area has changed over the years.

Take Lebanon, for example. Beirut used to be known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” It was a great place to visit. When we pulled in, the American University would often have a dance for the coeds and invite sailors from the ship who “cleaned up” well. I even got to go a few times.

I was back in 1983, however, on another ship, when the terrorists blew up the U.S. Marine barracks and killed 238 Marine and sailors.

One of our guys was killed and overnight the crew took up over $10,000 in small bills for me to send home to his widow.

I hate to even think about Turkey. It used to be our strongest democratically in the Med; now, with its fundamentalist government, it seems to be going over to the dark side.

In the last month, for example, the Trump administration has blocked the delivery of the F-35 stealth fighter jet, one of our most advanced aircraft, to them because Turkey purchased the sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia.

Still, Istanbul and Izmir are two of my favorite ports. Izmir is the jumping off place to go to Ephesus, as in the Bible, and what’s left of Halicarnassus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Sardinia, Corsica, etc. - they all govern differently.

I’ve been to more than 100 countries, and people often ask, “What is your favorite one?”

My default answer is always “The last one.”

The real answer, of course, is the United States.Warts and all, there’s no better place on earth.

I’ve seen enough to know.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: Read previous columns at: