ABOARD USS JOHN S. MCCAIN, Persian Gulf—A few hundred miles away, the war rages on as U.S. ground forces near Baghdad.
But in the Persian Gulf, where this destroyer inches through the night, fires at unseen targets and then moves on, the war comes in spurts. And it is always distant.
The McCain, commissioned in 1994, had never launched a Tomahawk missile until last Friday. Since then, it has launched 27.
With each strike, sailors learn more about the capabilities of their ship, themselves and their shipmates. And they learn how sterile and distant war can be. How surreal it can seem when they don't know the target, can't see the destruction and only have to push the button.
"I'm surprised I'm not reacting more emotionally either way," said Lt. Henry Nuzum, 26, of Chapel Hill, N.C., who coordinates launches. He has directed three strikes now. "We don't really see the reality of what these missiles do. Maybe two weeks from now wherever I am, I'll just say, `Wow.'"
Technology has made it easier for the sailors aboard the McCain to strike with accuracy, but harder for them to grasp the effects of their work.
"The way war is these days, it's pretty far removed," said Ensign Britt Johnson, 22, of Minnesota, who coordinated radar and helm direction for the three strikes. "I was trying to attach some sort of emotion to it, but I couldn't. I think that makes it easier. But that isn't a good thing. You don't want war to be easy."
The war has become the main duty of the sailors on the bridge, in the Combat Information Center, where the missiles are programmed for launch, and in engineering. Others hover over radar and sonar screens. Five-person security teams patrol the decks around the clock. Two others watch the water for mines.
But the everyday routine is relatively unchanged for many on the McCain. The cooks keep the food coming. The guys in laundry keep the clothes clean. The barbershop is open. There are movies on the big-screen television in the mess decks.
Most aboard haven't seen the Tomahawks launch. At most, they hear the "Tomahawk launch is imminent" announcement if they are awake or feel the vibrations of a launch in their quarters.
For all on the ship, the greatest danger came Friday night, when one of the Tomahawks misfired, flipped end over end, swooped perilously close to the flight deck and toppled—still burning—into the water, with its 1,000-pound warhead intact.
"When you can see your own life flash before your eyes, that's war, and you know you're in it," said Leith Weeden, 30, who was on the bridge at the time. "That gets your attention."
But few on the ship saw the mishap.
"Most of us just hear about it the next day," said Seaman Patrick Lance, 22, of Dallas. "For us, that's war, I guess."
Chief Petty Officer David Bush, a member of the Tomahawk team, thinks his shipmates should reflect occasionally on what happens when the McCain's missiles hit their targets.
"In the middle of it, you don't really have an appreciation for the gravity," said Bush, who has been in the Navy 17 years. "We did it right, and my guys are proud. But did somebody probably die? Yes. It's difficult for us to understand what's happening on the far end."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.