Captain Phillips and the Mystery of the Missing Commander

Every once in a while I have weird coincidences, and this past week was one of them. A story in my Facebook newsfeed popped up about Michelle Howard.090707-N-5345W-083

Doesn’t ring a bell?

Didn’t to me either.

It turns out that Michelle Howard just became the Navy’s first female 4 Star Admiral. That’s pretty cool, particularly because she’s a minority on multiple counts — and she’s short, so yeah, I’m cheering for her.

I got a wee bit curious about Admiral Howard so I did a little poking around and discovered she’s a native of Colorado (gorgeous state) and that her childhood dream was to have a distinguished service record in the US military (I love it when kids dream big!).

I also discovered that within three days of her taking command of the Navy’s counterpiracy task force in the Arabian Sea aboard the USS Boxer (an amphibious assault ship of the US Navy), she was presented with the hijacking of the US-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates, who took the Alabama’s captain, Richard Phillips, hostage aboard a lifeboat and headed at speed toward the Somali Coast.

Howard devised the plan to rescue Captain Phillips, a dramatic mission that Hollywood turned into fantastic movie, a satisfying conflation of just the right amount of truth and fiction. (Cinematic imperative aside, it appears that it took 19 shots by our Navy SEALS to dispatch the pirates on to their Maker, as opposed to the 3 rounds decisively fired in the movie).

Here’s the coincidence: about two days later, I wandered into the family room and David is watching Captain Phillips. I had never seen the film, and my interest was piqued because of my new connection to Michelle Howard, so I sat down to watch for a spell, and Lo And Behold, Commander Howard Is Not In The Movie.

Well, technically she is: a scratchy (female) voice on the other end of the comms can be heard barking generic instructions to the Commander aboard the USS Bainbridge (the Navy Destroyer from which the physical confrontation with the Somalis and rescue of Phillips takes place), a dashing fellow who, along with the negotiator, delivers to us our right and proper sense of What People In Charge Look Like. The chiseled jaws in this movie are a sight to behold.

The movie is all men, all the time, and honestly, I’d be fine with that (remember, I love men!), except that the person in charge was Michelle Howard.

I’m thinking that had Howard been a male-shaped person, the movie would have included the requisite “back at headquarters” shots with men tensely rubbing their (chiseled) jaws as they huddle around technicolor maps displayed horizontally in the center of the room, playing a grown-up version of BattleShip, and, ultimately, high-fiving and wiping their brows when word arrived that the mission they masterminded had been successful.

What we routinely see affects our understanding of what is normal, acceptable, probable. I’m not asking for a fiction here. In no way am I suggesting that the leadership, bravery, creativity and brilliance of the Commanding officer aboard the Bainbridge, and the SEAL team that put their own lives at risk be diminished or downplayed in any way. I’m simply asking for a fuller truth to be told.

That Commander Howard was there. That she was ultimately in charge. That her ideas, her leadership, her bravery, her creativity were part of why the mission was successful.  We need to aggressively terminate this dominant narrative in American pop culture, that Men With Chiseled Jaws save the day.

Because, honestly, not all men have chiseled jaws.

And because men and women work together, all the time, whether or not their collaboration is portrayed on the Silver Screen. Sometimes, women lead.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, probably, Captain Phillips, bound and gagged in the back of that lifeboat, held at gunpoint by madmen, could not have cared less what gender, color or — it must said — height was possessed by the person who was responsible for getting him off that boat alive. He just wanted whomever it was to be competent, determined, empowered, brave.

Michelle Howard is all those things, and she’s got 4 stars to prove it.  Which is 4 more than any of us have.

From what I’ve read about her, those 4 stars don’t prove anything to her though. She’s too busy doing her job to care.

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