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Book Review of: Troubled Water

Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk

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Review of Troubled Water, by Gregory A. Freeman (Softcover, 2009)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


Troubled Water provides us with a reality-based fictional account of the race riots aboard an aircraft carrier in 1972. Though it's mostly well-told, the narrative at times is choppy and confusing. But the author keeps the story moving and the reader engaged.

It's obvious the author interviewed many of the people involved. That couldn't have been easy to do. The logistics of tracking down people and getting them to talk are always daunting. Sifting through people's recounting with the inevitable inaccuracies that occur when depending on human memory is nearly impossible to do well. One technique that journalists use is to look for consistencies for the acceptance of material and inconsistencies for the rejection of it, but that technique is far from infallible.

It's likely that, with some exceptions, the story took place pretty much the way the author tells it (though some of the author's conclusions and assertions are clearly false). The exceptions must obviously include most of the actions of the Captain and of the XO, because the only sources for knowing those actions are the Captain and the XO.

That's a mistake, if one is trying to determine what actually happened. It doesn't appear that Freeman wanted to know. We all look back on our own actions and see them more favorably than reality dictates, and that's just human nature. We are all above average drivers, right?

While there were some written sources (e.g., Congressional testimony records and the book, "Black Sailor, White Navy"), the sources were overwhelmingly interviews of the participants. More than three and a half decades later. The author's technique of relying on individuals to accurately recount what they did reminds me of the joke, "Bob's the most honest guy I know. If you don't believe me, just ask him."

And what about asking people to just relate what they saw? That's also a flawed approach. The literature on eye witness testimony is clear that people just do not remember accurately. In fact, people "remember" things that didn't even happen. Despite being false, these memories are so vivid that the people who recount them have no idea they aren't telling the truth. Ask any police detective, if you want to know how unreliable eye witnesses are especially after much time has passed.

Since the author did not include an appendix explaining his research methods (such that they are), interviewing techniques, or investigative steps, we can assume he failed to ask the probing questions that are necessary for getting the truth. The evidence backing that assumption permeates the book.

Nor does he have a section that explains factual conflicts and how he sorted them out. No mention of any of this, anywhere. These kinds of things are essential parts of historical research. Which is why you find them in historical books written as research pieces into what actually happened. When these are missing, you then do not have an historical account. You have a novel. No problem there, unless you are presenting your novel as an historical account. Which is what Freeman is doing here. Worse, he's accusing named individuals of a specific capital crime.

This book is a novel based on recollections told long after the incident took place. It makes for a good story, but the lack of things previously mentioned mean this book can't be called nonfiction. It's a novel based on an actual incident. Readers of Tom Clancy know that such a story can be engaging and educational, but all the same it's a work of fiction.

This book has other editorial integrity issues, too. For one thing, the author pulls the same stunt that caused me to stop reading newspapers back in the early 1980s. That stunt is one of quoting sources for their opinions on issues that they are unqualified to comment on, while failing to quote anyone who knows the subject or whose opinion isn't in lock-step with the disinformation the author wishes to spread.

In this case, the subject is mutiny. That term has a reserved meaning that is not open to interpretation. It's a legal term, yet the author doesn't use any legal professionals to define it. Instead, he quotes laymen. Nowhere did the author quote a qualified source for the definition of this term. Yet, the main theme of the book was that a mutiny took place. The author does not have the freedom to redefine words so that he can subsequently make a statement that is true only by his definition but actually fraudulent.

Another problem is the numbers don't add up. The author should have done a better job of explaining the scope of the rioting. He made it sound as if far more people were rioting than actually were. I think that's because he was trying to get across his assertion that a mutiny took place. But inflating one set of facts because you don't have another isn't the way to prove a point.

Because he was so cavalier with the definition of such a serious word as "mutiny," I don't trust other information he presented. Did sailors really do what he claims they did while on shore leave, or is he playing fast and loose with definitions there as well? We have no way of knowing.

However, I give the author some credit in the editorial integrity department. The trend in recent years has been for authors of allegedly non-fiction works to insert their disinformation-based personal political views into the book, no matter what the topic. It's refreshing to see this abuse left out of a book, for a change. Still, he's a long way off from producing an historical account or even writing objectively.

What we can come away with from this book as factual is basically that rioting took place on an aircraft carrier and the subsequent fallout ruined the careers of two excellent Naval officers and ruined some other careers as well. We can also take away from this the fact that Captain Townsend and Commander Cloud (the XO) sacrificed for their country. The author notes this in reference to Cloud in the final paragraph of the book.

We can also come away with the knowledge that this incident was instrumental in fixing several key racial problems in the US Navy.

What we cannot come away with from this book is that there was a mutiny aboard this ship in 1972. Only a few years after this event, I coincidentally had formal classroom study of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. One of my instructors was a US Navy Captain, and he only briefly mentioned "protests" aboard US Navy vessels during the Vietnam "Conflict." Mutiny is a grave charge. Literally. If convicted, the accused almost certainly faces the death penalty.

It seems implausible that the author somehow didn't know this before completing the book, especially after interviewing two former US Navy Captains. Surely he ran into somebody who was UCMJ-literate and set the record straight on this.

The author owes certain people a public apology for publicly wishing them dead. I looked online and couldn't find any such apology. It may be only a matter of time before someone he's victimized this way starts a civil suit against him and settles out of court for a handsome sum.

The false accusations of mutiny made by some of the very people he used as sources are exactly why the Navy was eager to have this whole incident forgotten. The Navy wasn't trying to hide a mutiny. It was trying to prevent further damage due to the presentation of false accusations as fact.

The author should have decided if he wanted a novel or an historical account. With the mutiny angle, he was ethically obligated to change the names of the crew and the ship to fictional ones. If he had wanted to write a non-fiction account, he was ethically obligated to leave the concept of mutiny out because there was no mutiny. He should have just told what happened instead of embellishing it and trying to pass it off as fact.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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