The U.S. Navy's Name Game

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Prospective parents battling over the names of their unborn kids have nothing on the U.S. Navy, which is in the middle of a spat over the wisdom of naming a new ship for the late Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha. In fact, it has kicked off a bigger battle over just who, or what, should be honored with their names on the great gray hulls of the nation’s warships. “It comes down to two points,” says military historian James Caiella. “Who and what we are as Americans, and what symbols do we want to represent those ideals?”

On one side of the issue is Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who by tradition actually gets to pick the names. “Both in uniform and in the halls of Congress, Chairman Murtha dedicated his life to serving his country both in the Marine Corps and Congress,” he said last spring, 11 weeks after Murtha, who won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam as a Marine, died. “His unwavering support of our sailors and Marines, and in particular of our wounded warriors, was well known and deeply appreciated.”

But Mabus’ decision has unleashed a continuing torrent of opposition from many former sailors and Marines. They say that naming a vessel for Murtha rewards a lawmaker who called for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in late 2005 during the war’s toughest days, and one who was implicated in bribery and pork-barrel politics. On Friday, a former congressional aide close to Murtha was sentenced to 27 months in prison for evading limits on campaign donations; Murtha also was an “unindicted co-conspirator” in 1980’s FBI-run Abscam sting.

And that isn’t the worst of it, according to sailors and Marines: putting Murtha’s name on an amphibious warship designed to carry 700 Marines is outrageous, they maintain, given Murtha’s 2006 charge that Marines in the Iraqi city of Haditha “killed innocent civilians in cold blood.” (One of the eight Marines charged in the case still faces trial; six have had their charges dismissed and one was acquitted.) “Name a ship after a congressman who disgraced himself by rushing to judge that fellow Marines had committed murder in Iraq?”  Thomas Wilkerson, a retired Marine major general who now heads the non-profit U.S. Naval Institute, which advocates for the military’s maritime services, said Sunday. “Can you be serious?”

More than 200 people complained of the decision in comments to the Navy announcement, and two Facebook groups cropped up with thousands opposed to the decision. “As active duty lieutenant commander, I would resign my commission before accepting orders to this misnamed ship,” one purported officer posted anonymously on the Navy’s official website.

The independent naval journal Proceedings, published by the Naval Institute, has jumped into the fray. In November, Caiella complained about the choice of Murtha — as well as the growing trend to name ships for politicians, living or dead, in general. “The Navy should use names that are apolitical and historical,” he wrote. “Political names immediately alienate a large segment of the population, often with passion that does not fade with time.”

Letters in the January issue of the magazine agree. “The Navy’s scheme for naming ships, especially capital ships like carriers and subs, has become a joke,” writes Douglas Pauly, recalling when carriers were named for battles, battleships for states, cruisers for cities, destroyers for people, and submarines for marine life. Traditionalists like the convenience of such categories, where knowing the name of a vessel instantly declares what kind of ship it is.

Beyond that, Caiella argues ships’ names mean something. “What is the impact of a headline saying, `USS America Visits Here’ in the native language of the port, compared with that of the name Vinson, or Bush?” he wonders. “Some countries may not be too happy to see a Bush in port.” And, he argues, ships named Freedom or United States are better recruiting tools than those with names like those honoring the late senators Henry Jackson of Washington state (whose name graces the only ballistic-missile submarine not named for a state) or John Stennis of Mississippi (who shares his name with a carrier).

The Navy loves nothing if not tradition, but the barnacle-encrusted rules for naming ships have been sand-blasted clean. Mabus broke with tradition in naming the 10th ship of the San Antonio class: the Murtha will sail in the wake of the San Antonio, New Orleans, Mesa Verde, Green Bay, New York, San Diego, Anchorage, Arlington and Somerset. But so did his predecessor, Don Winter, who announced in January 2009 that the 12th Virginia-class submarine would be named for John Warner, a former Navy secretary who had retired as a Virginia senator five days earlier. His namesake follows Virginia, Texas, Hawaii, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Missouri, California, Mississippi, Minnesota and North Dakota into the deep.

The Congressional Research Service, which advises lawmakers on the darker corners of U.S. government operations, recently took note of the confusion. “Some observers in recent years have perceived a breakdown in, or corruption of, the rules for naming Navy ships,” it said. “For example, the three-ship Seawolf (SSN-21) class of attack submarines—Seawolf (SSN-21), Connecticut (SSN-22), and Jimmy Carter (SSN-23)—were named for a fish, a state, and a president, respectively, reflecting no apparent rule.”

Work on the Murtha has begun, although it’s years away from sailing. A spokesman for Mabus says the Navy secretary has no plans to reverse course. He believes that “the naming honors Congressman Murtha’s lifetime of service to the Marine Corps, in Congress and to our nation.” Of course, sailors and Marines, used to being ignored by the brass, are coming up with their own names for the Murtha. Right now, USS Cold Blooded Killers seems to be their top choice.