America’s “longest war”—now in its eleventh year in Afghanistan—has proved a source of frustration to policymakers, military strategists, and academics alike. Hypotheses abound about why American progress appears sluggish. Everything from failed tactical objectives, fractured civil-military relations, and an unbridgeable cultural divide have been scrutinized.
One theory, postulated by Thomas Ricks, an author and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, suggests that “serially rotat[ing] our top war commanders” on an almost-annual basis has contributed to this stagnation. Writing in a New York Times op-ed article, Ricks notes that there have been 11 officers to lead the war effort in 11 years. “Rotating troops is appropriate,” he observes, “especially when entire units are moved in and out.” However, replacing commanders is inefficient and counterproductive.
Ricks may have it backwards: Perhaps the reason why the U.S. has not fully met its operational goals in Afghanistan is precisely because the military is not rotating its top commanders through the country with sufficient frequency. One need only look at U.S. naval operations during the latter part of WWII to find a useful case study for how pragmatically swapping theater commanders yielded myriad benefits in prosecuting the war.
In February, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus approved the name of the newest Littoral Combat Ship for Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Congresswoman who was critically injured in a January 2011 shooting in her Tucson district. Today, in what will be a decidedly less controversial decision, the Secretary should consider naming the next Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier after American hero, icon, and patriot Neil Armstrong. This is fully in keeping with the Secretary’s report to Congress on the policies and practices of naming Navy ships.
Though we never met, I feel a particularly close bond to the first man to walk on the moon. I was born and raised in West Lafayette, Indiana—home of Purdue University, where Armstrong studied and received a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering in 1955. After the U.S. Naval Academy, Purdue has educated more astronauts (22) than any other school, including Eugene Cernan, a fellow naval officer and the last man to walk on the moon in 1972. My high school stands less than a mile from the campus’s Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering; a bronze statue of Armstrong as a student graces its plaza.
The decision last Friday by Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus to name the newest littoral combat ship the USS Gabrielle Giffords was met with widespread opposition, and active duty service members, retirees, and even civilians have not been shy in voicing their discontent. Upon closer inspection, however, much of this displeasure appears unjustified.
First, detractors claim Secretary Mabus’s decision to name a ship after Congresswoman Giffords was unabashedly political and, therefore, inappropriate. The authority to name Navy ships traditionally rests exclusively with the Navy Secretary, who acts as a representative of the President and within the boundaries legislated by Congress. Like nearly all decisions made inside the Beltway, this process can be influenced by sensitive—but palpable—political considerations. As a political appointee, it is not unreasonable to expect the Secretary to weigh political ramifications in his decision-making (though, in this instance, there is no proof such an analysis took place).
Even if this decision was made based on politics alone, it would not be without precedent: Other ships which commemorate congressmen with military ties include Carl Vinson (“father of the two-ocean navy”), John Stennis (“father of the modern American Navy”), and John Murtha (longtime House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman) to name a few. In the 1960s, the politically savvy Admiral Hyman Rickover even persuaded the Secretary to name four submarines after congressmen who supported his nuclear program.
Second, opponents argue Congresswoman Giffords had no association with the Navy and is, therefore, undeserving of such an honor. This argument is specious for several reasons: Rep. Giffords’s husband is a career Naval Officer and astronaut; she was the only sitting Member of Congress whose spouse was serving on active duty, earning her a de facto place in the Navy family; and she served on the House Armed Services Committee, where she was a consistent and steadfast supporter of the military—and the Navy in particular. During her tenure, she introduced pioneering legislation aimed at expanding mental health services for veterans; requiring the military to cut its dependence on fossil fuels; and relieving housing financial pressures for service-members.
Third, some note that the namesake does not fit the naming convention for the ship’s class (other littoral ships are named for moderately-sized cities) and that ships are not typically named after living people. Both arguments hold merit; however, the littoral ship class’s naming convention was already disjointed (the first ship is called the Freedom). Moreover, it is not the first class of ships to have non-uniformed naming: Ticonderoga-class cruisers were named for famous battles (except the USS Thomas Gates) and Ohio-class submarines were named for states (except the USS Henry M. Jackson). Additionally, the USS Giffords will not be the first ship named for a living person: Active ships in the naval register include the USS George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and John Warner, and many other ships were named or christened for individuals who were, at the time, alive.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, critics claim that Rep. Giffords was a “victim” and not a “hero” and that, consequently, her case does not pass a phantom ship naming litmus test. To be sure, defining a “hero” is difficult and subjective. The sad reality is that after a decade of war, there are far more military heroes deserving of such recognition than there are ships awaiting a namesake. However, the decision to name a ship after Rep. Giffords was likely less about memorializing the victims of the violence in Tucson than it was about acknowledging the fundamentally democratic activity in which she and her constituents were participating when she was attacked. For a profession whose leaders swear to support and defend the Constitution, what better way to commemorate the set of cherished principles that are at the core of our democracy than to honor a courageous and persevering public servant who personified them?
The name also honors the indomitable spirit and grace that Rep. Giffords has displayed in her remarkable comeback. USS Giffords will carry this sense of purpose with her wherever she sails and the ship will stand ready to guard the principles of liberty—at any cost.
Though the decision to name the newest littoral combat ship after Gabrielle Giffords was not without controversy, it is an appropriate way to honor a strong supporter of the United States Navy and is a fitting tribute to the ideals that make our imperfect democracy the world’s standard-bearer. Indeed, we should take care to heed Abraham Lincoln’s patriotic warning: “A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”