If you don’t follow the U.S. Naval Institute, you could be forgiven for not knowing that there are a lot of articles written by Naval Officers thinking about the future of seapower. Some are good, some are not, but the fact that we continue to have officers that at least think about the future is a good sign. Unfortunately, the USNI articles have morphed from thinking about integrating cyber in future maritime conflicts to increasingly focusing on cultural issues. The latest in this string of articles that includes delving into the LGBTQ culture of Newport, RI, and looking at the Confederate connections in the Naval Academy is a proposal to rename the USS JOHN C STENNIS (JCS).
The JCS is named after Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, the last Democrat Senator from that state and one of the longest serving Senators in US history. Senator Stennis has an interesting history, and LCDR (ret) Reuben Green focuses on racist comments that he made in 1956 along with his criminal behavior as trial prosecutor in Brown vs Mississippi. The fact that John Stennis was racist isn’t up for debate, and neither is the fact that racism is wrong. The notion that to correct this we need to rename the JCS when she pulls in for a refit though is stupid.
Anytime we name anything after a human being, its going to cause controversy. The Navy named a replenishment oiler after Harvey Milk, who took plenty of controversial actions, including outing the homosexuality of a Marine that acted to save President Ford’s life for his own political gain. We also have a USS Gabrielle Giffords, who voted in favor of limiting sales of assault weapons, which more than a few military members own and use without issue in their personal lives.
Any human being we’re going to name ships after is going to offend someone. Should we rename the USNS Maury, who despite contributing much to the study of weather and oceanography, fought in the Confederate Navy? Or the USNS Cesar Chavez, who advocated against immigration? Should we look deeper into the Kennedy family, which has plenty of skeletons in the closet and has two ships named after John and Robert Kennedy?
There are two ways to solve this. The first is to try and pick completely non-controversial names. We can name ships after battles, cities, states and even fish (which might include bumblebees if you’re a resident of California). The other option is to continue naming ships after people, with the understanding that sometimes these people will let you down. Especially with an increasing digital trail that follows everyone, its likely that anyone in the future will have said something controversial that was captured in a video, social media post or a published article.
This brings up a larger question: As a society, can we accept that people are multi-faceted and will have things we both like and dislike about them? I want to answer “Yes” to this question. While Martin Luther King Jr. had extra-marital affairs that I don’t agree with, he should be celebrated for his work in desegregating America. I can accept that Matthew Maury was a brilliant scientist that advanced our understanding of weather and oceanography while also disagreeing with his choice to serve in the Confederate Navy.
We become less human when we attempt to create binary heroes that are all good or all bad. Renaming the JCS would open the door to renaming other ships, creating a very political process that will sway depending on who is in power, and is a door best left shut.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.