Last week, I had the honor to lecture aboard the USS Jason Dunham, our nation’s newest guided missile destroyer, somewhere in the North Atlantic. The ship is named after a young corporal who used his body to shield his comrades from an enemy grenade in Iraq and who subsequently died of his wounds. Dunham seems to have been the real-life inspiration for a similar scene in the recent film “Valor” and posthumously won the Medal of Honor. The crew of the USS Jason Dunham, I am told, has maintained a very close relationship with his family.
Naming a ship for Dunham is the right thing to do, but it should not be the exception to the rule. When President Obama named Ray Mabus the 75th Secretary of the Navy, Mabus distinguished himself by naming or proposing to name ships after political allies such as John Murtha, Gabrielle Giffords, and Cesar Chavez.
I had taken a helicopter to the USS Jason Dunham from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the flagship for Carrier Strike Group 8, on which I was living and teaching for about two weeks. I had always assumed that the Eisenhower was named for Eisenhower as president, but it was not: It was actually named for Eisenhower as general, back at a time when the Navy was honoring famous flag officers rather than politicians. (Its predecessor from which the class of carriers is named was the USS Nimitz, named after World War II-era Admiral Chester W. Nimitz). Prior to World War II, the traditions for naming ships were fairly clear. Aircraft carriers were named after battles (with Enterprise being the exception), battleships for states, cruisers for cities, submarines for marine life and only destroyers being named for individuals.
Alas, in subsequent years, it has become common to name ships after politicians, not only George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, but also George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Carl Vinson, and John C. Stennis. Now under construction, and the flagship for a new class of carrier, will be the USS Gerald Ford. Navy officers are quite open about the reason for choosing politicians’ names: the United States needs the ships to protect its national security, and Congress is much more open to approving ships named after politicians than after war heroes. Nothing could be a greater testament to the venality of Congress. Perhaps it’s time to memorialize Medal of Honors winners in the way they deserve, and make the USS Jason Dunham the first of many.