As the Obama administration this week named another warship after a politician, a new report is circulating in Congress that shows that nearly 200 Navy and Marine Corps Medal of Honor recipients have never been awarded such an honor, contrary to naval guidelines and tradition.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has named several ships after Democrats and liberal activists not connected to the military, was in Detroit on Monday to announce that an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer will be named the USS Carl M. Levin. The Michigan Democrat served 31 years in the Senate and chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee from 2007 to 2015.
The move has rankled some Republicans. They note privately the long list of war heroes yet to be so honored and the Navy’s own tradition of naming destroyers after deceased Medal of Honor recipients and other combat heroes, as well as admirals and generals who played significant roles in naval warfare.
Mr. Levin did not serve in the military.
In a new report privately delivered to lawmakers, the Congressional Research Service did an extensive examination this winter and found that, of 318 Medal of Honor recipients in the Navy and Marine Corps, 100 have had a ship named after them; the large majority of them — 186 — have not.
One congressional staffer noted that Mr. Levin presided over the committee during the Obama administration’s major drawdown of troops and weapons systems. Joint Chiefs of Staff officers testified in recent months that they doubt they can fight one major war on the schedule outlined in the National Military Strategy.
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The Levin naming did not conform to Mr. Mabus’ own guidelines set out in a report to Congress in 2012 called “Policies and Practices of the U.S. Navy for Naming the Vessels of the Navy.”
Congress demanded the accounting after Mr. Mabus had strayed from tradition on several warship namesakes.
The Navy report said its guideline calls for naming destroyers after deceased Navy and Marine Corps veterans and Navy secretaries.
An examination by The Washington Times of the 71 Arleigh Burke monikers shows Mr. Levin is the only one — except Winston Churchill — who does not meet the Navy guideline for destroyers. Most Arleigh Burke honorees are naval war heroes; a significant number earned the Medal of Honor. There are several Navy secretaries.
Capt. Patrick McNally, Mr. Mabus’ spokesman, told The Times: “He names ships for American heroes and considers Senator Levin’s long commitment to the nation worthy of recognition …. The naming conventions are guidelines set by the secretary. He can deviate from them if he desires.”
Capt. McNally said Mr. Mabus has named a number of destroyers after Medal of Honor recipients. They include the Ralph Johnson, the Thomas Hudner, the Harvey Barnum and the Daniel Inouye, the late Democratic senator from Hawaii.
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Mr. Mabus announced in January that an Expeditionary Sea Base will carry the name of Hershel “Woody” Williams, a World War II Medal of Honor recipient.
Other Senate Armed Services chairmen have been so honored for other ship classes.
The George W. Bush administration named a Virginia-class attack submarine after former Sen. John Warner, who also served as a Marine enlisted man in World War II and as a Navy secretary.
Democrat John C. Stennis of Mississippi, a legendary defense hawk, has an aircraft carrier in his name.
Democrat Richard B. Russell of Georgia championed defense spending as Armed Services chairman. Like Mr. Warner, his name is on an attack submarine.
In the House, the late Democratic congressman Carl Vinson has his name on an aircraft carrier because he championed a large, “blue water” Navy able to operate in all oceans.
“Carl Levin is no Carl Vinson, Richard Russell or John Stennis,” said a congressional defense staffer. “He has presided over the dismantlement of the U.S. military, which is an accomplishment for the Obama administration.”
Mr. Mabus, a former Democratic governor of Mississippi, has irked some Republicans for veering from tradition by naming warships after social activists and politicians with no link to the military.
Since the start of the Obama administration, Mr. Mabus has named combat logistics supply ships after civil rights leader Medgar Evers and leftist farmworker Cesar Chavez.
All previous Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships had been named for famous explorers or people who made significant contributions to the military, as called for in Navy conventions.
He named a littoral combat ship after former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, who was seriously wounded in a January 2011 assassination attempt.
He named a San Diego-class docking ship after another Democrat, the late Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania. The previous nine ships had been named after U.S. cities, a park and a county, following Navy conventions.
Mr. Murtha was a Marine in Vietnam and supported the defense budget. He angered the Marine community in 2005 when he charged that Marines had killed civilians “in cold blood” in the Iraqi village of Haditha.
In January Mr. Mabus again broke with past tradition. He named a fleet replenishment oiler, TAO-205, after civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, George Democrat. Mr. Lewis voted for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2007 and from Afghanistan in 2011.
Navy guidelines had said such ships are named for rivers or people instrumental to maritime and aviation design and production.
But Mr. Mabus changed the convention last year, saying the 17 oilers will be named after civil and human rights activists.
The 2012 Navy report to Congress stated: “The foregoing discussion helps preview one of the central themes of this report: US Navy ship naming policies, practices, and ‘traditions’ are not fixed; they evolve constantly over time.”
The Navy report also defended Mr. Mabus’ decision-making.
For example, it defended the naming of the Gabrielle Giffords: “Secretary Mabus was well aware that Congresswoman Giffords is much younger than those Members of Congress previously so honored and, as a result, her record does not equal theirs in numbers of years served or in the general level of attention applied to military or naval matters. He also knows from many visits to hospitals that hundreds of young service men and women have received wounds as grievous as Ms. Giffords’s, and agrees they all rightfully deserve respect and recognition. However, given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this case, he felt it both fitting and appropriate to exercise his discretion — established by the very first Secretary of the Navy over 210 years ago — to make an exception to a ship naming convention to honor Congresswoman Giffords.”
In an August 2009 ceremony to name a destroyer after Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, a posthumous Medal of Honor recipient for valor in Iraq, Mr. Mabus talked of the importance of a warship carrying a hero’s identity.
“Today, Jason takes his rightful place in naval history alongside his storied legacy in the annals of the Marine Corps,” he said. “Though Jason is no longer with us, his name will live on in this magnificent warship that represents the best our nation has to offer.
“Jason’s spirit — as a warrior, fighter and one who never gave up, even in the face of great challenges — lives on to lead all of the men and women who will ever serve aboard USS Jason Dunham, in home waters and abroad. In the fighting spirit of its namesake, the men and women of USS Jason Dunham will never back down from any challenge put before them.”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, on Tuesday sent a letter to Mr. Mabus asking him to explain his departure from convention in naming the Carl Levin.
“It is important that the Navy adhere to its own ship naming rules and takes every effort necessary to avoid politicization of this process,” Mr. Hunter said.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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