When I was a young man, the duties of a United States Navy machinist’s mate were demanding in execution, but conceptually uncomplicated. The job entailed converting various types of fossil fuels into the mechanical energy needed to propel a warship through the water.
I was a machinist’s mate. It was fun. It was also hard, dirty work of the sort that bonds those who do it well. Any job well done is a source of pride, but in the Navy of the early 1960s, doing the machinist’s mate’s job poorly might have had lethal consequences. As a result, we worked together, we went ashore together, and we drank together. Because that sort of thing can lead to bad behavior, sometimes we wore black eyes together. No fraternity brothers were ever tighter.
In the Navy, a job is called a “rate,” and there are dozens, if not scores, of rates on every ship: engineman, electrician’s mate, yeoman, gunner’s mate, torpedoman, fire controlman, quartermaster, and so on. Each rate has its own ethos, each is its own fraternity; taken together, they comprise a crew. In my day, no ship ever left port without its complement of hospital corpsmen—in the Army they’d have been called medics. The job essentially was dedicated to providing the difference between life and death when circumstances warranted, so no rate was held in higher esteem, and no shipmate was more respected. It wasn’t hard to imagine the shudder that swept the fleet back in 2010, when President Obama, speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast, mispronounced the word “corpse man.” It must have been particularly jarring to the countless U.S. Marine combat veterans whose lives had been saved by corpsmen on bullet-torn battlefields around the world. Anybody can make a mistake, of course, but sometimes little things reveal a lot. The administration’s ignorance of military practices and culture was exceeded only by its eagerness to change them.
At the top of Obama’s agenda was the full integration of women into the armed forces, including, finally, into tip-of-the-spear infantry units and special operations organizations. Willfully dismissive of the fact that sometimes biology is destiny, the Defense Department plowed ahead. In the process, it plowed under the certainty that combat is a Darwinian enterprise, where the strongest generally win and weaklings too often die.
Now comes word that another Obama-era experiment to change military culture has come to an abrupt end. Earlier this year, the Navy announced its decision to scrap the 240-year-old rate system in favor of what Navy secretary Ray Mabus termed a gender-neutral approach. “[T]his is an opportunity to update the position titles and descriptions themselves,” he said, “to demonstrate through this language that women are included in these positions.” With the stroke of a pen, Obama was prepared to bid goodbye to a practice that had defined life in the United States Navy since its founding. There would be no more firecontrolmen, no more yeomen, no more enginemen, no more torpedomen, and no more corpsmen (a particularly cruel cut).
The blowback from sailors and veterans was immediate and substantial. Officials said they had underestimated the fleet’s affection for the old way. The new program was rescinded by the Navy Tuesday night. Whether it would have been rescinded had Hillary Clinton been elected president is anybody’s guess. Probably not, especially if anyone other than former Marine Corps general James Mattis had been named defense secretary. He is, shall we say, a traditionalist.
Venerable institutions shouldn’t be hog-tied by nostalgia. If change is to the good, then it should be embraced, though with deference and respect. Still, tradition has its role. This is especially true in military organizations, where custom, cohesion, and comradeship can make an existential difference.
The Navy’s machinist’s mates have always understood that. It’s a pity that the Pentagon didn’t.
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