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Three Sheets to the Winds of Change

On the morning of September 29, 2016, U.S. Navy commands around the world found in their inboxes NAVADMIN 218/16, an unclassified naval message which triumphantly announced Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ hard-fought victory over the restless ghost of Josephus Daniels in the battle to assume the ancient title of “Worst. SECNAV. Ever.” Considering Daniels prohibited the use of alcohol aboard U.S. Navy vessels in 1914, this was no small achievement.

Specifically, NAVADMIN 218/16 announced the replacement of so-called “ratings titles”—occupational labels for enlisted Sailors—with alphanumeric occupational codes used in the other armed services. A few of the rating titles, like Boatswain’s Mate and Gunner’s Mate, had been in use prior to the establishment of the U.S. Navy more than two centuries ago. The Navy was now playing fast and loose with history. Sailors and veterans balked.

More than 100,000 people signed a White House petition demanding the restoration of the ratings titles. The petition said that “for 241 Years Navy personnel have been identified by their Job specialty” and the tradition had been “senselessly erased.”

In a statement addressing the complaints, the White House defended the Navy’s actions, saying the modernization plan would bring “increased flexibility in training and assignments. It also affords our Sailors opportunities when transitioning to the civilian workforce by aligning their specialties with civilian occupations.”

Seems reasonable. But what the White House’s response didn’t specify—perhaps because the authors didn’t know—is that this reasoning is exactly why the Navy chose the system that worked so well up until September 29th of this year. The new system is the old system, minus all the fun heritage stuff which everybody liked.

During World War II, the Navy suffered the mid-twentieth-century equivalent of drunken online shopping and awoke to find itself with nearly two hundred distinct enlisted ratings, including Punched Card Accounting Machine Operators, Crystal Grinders, and Pigeon Trainers. In September 1945, the Bureau of Naval Personnel assembled officers, enlisted Sailors, and experienced civilians to study their unwieldy classification system.

NAVY

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

As a result, the Navy eliminated and consolidated many ratings, only adding a few to reflect the adoption of new technology, like guided missiles. Ratings were grouped under broad categories while alphanumerical codes differentiated between jobs which could be held by Sailors with the same rating. The Bureau regularly published tables of Navy-civilian occupational relationships, matching the naval occupations with one or more similar civilian jobs. It wasn’t the most elegant system ever devised, but it worked. (I like to imagine that somewhere far away in a dim and dusty VFW hall, a grizzled Punched Card Accounting Machine Operator sips his beer and nods solemnly at this judgment. Of course, behind him, the restless ghost of Josephus Daniels would be eyeing the man’s beer and shaking his head disapprovingly.)

At the time, the Navy didn’t dare eliminate the rating system, noting that rating “symbols and their description serve to offer tangible goals to the recruit, inhibit waste of skills, furnish convenient sense of stating needed skills, contribute to the morale of the individual by identification of a kindred group, and form the basis for training programs.”

Identification of a kindred group is at the heart of the matter. Mabus’ now looks a lot like it did in the age-of-sail. Back then, most Navy enlisted men were not given a rating. Instead, they were administratively categorized by rank. Boatswain’s Mates, Gunner’s Mates, and Quartermasters were a tiny fraction of the crew compared to those mustered in the books simply as Ordinary or Able Seamen. Back then, like today, a certain versatility was expected of Sailors. You had to be able to heave a line, serve on a gun crew, man a capstan, pull an oar, wield a boarding pike, and do all of this while desperately trying to avoid dying of tetanus as your perplexed surgeon looked on helplessly, shaking his head and wondering if he put enough grains of opium in your wine.

In the age of “effective immediately,” it is clear that the Navy’s heritage is changing quicker than ever before. The decision to eliminate ratings sets back enlisted esprit-de-corps by more than two hundred years. By the end of the decade, Sailors will wear woodland camouflage uniforms similar to those worn by other services. A fleet-wide message sent in 2013 even ended the timeless practice of sending messages in all capital letters (REST IN PEACE, TELETYPE MACHINES). And all this is happening as Sailors struggle to accept newly expanded roles for female and transgender shipmates. Thankfully we have the tetanus thing pretty much handled.

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