Tommy Ruberville
“Coach’ Tommy Tuberville. Image from his Twitter page

Sen. Tommy Tuberville continues to garner headlines for his defiant decision to hold up Senate confirmation of some 300 military promotions. He is doing so to protest the Defense Department’s policy of providing service members with paid leave and covering travel costs to get an abortion in another state.

The Alabama Republican has incurred the wrath of high ranking Defense officials, who claim his political stunt threatens military readiness. Last week, the secretaries of the Army, Air Force, and Space Command published a joint letter claiming Tuberville’s actions have damaged the military, and the Secretary of the Navy went to far as to comment separately that the Senator is “aiding and abetting communist and other autocratic regimes.” 

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However, Tuberville has not budged. In fact, a few days ago he took his confrontational attitude a step further by accusing the U.S. Navy of needing to eliminate “wokeness,” citing as a bizarre piece of evidence that “we’ve got people doing poems on aircraft carriers over the loudspeaker.”

Though MAGA Republicans are obsessed by the term, I don’t want to go through the useless mental exercise of defining what Tuberville means by “wokeness.” Furthermore, I’d prefer not to squander another minute figuring out why poetry on an aircraft carrier has assumed such negative connotations for a politician, especially one who never served a day in the military. And neither should any other American voter seriously concerned with the Navy’s ability to project power around the globe. 

If the Senator was serious about critiquing the Navy he could find much of significance to focus on. Unfortunately, Tuberville’s silly headline grabbing antics, especially his absurd accusations of Navy “wokeness” (whatever that means) do little but distract the country’s attention from demanding resolution of some of the critical problems that have plagued the Navy during the past 20 years. These problems have gone largely ignored by the average American voter, but are now deemed even more consequential in light of a more aggressive China.   

As a retired high school teacher, I could spend time convincing people of the value of poetry by discussing how my advanced placement English literature classes studied a few of the war poets of World War I, how they carefully dissected the poignant words produced by these soldiers, and how my students benefitted from the experience. I don’t recall the term “wokeness” (whatever that means) ever coming up in these study sessions.

As a retired Marine Corps officer and long-time military history buff, I could point out the 22nd Commandant of the Marine Corps — David Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient — was known for writing poetry. Furthermore, I could also refer to a couple biographies that cite Gen. George Patton as enjoying the reading and writing of poetry, and how “he would often recite poetry as part of the dinnertime conversations.”

But if I were an elected official interested in holding the Navy accountable for maintaining an effective fighting force and being a wise steward of taxpayer dollars, or a concerned American voter serious about wanting officials at the Pentagon held accountable for making sure the Navy did its job, I would seek to avoid being distracted by this absurd claim of wokeness and its purported connection to servicemembers reading poetry.

I would rather invest my time asking defense officials to explain why beginning in 2003 the Navy made a tremendous mistake in its shipbuilding plans by emphasizing the production of littoral combat ships. These ships have proved an engineering failure, developing a reputation for breaking down and possessing weapons systems that never worked. Each of these 23 ships have cost more than twice their original estimate, and the Navy has found itself mothballing some after just 10 years, long before the expected lifespan of 25 years. The lightly armed ships are incapable of playing a legitimate role in combat against China. Voters need to know how the Navy is compensating for this weakness. 

I might also spend time asking defense officials why the Navy was recently unable to provide the necessary amphibious shipping required for the Marine Corps to respond to recent events in Sudan or Turkey. Debate continues as to whether the shortfall is due to faulty Marine Corps planning for what constitutes an adequate number of amphibious ships, or Navy intransigence in wanting to spend less on these kinds of ships than new ballistic missile submarines. However, the matter should be of concern to voters who expect the Marine Corps to maintain its reputation of readiness and responsiveness — the nation’s tip of the sword based on its amphibious capabilities.  

Finally, instead of worrying about sailor poetry readings, I would be pressing defense officials to explain what admirals are doing to improve Navy SEAL candidate training, and how they initially allowed it to deteriorate. As explained in the Navy Times, a recently concluded investigation of the training program, based in Coronado, was found to be “plagued by widespread failures in medical care, poor oversight and the use of performance enhancing drugs, which have increased the risk of injury and death to those seeking to be elite commandos.” 

American voters are easily distracted. They are easily drawn to the sudden, the exotic, and the sensational. When on the internet, they eagerly direct their attention to such click-bait headlines. More complicated matters occurring gradually over time are frequently ignored until it’s too late. That helps in part to explain our propensity for overlooking or failing to understand the significance of the kind of long, drawn-out Navy problems listed above — problems that have festered during both Republican and Democrat administrations.

However, if Senator Tommy Tuberville was sincerely interested in military readiness — as elected officials from both parties should be — he wouldn’t waste time diverting already limited taxpayer attention from addressing important issues. The inane criticism of wokeness (whatever that means) and sailors reading poetry can easily capture the spotlight for MAGA politicians, but with China posing a threat, we can ill afford such silly distractions.

Like the protagonist in the poem Casey at the Bat, we need to keep our eye on the ball. In doing so, we can better hold accountable not just the Navy, but all components of the military-industrial complex. 

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.