‘The average sailor has been politicized’: Interview with antiwar Navy veteran Jon Hutto

“Capt. Crozier’s action sharpened the contradiction inherent in military service, especially for the enlisted corps, who are by and large cannon fodder for the country’s imperialist missions abroad.” — Jon Hutto 

Workers World Managing Editor John Catalinotto conducted the following interview with antiwar Navy veteran Jon Hutto to discuss recent events on the USS Theodore Roosevelt where Hutto was assigned from 2004 to 2008. 

John Catalinotto: Jon, we first met in Norfolk in 2007 at a news conference where you announced a petition sailors had signed protesting the Iraq war.

As I remember, you were assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. That ship has been in the news again, as nearly 600 of its sailors tested positive for COVID-19. Tell our readers — few of whom have been on carriers — what it is like on that ship.

In background of Jon Hutto speaking is 1969 New York Daily News headline about a company of infantry troops who refused orders to go into battle in Vietnam.

Jon Hutto:  JCat, good to hear from you and respect your consistency over the years and decades. First, I spent more than four years within the United States Navy in one enlistment, a little over four years onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) known as the “TR” in the Navy, aka “The Big Stick,” from July 26, 2004, until Sept. 1, 2008.

I then spent the remainder of my time on shore duty as a mass community specialist for the Navy magazine, All Hands, from Nov. 1, 2008, until early May 2011. I separated honorably from the Navy on Aug. 16, 2011, after a total of 7 years, 7 months and 1 day.

Life aboard a carrier-in-port depending on your rate (your job) can be smooth sailing (not overly time consuming) especially in my rate (mass communications). Our job was telling the ship story through print, video, still photography, etc.

In port, we tended to get off somewhat early unless you have maintenance, extra duties, etc., if the carrier is not in workups-operational training mode for deployment or still in deployment mode. (There is an 11-month yard period for a carrier to build back up for deployment.)

However, once in deployment mode or fully deployed, it’s a full 24-hour operation out to sea. With the ship company plus air wing aboard, you’re talking roughly 5,000 sailors on ship. The aircraft carrier is the biggest ship in the Navy fleet.

JC: Is it possible to do “social distancing” aboard ship?

JH: Social distancing is beyond comprehension and not doable especially for the blue shirt enlisted sailor (rank E6 and below).

Enlisted sailors sleep in what’s known as racks, which are pretty much the average size of the human body. Berthing (sleeping space) is quite tight. Everything is tight on a ship all the way down to P-ways (passage ways), ladder-wells, workspaces.

Out to sea, with the air wing aboard, coming through that hangar bay, you’re literally walking with your head and full body on a swivel to avoid bumping into a jet plane and/or tripping over the chains that lock the jets in place.

I had a shipmate, Javier, who was taking pictures one time in the hanger. He came back to the shop with a black eye from having walked slap into a jet. The mess hall is tight, the heads (bathrooms), everything.  It’s beyond tight on a carrier and remember — this is the biggest ship in the Navy.

JC:  When we met at that 2007 press conference in Norfolk, Va., you were publicizing one of the best organized petition protests within the military during the U.S. war on Iraq. What was the attitude of the rank-and-file sailors at that time toward the war and the command?

JH:  From those sailors within my direct sphere, their disposition was either one of support or wishing us well on the endeavor. A few sailors were somewhat agnostic, some worried that there may be retaliation against me and others despite our knowledge of military regulations and support from civilian organizations such as Veterans For Peace and the Center for Conscience and War.

I only remember barely a handful being “Joe Navy” about the war. Reason being is probably more practical and less an extension of ideology.

The average young sailor has a spouse; many have young children. One of the most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever witnessed was those families in front of the ship before the sailors (mostly male) board for deployment (now nine months I understand; six and a half during my time). Their commitment to the Navy is mostly economic and very much connected to supporting their loved ones.

As for the Command of the Ship, during my time I had three captains, deployed under one of them. During my first yard period and workups, the late “Turk” Green was absolutely loved by the crew.  His LOVE for the Navy shined through and through, one of those captains that came up from the enlisted ranks. He would end his 1MC [ship’s public address system] announcements by saying, “I am the happiest sailor in the Navy, and that is all.”

The next CO was an Academy grad named Haley who was not as gristly as “Turk,” had a more subdued demeanor about him but definitely professional and the crew loved him − simply because during our deployment from Sept. 1, 2005-March 11, 2006, we got some pretty good port visits (spent XMAS 2005 in Dubai) and we got home safely.

The third CO, his name slips me, was embroiled in some unofficial scuttle-butt controversy due to having left the smoke decks open too long one night during work-ups for deployment. A huge wave hit the side of that ship, killing one sailor and injuring a few others.

I still see that particular sailor in my mind – SH was his rate − and he worked in the ship store. He had to be flown off the ship, died en route. It was the summer of 2008. The carrier can be very dangerous, especially for the enlisted sailor.

JC: And how did this compare with Capt. Brett Crozier, who was just cheered by the crew after being fired, and then the Acting Secretary of the Navy who fired Crozier in turn had to resign.

JH: A number of emotions and thoughts, John. First, I believe and know that the actions of Crozier are unprecedented based on my experiences as an enlisted sailor.  It is commonly known that every CO of an aircraft carrier strike group wants to make admiral. His job is to operate the carrier, maintaining a disciplined, obedient and well-trained fleet of sailors.

And if the CO is obedient to Navy top brass and executive leadership of the country, it almost guarantees them that career advancement. I was shocked to learn of an open letter that had gotten to the mass corporate media.

I was not shocked to learn that Crozier had been relieved from duty, nor was I shocked to see the mass of sailors supporting him as he departed the ship. If they were deeply forward deployed (I don’t know what stage they were in) — on average sailors can be out to sea 25-plus days without a port visit — working an average 16-hour day — not including “man overboard” and fire drills.

In the midst of a very tough work schedule coupled with COVID-19 hitting the ship, Crozier standing up for them is huge for ship morale.

Most important, however, is that Crozier’s action sharpened the contradiction inherent in military service, especially for the enlisted corps, who are by and large cannon fodder for the country’s imperialist missions abroad.

I would have to believe, based on the mass cheering for Crozier as he was departing, that the average deck plate sailor has been politicized by what has taken place, especially with the now former secretary of the Navy having attacked the CO on the 1MC to all the sailors on board.

The environment is beyond ripe for some organizing to take place within that ship, with a strong focus on the E5 and below, reminiscent of the GI-movement era, along with our work 10-plus years ago.

The E5 and below are the foundation of the ship’s operation. Absent the obedience and compliance of the deck plate sailor, no ship can operate.  The true power of the ship does not reside in the Captain, the Navy Secretary or the Joint Chiefs, but directly within the enlisted sailors below deck. As an organizer, I salivate thinking of the opportunity present here to build a movement.

JC: If you had an opportunity to talk to the crew of the Roosevelt, what would you say?

JH: In the spirit of the late Kwame Turé (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael) who supported the Fort Hood Three as chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) during the Vietnam era, I would strongly urge and advocate for the E5 and below (for those would be our target base) to organize, organize, organize!

I would begin to potentially expose and educate them on the historic movement struggle within the Navy they may not be aware of (the SOS movement of the early 1970s on the USS Constellation, dissenters such as Susan Schnall from the Vietnam era, along with the antiwar/antiracism work we did 10-plus years ago on the TR.)

This demonstrates the power of the working class within the military, connected to the struggle for the working class, both domestic and global, to bring the warmaking ruling class to its knees, serving as a spark and catalyst for our struggling class at this pivotal COVID-19 hour.

JC: If you had a chance to talk to people in the antiwar movement, those who oppose the U.S. military, what would you tell them about what their attitude should be toward the sailors?

JH:  In my conversations and dialogues over the years with antiwar movement activists, along with anti-oppression fighters overall, I remind those lacking a class analysis that the overwhelming majority of the military, enlisted in composition, come directly from the abandoned and marginalized working class of the United States.

These persons come largely from towns decimated by globalization, towns such as Steubenville, Ohio, and Flint, Mich. I remember in my shop on board, it felt like nearly a third of the sailors came from Ohio. They come from towns where the Military Recruitment Office is the major employer of young people.

At the end of the day, the greatest impulse of any person is to survive within the society. I would struggle with persons within the movement to make the distinction between those such as the Navy Secretary and the Joint Chiefs representing the ruling class and those forced to carry out orders based on economic need and compulsion — the enlisted ranks comprising the working class.

Lastly, we must look at history, which the late Malcolm X taught us is best prepared to reward our research. Based on the history of enlisted personnel dating back to the Vietnam era and beyond, their innate loyalty, as demonstrated in this crisis, is inherently with their families and their class.

The challenge is, whether we as organizers are prepared and trained enough, clearly understanding the timing of this present situation, to immerse ourselves deeply within that core, building the necessary relationships and solidarity to do as you have advocated over the years, John: Turn the guns, planes and bombs around and stand down. That is our challenge.

To contact Jon Hutto directly, email him at [email protected]. For his book, “Antiwar Soldier: How to Dissent Within the Ranks of the Military,” see online venders, and click on tinyurl.com/y9v4unxs and tinyurl.com/y8o9n5f9/ to follow his recorded statements. 

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