On Saturday, the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and the world’s largest warship, will be retired. After almost exactly 51 years of service, she will be “inactivated,” the stage prior to formal decommissioning, at a ceremony expected to attract 15,000 guests. The great ship is already being stripped of all usable equipment, and will then be cut open to extract the eight nuclear reactors. Contrary to prior reports, Shatner will not be at the ceremony.
Having missed seeing Sinatra or Bill Monroe before their deaths, I was determined to see the Enterprise before she sails to the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns. So I drove down to Norfolk this week and toured the ship, sat in the captain’s chair on the bridge (naturally), and spent some time talking with assorted sailors (quite a few of them Star Trek fans). There were lots of Enterprise veterans in town for the ceremony, and a time capsule was set up for them to submit notes or mementos to be presented to the next Enterprise, the ninth in our fleet that would bear that name.
The time capsule added an additional note of melancholy. Because, you see, there may never be another Enterprise. The next carrier under construction is the USS Gerald R. Ford (no disrespect to the man, but don’t get me started on ship names), and it’s scheduled for delivery in 2015. The next one, the USS John F. Kennedy (the second carrier named after him), is supposedly planned for 2020, but may be delayed at least a couple of years. There’s a petition to name the one after that, CVN-80, planned for delivery around 2025, Enterprise.
But with our being the brokest nation in history, that may be a carrier too far. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Roman history, but when I saw the time capsule I kind of felt like a Romano-Briton being told by the departing legions that they’d be right back. I fear that our coming national bankruptcy will lead, not to a much more limited and focused foreign policy backed by an incomparably lethal military, but rather to a weak, distracted force in the service of a weak and distracted foreign policy. The Afghans, Syrians, Burmese, Bosnians, and Malians (!) should be left to work out their own destinies, but as a quasi-island nation, the United States will always need a large and powerful Navy. But as we approach banana republic-dom, I fear we’ve seen the high-water mark of our mastery of the seas.