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The Capt. Crozier Controversy: This Is What Dysfunction Looks Like
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The Capt. Crozier Controversy: This Is What Dysfunction Looks Like

American military dominance depends on military courage and competence.

I believe that the relief of Capt. Brett Crozier from his command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most important sub-stories of the entire coronavirus outbreak. It lifts the lid (again) on profound dysfunction in one of the most important commands in the United States military, it illuminates competing ideas of duty and honor, and it may well sound an ominous warning about our military readiness and strategic deterrence. And it’s all taking place in a fog-of-war environment where the public (and perhaps even the decision-makers) lack knowledge of all the material facts.

Let’s break this down, step-by-step, complete with my preliminary conclusions each step of the way.

Step 1: Capt. Crozier intentionally lights his career on fire.

On March 30, Capt. Crozier drafted a remarkable memorandum detailing the emerging coronavirus crisis on his ship. The memo was remarkable not so much for its substance (candid communications up the chain of command are necessary) but for its distribution. He sent it to “senior military officials” outside his chain of command, and—predictably—the letter was in the hands of the San Francisco Chronicle by April 2, triggering a national controversy.

Military and civilian friends tended to have different reactions to the memo. Civilians read it and were shocked at the allegedly ineffective care and quarantining in a ship where dozens of sailors tested positive for COVID-19. Current and former members of the military were concerned about the condition of the Theodore Roosevelt, but they were also shocked that a carrier captain would go outside the chain of command and—perhaps more importantly—raise questions about the readiness of a vital American military asset in an unclassified memorandum that was perhaps designed to be leaked to the press. 

Yes, he tried to assure readers in his very first sentence that his ship was ready to sail and fight if necessary. But the entire remainder of the memorandum cast doubt on that assertion. And make no mistake, when a U.S. carrier is combat ineffective that impairs American military strength in the Pacific. A carrier is not a destroyer. It’s the cornerstone of American naval strength.

That’s why I say Capt. Crozier lit his career on fire. Why would he go outside the chain of command and broadcast potential military weakness? Why would a respected officer with webs of relationships throughout the Navy—a man on a fast track to promotion to rear admiral (the logical next step for a successful carrier captain)—violate two military taboos?

The least likely explanation is that he panicked. While there are times when even the best officers crumble in the face of an unexpected challenge, a meltdown of that magnitude is extraordinarily rare. As a general matter, members of the military do not chant the names of commanders who panic under pressure:

The better explanation is that he was concerned enough about the command response to the coronavirus crisis that he intentionally sacrificed his career to protect his crew. 

If concern is the explanation, was Capt. Crozier’s concern legitimate? That’s for a thorough investigation to determine, but any story about controversy in the Pacific Fleet is incomplete without the context of the recent, dreadful command and training failures that have cost sailors’ lives and almost sunk two warships in almost-unthinkable collisions with civilian shipping. 

If you have time to spare, I’d urge you to read ProPublica’s indispensable series, “Disaster in the Pacific.” In extraordinary (and sometimes second-by-second) detail, it demonstrates how a series of cascading failures led to deadly accidents on the high seas. The immediate subjects of the stories are the collisions themselves. But they take place against a deeply disturbing backdrop of systematic problems. 

Read the entire series. It’s chilling, and it helps explain why a commander may have rationally believed that his chain of command was not adequately responding to an emerging crisis. 

Time will tell if Capt. Crozier’s action was recklessly irresponsible or a noble sacrifice. It seems clear that his sailors thought it was that latter, and that’s very relevant to what happened next.

Step 2: The Navy acts reasonably to relieve Capt. Crozier from command.
It’s not necessary to spend too much time on this step. Let’s put it this way, I would have been amazed if Capt. Crozier wasn’t relieved after violating those two taboos. Moreover, it’s hardly unusual to remove a commander before an investigation is complete. Relief often happens the very instant a commander loses confidence in a subordinate. I saw it happen in Iraq. It’s common throughout military history. 

An investigation may vindicate Capt. Crozier’s underlying concerns, and it may even vindicate his belief that the only reasonable way to respond to those concerns was to send the memo he sent, but nonetheless the rules that mandate pursuing the chain of command outside of certain, defined circumstances, and the rules that mandate preserving operational security about the status of the force are valid and necessary. 

Relieving Capt. Crozier vindicates those rules. The follow-on investigation, by contrast, will represent an after-action review that could preserve the captain’s honor and legacy even if it’s unlikely to resurrect his career. 

Step 3: The acting secretary of the Navy then burns down his own career.
This is where the story gets truly dysfunctional. It’s one thing for a captain of a ship to make a noble sacrifice (if that’s what the evidence proves) for his crew. It’s one thing for the Navy to then understandably enforce its rules and norms. It’s another thing entirely for the acting secretary of the Navy to travel to the Theodore Roosevelt and deliver an unhinged, insulting screed to the very crew that just cheered the captain he now condemns. 

But that’s exactly what Acting Secretary Thomas Modly did. You can read the transcript of his speech, but to capture its essence, you really need to listen to it (along with the sailors’ contemporaneous reactions). It starts out reasonably enough, but then it degenerates into a self-pitying tirade that includes an allegation that Capt. Crozier may have been “too naïve or stupid” to command. Modly attacks the media, complains about the treatment he’s received because of his decision to remove Capt. Crozier, and raises an odd comparison of the fear of COVID-19 to a hypersonic missile attack on the ship. 

Ironically enough, Modly launched this attack on the media even while he was in the midst of his own self-justifying media blitz, which included a  phone call to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius that indicated he was thinking not just about Navy rules and norms. He was also keeping one eye on the White House when he relieved Crozier:

“I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive,” Modly told me in a telephone call from Hawaii at about 1 a.m. Sunday, Washington time. He continued: “If I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn’t taking action itself.”

More:

Modly explained that his predecessor, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president” in the Gallagher case. “I didn’t want that to happen again.” The acting secretary reiterated the point later in the conversation: “I put myself in the president’s shoes. I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions [in the Gallagher case and the Spencer firing]. I didn’t want that to happen again.”

But the president’s opinions may not be so predictable. On Saturday, Trump made his displeasure with Capt. Crozier clear, telling reporters “I thought it was terrible, what he did, to write a letter. I mean, this isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered. And he shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.” 

But yesterday—after the sailors cheered Crozier and after Modly’s remarks to the crew created an online firestorm, Trump was much more conciliatory:

Trump said Crozier “did a bad thing” by sending the letter, but added that “people have bad days.”

“We’ll take a look at it,” Trump said during a White House press conference on the global pandemic. “… I like to solve problems—it’s a problem. I don’t want to see men hurt, women hurt, I don’t want to see people hurt unnecessarily. Maybe we can solve it easily where, you know, it’s not a life-changing thing.”

Hours later, Modly apologized for his remarks on the Theodore Roosevelt, and earlier this afternoon, he tendered his resignation to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.

Modly’s resignation was entirely appropriate. His speech to the Theodore Roosevelt crew seemed almost perfectly designed not just to inflame tensions but also to demonstrate to the crew that the acting secretary lacks control over his own passions. He appeared to lose control even while he accused their captain of losing his cool. I’ve seen effective and powerful military leadership in trying times. That was not it.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet is one of the most storied and vital commands in the entire United States military. It represents the first line of defense against an emerging and growing Chinese threat. American military dominance depends on military courage and competence even more than it depends on technological brilliance. As we watch the unfolding drama on the Theodore Roosevelt—especially after the deadly collisions in 2017—Americans are right to be concerned.

One last thing … 

As y’all know, I’m grieving the loss of live sports. We should be moving into the NBA playoffs now! But at least we’ve still got YouTube, and one of the delights of YouTube is autoplaying sports highlight after sports highlight. Remember this one? From 2019? When the college of my birthplace struck down Darth Saban and blocked him from the College Football Playoffs? I do:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.