There is a sickness in the United States Navy, and it goes beyond the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a disorder of irresponsible political leadership, and a high command more focused on expediency than maintaining the confidence of the sailors in their care.
The latest symptom of this disease was the abrupt dismissal of Captain Brett Crozier, formerly of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. When members of his crew became infected with COVID-19, Crozier sent a four-page memo explaining his disagreements with current containment strategy and recommending a more aggressive plan of action. The memo, which was sent using an unclassified email, was published by the press immediately. Two days later he was relieved of command by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, whose subsequent nastiness and incongruous standards of behavior resulted in his own resignation.
Opinion has become divided over whether Captain Crozier should have been relieved for impulsively breaking chain-of-command (among other accusations) or whether the punishment was unjustified due to his selfless motivation on behalf of his crew. No matter which side is correct, there is only one appropriate answer: it was wrong to relieve Crozer of command without a proper inquiry.
Crozier possessed the awesome power of commanding a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, one of the mightiest weapons in the world. And with that privilege comes responsibility. “On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them goes accountability,” wrote Vermont Royster in a 1952 Wall Street Journal editorial that has become a dogma among career seamen. Every error, purposeful or not, falls on a captain’s shoulders. “No matter what, he cannot escape.”
But while Royster wrote of reviews, debates, inquiries, probes, and committees, Crozier received none of them. He was given no fair hearing, nor the benefit of the doubt that the situation mandated. Only an official inquiry can determine if Crozier should have been removed for cause.
To give perspective on the events of the past two weeks, a retired U.S. admiral spoke to the Libertarian Institute in an exclusive interview. “Should he have been removed for [breaking chain-of-command] before the inquiry? No,” said the three-star, who preferred to remain anonymous. “I think that if he decided that he had tried to get across that time was of essence, it [the virus] was spreading…and there was no change in that strategy that he said was ineffective, then I would have to say he did what was accountable—outside of war—to the welfare of his men and women, knowing (and he should have known this) that his career would be harmed by it.”
The admiral compared Crozier’s situation to being under incoming fire, a situation that necessitates decisive action. “I think if this man did speak up, and they weren’t listening, then he felt he did the right thing and that’s what a commanding officer is called to do: step outside the chain of command if he has to, at times, to save his crew.”
An inquiry prior to any kind of reprimand is typical Navy procedure, and was the route favored by both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday. But both men relented and chose to publicly support the acting navy secretary’s decision to dismiss Crozier immediately.
And how did Acting Secretary Modly arrive at this conclusion? He told The Washington Post that President Donald Trump’s opinion weighed heavily in his thought process, explicitly because his secretarial predecessor, Richard Spencer, had been dismissed because he found himself at odds with Trump over the Eddie Gallagher case.
“I thought it was terrible what he did. To write a letter. This isn’t a class on literature. This is a captain of a massive ship that’s nuclear powered,” Trump chided after the fact. While the president said he had not made the determination to dismiss Crozier, his displeasure with the captain’s negative appraisal being made public was obvious to Modly.
“I think the immediacy with which he was removed had to do with the public disclosure and embarrassment,” speculated the retired admiral. “And that’s a shame.”
Modly’s resentment of the embarrassment didn’t stop there. The Acting Secretary proceeded to fly 8,000 miles so he could board the USS Theodore Roosevelt and address the five thousand sailors who had cheered their former commanding officer as he departed. Modly excoriated the crew for voicing support for Crozier and described their former captain as either “too naïve or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this.” His excursion, where he was onboard the ship for thirty minutes, cost the taxpayer $243,000.
Crozier emailed his memo to twenty people—including members of his staff, but excluding his immediate superior, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, and Acting Secretary Modly—and it was subsequently leaked to the press within twenty-four hours. Modly gave a “private,” adversarial address to thousands of men, audio portions of which were uploaded to the internet within thirty minutes. He must have realized his behavior was at least as reckless as Crozier’s (if not more so) and for a lesser cause, because he resigned within a day—but not before doubling down on his comments, and then retracting them.
“It was beyond the pale,” the retired admiral said, regarding Modly’s stunt. “His resignation was correct. You must have respect down the chain of command if you expect it up the chain of command.”
Chief of Naval Operations Gilday has said he’s begun an official investigation into the circumstances of the memo and the dismissal, with a conclusion to be made public as early as this week. The possibility of returning Crozier to command has not been taken off the table.
As the grandson of two Navy veterans, and the nephew of two more, it is imperative that the high command move forward with transparency and make accountable any wrongs that were committed. That is the only cure for regaining the lost trust of their sailors and their loved ones.
Hunter DeRensis is senior reporter for The National Interest and a regular contributor to the Libertarian Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.