The Navy has fired the captain of the USS Roosevelt after publication of the captain’s four-page letter, wherein he pleaded for help and complained that the Navy was not doing enough to protect his crew. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly criticized him for not informing his superiors and “going outside the chain of command.”
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Whether he is viewed in the long-term as a martyred hero or disloyal subordinate depends a lot on what the captain told the people above him and whether he was complicit in leaking the letter. The controversy also reflects a broader debate about the balance between force protection and military readiness. At a time when the United States is not at war, as the captain pointed out, should the military just focus on staying healthy?
Many are already familiar with a broad outlines of the USS Roosevelt‘s troubles. The ship conducted a port visit in Vietnam in late February, but soon after getting underway again discovered that it had cases of COVID-19 on board. It headed to Guam, a U.S. territory. The plan was to tie up at the pier, remove sick sailors, and test the crew. The ship would remain “operational” and not return home. Captain Brett Crozier wrote a four-page letter saying this was not enough and that most of the crew needed to disembark so they could be effectively quarantined. “We are not at war and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.” The San Francisco Chronicle obtained a copy of the letter and published it. The Roosevelt’s plight became a national issue. On April 2 Acting Secretary Modly relieved Captain Crozier of command.
Many see the captain as a martyr for trying to protect his crew in the face of an administration that did not take the pandemic seriously enough. The captain’s letter makes a strong and persuasive argument that the Navy’s plan would not work and that such failure would endanger his crew. His crew gave him a hero’s send-off when he left the ship after being relieved. Members of Congress and many in the press have expressed their support for the captain.
On the other hand, there are reports that the captain surprised many in the chain of command, who believed they were dealing with the ship’s problems and doing what the captain had requested. Acting Secretary of the Navy Modly made this argument: “At no time did the CO relay the various levels of alarm that I, along with the rest of the world, learned from his letter when it was published by the CO’s hometown newspaper.” Capt. Crozier’s might not have fully informed his immediate boss, the group commander.
A related question is whether Capt. Crozier was complicit in the leaking of the memo. Sec. Modly made that point at a press conference: “I don’t know who leaked the letter to the media,” he added. “That would be something that would violate the principles of good order and discipline if he were responsible for that…” All organizations, military or civilian, frown on such actions. Readers might imagine the reception they would receive at work if they sent a letter to the local newspaper complaining about leadership in their organization.
On this point, it appears that Capt. Crozier was at least partly complicit because he sent out dozens of copies of the letter over unclassified channels and apparently included some people who would not normally get such a sensitive communication. The implication is that Capt. Crozier intended that someone would send the letter outside the Navy.
All these questions will eventually have answers. The Navy will likely conduct an internal investigation in response to criticism about the firing. Congress, especially the Democrat-controlled House, seems likely to hold hearings. If the captain did not give the people above him enough warning or if he was indeed complicit in leaking the letter, that will turn many in the military against him even if he retains the sympathy of his crew and many in the broader public. On the other hand, if it turns out that he did make them aware, but the response was mired in bureaucratic deliberations and delay, then he will garner more sympathy.
This controversy captures a broader discussion in the national security community: Should the military attempt to maintain its global presence and readiness, or should it follow the practice in the civilian community of shutting down normal activities and sheltering in place? For example, Gen. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, has argued that the Marine Corps has a statutory requirement to be “the force in readiness” and therefore cannot suspend core military operations. All the services have tried to keep their basic training open even as cases of infection begin to be discovered, though the Navy and Marine Corps have recently had to pause the arrival of new recruits because of infection. If basic training stops, then the services will begin to shrink at the rate of about 2 percent per month as enlistments end, but replacements do not arrive. Sheltering in place would also stop the global presence and allied engagement that has been central to U.S. security posture since World War II. On the other hand, as cases of infection rise, some voices have argued that in order to protect its people, the military should implement the same shelter-in-place restrictions that the civilian society has implemented.
This saga is not over.