By Max Boot ColumnistApril 3, 2020 at 12:26 p.m. EDT
“He made the right choice, and the Navy will back him up.” So wrote retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former carrier strike group commander and former supreme allied commander of NATO, about Capt. Brett Crozier, the skipper who had sent out an SOS about the spread of the coronavirus on his ship, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Stavridis’s article appeared on Wednesday in Bloomberg Opinion. The next day, Crozier was relieved of duty by acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly.
The U.S. government was fatally ill-prepared for the spread of a pandemic that has killed more Americans over the past month than died in Iraq over the past 17 years. The military could have done more to help but, like other government agencies, it was slow to act. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has come under fire for failing to cancel business as usual even as the virus spreads through the ranks. Esper joined President Trump on Wednesday in announcing an enhanced counter-drug effort when all possible resources should be focused on fighting covid-19. Even the Pentagon’s high-profile deployment of a hospital ship to New York has backfired: Local leaders are irate that the 1,000-bed ship has reportedly accepted only 20 patients.
But the only official in the entire government who has been publicly disciplined to date for mishandling the coronavirus is a Navy officer who acted to save his crew from an outbreak. This makes no sense save in the upside-down moral universe inhabited by the Trump administration.
Crozier sent an urgent letter to his chain of command on Monday, making clear that 90 percent of his crew needed to be evacuated immediately. Already more than 100 sailors out of a crew of nearly 5,000 have been diagnosed with covid-19 — and the disease was sure to spread fast in the close confines of the ship. “We are not at war,” Crozier wrote. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
Because Crozier raised the alarm, most of the crew is finally being evacuated from the ship in Guam. But an article on Crozier’s letter in the San Francisco Chronicle (and then other newspapers) embarrassed the Defense Department leadership. The Navy did not offer any evidence that he had leaked the letter himself but removed him anyway because he was said to have shown poor “judgment” in sending his email to 20 to 30 people. “In sending it out pretty broadly, he did not take care to ensure that it couldn’t be leaked,” Modly said. “And that’s part of his responsibility.”
I understand the need not to widely publicize problems that hurt the Navy’s operational readiness, but the context is troubling. About a month ago, when Trump was still calling concern about the coronavirus a “hoax,” the New York Times reported that Esper had “urged American military commanders overseas not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that might surprise the White House or run afoul of President Trump’s messaging on the growing health challenge.” This was a dismaying directive that seemed to put politics above force protection. Now Crozier’s firing will be seen, rightly or wrongly, as another step in the politicization of the military.
Trump has already done a great deal to undermine the military’s good order and discipline by pardoning personnel who have been accused, and even convicted, of war crimes. Trump even feted disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was denounced by his own platoon mates as “evil” and “toxic,” at Mar-a-Lago.
Modly is today acting secretary of the Navy because the Navy secretary at the time, Richard V. Spencer, was fired after dissenting from Trump’s desire to aid Gallagher and trying to negotiate directly with the White House. Spencer wrote in The Post that “the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” Yet Esper, Modly and other Pentagon leaders have acquiesced in the president’s actions.
The damage that was done to the military by Trump’s decision to pardon suspected war criminals will be compounded by Thursday’s decision to fire the skipper of the Theodore Roosevelt. The message that the administration is sending to the armed forces is that committing war crimes is acceptable but telling the truth and protecting the personnel under your command is not.
At least Crozier can take solace in the cheers and applause of his crew as he left the Theodore Roosevelt. They realize he was a great leader — “one of the greatest captains you ever had,” as one sailor said — even if the acting Navy secretary does not. Every cheer was an indictment of a Pentagon leadership that seems to have lost its moral bearings.