Firing of Captain Over Virus Warning Still Rankles

We Must Repair Civil/Military Relations

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Following the Civil War, Americans set aside Memorial Day as a time to celebrate those who have made the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. While Capt. Brett Crozier, former commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, is still alive, he has made the penultimate sacrifice — losing his career to save the lives of his crew from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

On April 2, Capt. Crozier walked down his ship’s plank with the knowledge that he may not return. The public saw phone videos showing his crew cheering their skipper. As I watched, I shed tears of pride, anger and sadness. This was wrong! The Navy and its service members, especially a fine captain, had just been shafted.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly chose to fire Crozier, a distinguished Navy jet pilot, skipper of one of the Navy’s 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, for what he perceived as going outside the chain of command in Crozier’s pleas for help for his sick sailors. In so doing, he went against the advice of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, who advised an investigation before removal.

This incident raises important issues about the civil-military relationship; the quality of presidential appointments, especially those in national security; Capt. Crozier’s decision to call for help to stem the coronavirus outbreak; and the military as a profession.

The civil-military relationship describes the relationship between civil society and authority, and the military organization or organizations established to protect that society. Civil authority prevails. As someone has rightly proclaimed, “Ultimately, the military must accept that civilian authorities have the right to be wrong.”

In this case, Secretary Modly represents the civil authority as he was appointed by the president. The captain, his superior and the Chief of Naval Operations represent the military.

Key to a successful civil-military relationship is the practice of good communications. Often tricky issues must be worked through, both privately and publicly. Other factors are the degree of professionalism exhibited among the parties and their relative experience.

Then there are presidential appointments. Relatedly, naval history proves the office of the secretary of the Navy to be a time-honored position, held by many gifted leaders including: Josephus Daniels, James Forrestal, Paul Nitze and Sens. John Chafee, John Warner and Jim Webb. Both Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt held the position of Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  Secretary Modly’s credentials and experience in no way match those of his predecessors.

Why did Modly not investigate before firing an outstanding naval officer? In his previous job as under secretary of the Navy, he served as chief management officer and chief information officer. He lacked the management and leadership skills to do the right thing.

You and I, as voters, are responsible for electing presidents who can make wise civil appointments. With 4,000 political appointments available (1,200 requiring Senate approval), a president can decimate the federal bureaucracy by embedding political operatives. This is currently happening in the departments of State and Justice.

Was Capt. Crozier truly out of line by sending an email to his superior officer and others? He may have been wrong to send emails beyond his chain of command and not to Secretary Modly, though the secretary was not directly in his chain of command. What was his motivation? Were his decisions sufficiently egregious to warrant his immediate removal from command?

All the military branches are guided by the high standards of any profession. Their education and training systems create officers and enlisted members who know the value of leadership, management skills and experience. It is more than likely Capt. Crozier felt a moral responsibility to protect his crew from COVID-19. Under naval professional standards, he was driven to protect his men and women regardless of career consequences.

One investigative board has recommended that Capt. Crozier be returned to his ship; his future, however, will be determined by yet another investigation board, called by Acting Secretary of the Navy James McPherson and reporting out this week. (Modly resigned last month.)

What would Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt say? “It is not the critic who counts. … The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly.”

We are obligated to support and honor the military professional who strives valiantly, and to demand the highest possible qualifications for the civilians who oversee them.

. This opinion first appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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