Firing the USS Theodore Roosevelt's Commander Exposes the Military's Deep Culture of Secrecy Even in a Pandemic

USS Theodore Roosevelt Brett Crozier secrecy coronavirus
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is assisted by tugboats into the home port at Norfolk Naval Station May 29, 2003 in Norfolk, Virginia. The Roosevelt left Norfolk on January 6 for training exercises and then went directly to the Middle East in support of the war in Iraq. Mike Heffner/Getty

A video posted on Facebook by a sailor onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt says everything there is to say about the firing of Navy Capt. Brett Crozier about how things look to a sailor or soldier when they are out there doing their jobs, compared to the view from a desk in Washington, DC.

Hundreds of sailors stood in the hanger deck of the aircraft carrier shouting, applauding and cheering for their C.O. after he was relieved of command by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.

"That's how you send out one of the greatest captains you ever had," the video maker narrates as you watch sailors crowded together cheering, "... the man for the people."

The official cause for Captain Crozier's firing is showing "extremely poor judgment" in bringing attention to the spread of coronavirus amongst his crew. His sending of a letter calling for help "demonstrated extremely poor judgment in the middle of a crisis," Modly says. "Because what it's done is, it's created a firestorm. It's created doubts about the ship's ability to go to sea if it needs to. It's created doubt among the families about the health of their sailors, and that was a completely unnecessary thing to do in the midst of the crisis."

The firing of Captain Crozier rings of political pressure from on high, especially because the ship's captain went public in his concern for the health and safety of the thousands of sailors under his command.

But Crozier's firing is also an opportunity to learn that the military operates by its own set of rules, enforcing strict discipline and order, precisely because it is the military. Consider this: since the first of the year, 10 senior military officers, including two generals, have been relieved of their military commands for a variety of infractions. It's not an epidemic, but a window into understanding a very different culture.

  • January: Col. Derek Stuart, the commander of 14th Operations Group at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi was relieved of command over "a loss of confidence in his ability to command."
  • January: The entire command team in charge of Marine Corps recruiting station Cleveland, led by Maj. Brandon Currie are relieved for "substandard performance."
  • January: Maj. Gen. William Cooley, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory is relieved of command "due to a loss of confidence in his ability to lead, related to alleged misconduct which is currently under investigation,"
  • January: Cmdr. Bob Bowen, commander of the destroyer USS Decatur, is relieved "due to loss of confidence in his ability to command."
  • January: Lt. Col. Ralph Featherstone, commanding officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225, is relieved of command after flying too low and too fast during a sundown ceremony in Miramar, California.
  • February: Cmdr. William B. Swanbeck, commander of the submarine USS Montpelier, is found guilty in a court martial for having inappropriate relationship with an enlisted man's wife. He had been relieved of duty in 2018.
  • March: Navy Capt. Michael O. Enriquez, commander of Marine Corps Field Medical Training Battalion West is relieved of command for "loss of trust and confidence."
  • March: Marine Corps Lt. Col. Clinton Kappel and the command team of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment were relieved of their duties "due to a loss of trust and confidence."
  • March: Col. James V. Locke, commander of the 128th Air Refueling Wing of the Wisconsin National Guard is relieved of command based upon "lost confidence ... based on command climate, poor judgment and alleged misconduct."
  • Brig. Gen. Ronald Stephens, commander of Regional Health Command Europe, is relieved of command after an investigation of misconduct.

Farwell Sir it's been a pleasure #WEARETRSTRONG #MYCO #TR

Posted by Michael Washington on Friday, April 3, 2020

In justifying his firing of Crozier, Modly says: "At no time did the C.O. relay the various levels of alarm that I, along with the rest of the world, learned from his letter when it was published two days later."

Crozier's four-page letter was published earlier this week in The San Francisco Chronicle. In that letter, Crozier warned that if steps weren't taken to isolate and treat his crew of 4,800 sailors, the coronavirus outbreak on his ship—then suspected to include over 100 sailors—would rapidly spread.

"While we may not be at war in a traditional sense," Modly says in explaining his decision to relieve Crozier of command, "neither are we truly at peace. ... Perhaps more so than in the recent past, we require commanders with the judgment, maturity, and leadership composure under pressure to understand the ramifications of their actions within that larger dynamic strategic context."

Modly, himself a Naval Academy graduate and an experienced executive who has served in Navy positions prior to the Trump administration, probably did what any civilian chief would have done, even if ultimately proves to be a highly unpopular move.

Though the U.S. Naval Institute says that Navy leaders in the Pacific did not recommend Crozier's removal, it's clear that orders have gone out in the past two weeks from the Pentagon leadership that no new details on coronavirus spread within the military should be released. From Navy wives to the top commanders, people are being told to shut up. Coincidentally, there has been a precipitous decline in the amount of information coming out of military organizations and bases at a very time when the coronavirus is sweeping through the armed services.

To quote Captain Crozier himself, he said precisely that in his now famous letter arguing that safety should come first over mission: "We are not at war." And it is for that reason that he was fired. The routines of rigid hierarchy and command rule.

Captain Crozier spoke out. And in doing so, he committed the cardinal sin of the military, which is to go public and take a problem outside the family. Like the other 10 senior commanders who have been relieved in the past three months, Crozier's firing follows internal rules and traditions that honor the chain of command first. From seaman to commander, those rules don't look like civilian justice. And indeed the military is an unforgiving institution in peacetime precisely to ensure that no one is confused about the importance of the rules, the chain of command, and following orders in wartime.

There is no doubt that to the sailors aboard his ship, and certainly to a civilian world starved for any kind of leadership, this whole incident looks like political retribution. And indeed it probably is. No one in the Pentagon over the past month seems to have been willing to go out on a limb and risk the White House's ire in speaking out.

"The sun only shines on one individual right now," said a senior military officer a couple of weeks ago in lamenting the increasing happy talk coming out of the Pentagon—even as hard facts are needed.

Crozier's firing undoubtedly will provoke a political firestorm, but the real problem is secrecy. Had the military been more transparent in reporting the cases from the USS Theodore Roosevelt—daily, even hourly—it would have been obvious to everyone that extreme action needed to be taken to save the crew. Instead, secrecy hid how bad things were on the ship, forcing the captain's hand.