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The U.S. Military Can Barely Protect Itself From the Coronavirus

Suicides, ship quarantines, confused commanders, and stranded families: The Pentagon’s war-weary ranks are fraying amid the pandemic.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

At the Naval Academy, officers in training memorize “The Laws of the Navy,” a many-lined poem by a Victorian English admiral that prescribes teamwork, obedience, and prudence at all times. “Dost think, in a moment of anger, / ’Tis well with thy seniors to fight?” it scolds. “They prosper who burn in the morning / The letters they wrote overnight.” From training to retirement, there may be no more enduring truth for the military officer than this: Memos can kill careers.

Captain Brett Crozier, Annapolis class of ’92 and commander of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, didn’t care. Viruses are deadlier. Which was how, as the ship foundered dockside in Guam on Monday, Crozier wrote a three-and-a-half page letter, in dire prose blanketed by military memorandum format, begging the Navy’s and Pentagon’s senior leadership to save his crew of 4,000 from the coronavirus nightmare playing out on board.

Already, 100 sailors had tested positive for Covid-19, and the mighty warship had been ordered to quarantine in place. But, Crozier reminded his superiors, “None of the berthing onboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation.” The ship was becoming a cauldron of contagion. More sailors, Crozier warned, were testing negative, then showing obvious signs of the coronavirus illness days later.

“Decisive action is required,” the captain wrote. The crew, save for a few, needed to be evacuated to safe isolation. The ship could still fight, if duty required it, “but in combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime,” Crozier wrote. “However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”

The letter—and its rapid release to the media—wasn’t quite mutinous, but it exposed a breakdown in the military chain of command, one that continues to cascade through the week. On Tuesday afternoon, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly went on CNN and vowed that the Roosevelt crew would be evacuated, though the Navy was having trouble finding lodgings for its sailors. “We’re doing it in a very methodical way,” he said, “but we’re managing it, and we’re working through it.” But hours later, Modly’s boss, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, went on CBS Evening News and said no evacuation decision had yet been made. “Well, I have not had a chance to read [Crozier’s letter], read it in detail,” Esper said.

It was only the latest stark evidence that the U.S. national security complex, the most advanced military and intelligence-gathering force in human history, is in many respects even more vulnerable to the ravages of Covid-19 than the civilian world.

In his zeal to be seen as a wartime president, Donald Trump has relied on some—but not all—of his military powers in marshaling the federal government’s tardy coronavirus response. Rules have been changed to allow some skilled veterans to be recalled to active duty to “fight” the virus. The Navy hospital ships Comfort and Mercy have been dispatched to administer care to uninfected patients in New York City and Los Angeles, respectively. The Army Corps of Engineers and other domestic National Guard and reserve units are busy building excess hospital bed capacity in Seattle and New York. Nearly 15,000 Guard members are at work across the country on the pandemic response, many of them providing Covid-19 testing to at-risk medical providers; one of those soldiers has already died of the virus.

There is much that the military can do to protect the American populace from the coronavirus’s ravages, and service members undoubtedly wish they could do more. They should have been well positioned to do just that: Internal 2017 documents obtained Wednesday by The Nation show that the military had planned for a coronavirus-type pandemic and predicted many of the same equipment shortages that the U.S. is now experiencing. But the data and murmurs emerging from the U.S. national security complex paint a picture of a hamstrung bureaucracy that’s as ill-prepared to protect its own people as most states are.

Numbers tell part of that story. As of last Friday, the Pentagon had reported 613 cases of Covid-19 in its combined military and civilian workforce, putting its total ahead of 28 states’. (The Department of Defense’s “population” of about 2.9 million people, by contrast, only makes it bigger than the population of 15 states.) But by Monday, military-linked infections had already topped 1,000, and Esper had ordered all U.S. commanders across the globe to stop reporting new infections on their installations to the public, calling such reports “information that is classified as a risk to operational security.” Subordinates of Esper at several U.S. military bases told Stars & Stripes that the order “could harm their ability to inform their own force and strain their ability to work with officials in their surrounding civilian communities amid the pandemic.”

Local military commands are already in disarray in many respects. The Navy is fast learning that ships and bases are breeding grounds for the coronavirus; in addition to the Roosevelt outbreak, cases have been reported on the USS Ronald Reagan and USS Boxer, as well as at the service’s boot camp and the Naval Academy. New York–based recruiters for the Marine Corps begged the service last week to shut down its boot-camp training base at Parris Island, South Carolina—always a close-quarters hotbed for germs. “Decision-makers are absolutely in denial if they believe high rates of infection and hospitalization will not happen on the depot under close proximity and enclosed spaces,” one Marine told By Monday, Marine Corps officials were forced to relent, after at least 20 Parris Island recruits and trainers tested positive for the virus; the service’s West Coast boot camp in San Diego, however, remains open.

At the U.S. Air Force Academy, officials sent the three lower classes home to wait out the virus, but ordered soon-to-graduate seniors to remain in the campus dorm, one to a room, and obey social distancing orders on pain of punishment. Within 48 hours last week, two isolated senior cadets died by suicide, prompting academy leadership to ease restrictions and institute several morale-boosting measures: moving graduation up to mid-April and, until then, allowing “a casual Friday where civilian clothing can be worn.”

Travel restrictions have complicated military families’ planned moves, leaving about one-fifth of those families stuck with two rent or mortgage bills, according to one survey; many more are separated from their possessions, scrambling for temporary housing, and in employment limbo. At the same time, the DOD has vacillated over whether active-duty dependents will be able to access military pharmacies and treatment facilities during the pandemic.

It would be tempting to blame Trump and his subordinates—especially Esper, the defense lobbyist and West Point classmate of administration stalwart Mike Pompeo—for all of this; the current crisis certainly owes its shape to their backbiting and fecklessness. Even before the coronavirus, the Pentagon had burned through three defense secretaries and suffered unprecedented dysfunction while trying to carry out Trump’s most disastrous dictates and contradictory orders.

But the virus poses an existential problem to military units and security offices that even a competent administration couldn’t solve quickly. Social distancing runs counter to virtually every facet of military life, where service members of all ranks have been trained to see “lethality” and “readiness” for combat as higher values than their personal well-being. As Crozier, USS Roosevelt’s captain, suggested, that’s an easy reconciliation for service members to make in a shooting war … but when there’s no violent threat on the horizon, how much lethal “readiness” is too much?

In the absence of a hard answer to that question, local commanders made up their own. Service members speaking anonymously to Task & Purpose last week documented haphazard responses: Marines were allowed to take liberty trips up to 200 miles from their bases, in apparent violation of the stop-movement orders; close-quarters formations were still held by commanders, in violation of social distancing standards; and one gunnery sergeant chastised Marines who lacked daytime supervision for their children after schools had been shuttered. “We had to ‘figure it the fuck out,’” one of the sergeant major’s Marines quoted him as saying, because “it was a failing on our part if it was a struggle for us because ‘we’re adults.’” Across the internet, public affairs and social media photos showed that military units were failing to observe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s distancing guidelines. As longtime Pentagon reporter Jeff Schogol observed, the military’s “cult of readiness demands that commanders and senior noncommissioned officers laugh in the face of the greatest public health crisis since the 1918 flu pandemic.”

Even more prudent military and intelligence leaders will find the readiness/safety dichotomy hard to reconcile. The naval surface and submarine force, already stretched dangerously thin across the globe, will need to figure out how to keep rotational crews safe as it continues to police world waters. The Navy also says it can’t meet its aviation demands without keeping flight-training schools open—both to American and foreign trainees.

But even on land, logistical problems abound. I spoke to multiple military, diplomatic, and contract defense workers in the past two weeks who have to work with classified information; most of their shops are being forced to rotate small numbers of personnel in and out of their physical offices in shifts to accomplish their jobs. That’s because much of the national security community’s sensitive info is on secure computer networksSIPRNet for lower classifications, and JWICS for top-secret data—that must be accessed at dedicated terminals. Certain conversations have to be held, face to face, in SCIFs (sensitive compartmented information facilities). Outside of a few high-ranking principals with special at-home setups, you can’t telecommute to a sensitive national security job.

These challenges would be near-insurmountable even with the best leadership; but as Esper so bluntly demonstrated in his first public response to the USS Roosevelt’s ordeal, the defense establishment has few such leaders right now. Crozier, the Roosevelt captain, remains a voice in the wilderness. “United States Navy, I am begging you. Protect this man,” one Army intelligence officer tweeted on reading Crozier’s letter. Today, with the peak of deadly disease still weeks away in America, it’s not clear the U.S. military can even protect itself.