No communications firm, pressed to design a case study on public-relations disasters, could likely top the Navy’s recent bungling of a coronavirus epidemic on the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the firing of the aircraft carrier’s outspoken commander, Captain Brett Crozier. Crozier gained fame for his three-and-a-half-page memo pleading for the service to evacuate its crew from the ship, where safe isolation of the crew was impossible. His civilian boss, then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, gained notoriety for relieving Crozier of command, making an ill-advised quarter-million-dollar trip to board the Roosevelt dockside in Guam, trashing Crozier to his crew as “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer,” and ultimately resigning his own post amid the backlash.
As the number of infected sailors among the Roosevelt’s crew rose this weekend past 550, a majority of the blame for the saga’s most ridiculous moments continues to fall on Modly. But this crisis was ultimately not of his own making. He merely brought to light the deepening dysfunction within the Department of Defense brought about by collapsing norms of civil-military relations.
This collapse has been driven by President Trump, who has demonstrated repeatedly that he has no compunctions about subverting the military chain of command, often via tweet, in pursuit of overtly political goals, from his ban on transgender service members and Syria withdrawal to his clemency for convicted and accused war criminals who now support his reelection campaign. This tendency has unfortunately been enabled by a string of Pentagon appointees who may have once thought that they could defend the nation while keeping an impetuous president in check, but have only enabled Trump to further disrupt and degrade the armed forces.
The Navy’s senior uniformed leadership in recent years has been racked by high-profile bribery scandals and deteriorating fleet conditions, with fatal consequences, but the Roosevelt incident has revealed starkly the leadership climate among those political appointees above them. That climate can only be described as sycophantic fear; Modly admitted as much in an interview justifying his decision to fire Crozier last week. “I put myself in the president’s shoes,” he told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “I considered how the president felt like he needed to get involved in Navy decisions. I didn’t want that to happen again.”
The previous “Navy decisions” that Modly had in mind were the conviction and demotion of SEAL Eddie Gallagher for war crimes, as well as a subsequent Navy review that might have kicked Gallagher out of the SEAL community; Trump reversed Gallagher’s demotion and moved to block the service’s review of his status. In that crisis, Modly said, his predecessor as Navy secretary “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president.” The lesson he took away, in short, was to be preemptively impetuous on behalf of the commander-in-chief. This is a common enough dynamic in autocracies and film farces about them, like The Death of Stalin, but it’s rarely so brazenly seen at the top of the world’s most powerful military force.
The prerogative of civilian leaders to decide military matters is a key tenet of American constitutional governance and healthy civilian-military relations, but how this is done and for what reasons matters greatly to military readiness. It’s been historically rare, and taboo, for political leaders to involve themselves in lower-level personnel decisions or ongoing military investigations. This president observes no such restraints, and his appointees at the Department of Defense appear increasingly at peace with his interventions. “I thought it was terrible what [Crozier] did,” Trump said of the fired ship’s captain in a press conference on April 4. “To write a letter? I mean, this isn’t a class on literature.” The captain, Trump added, “shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter.”
Modly obviously knew how to anticipate the president. So, too, has his boss, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who not only sided with Trump’s political impulses over uniformed military leaders but—in the lexicon of the honor code at West Point, his alma mater—“quibbled” in trying to give a misleading impression of uniformed support for Crozier’s firing, which runs counter to the video footage of adoring Roosevelt sailors cheering Crozier as he departed the ship (as well as the crew’s profane reaction to Modly’s justification of the firing).
Since Crozier was relieved of his command, three elements have arisen in his case that warrant a reevaluation of the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense. The first is the prescience of Crozier’s decision to sound the alarm, as coronavirus infections have quintupled among his crew since he penned his letter. The second is the obvious unfitness of men like Modly for high Pentagon responsibilities, and the doubt this affair casts on Esper.
The third development, while the most predictable, should give pause to those believing they can serve honorably or apolitically in this administration: As the political winds have shifted around both the severity of the coronavirus epidemic and the public reaction to Crozier, so have the commander in chief’s statements. No one should feel pity for Modly, but it is ironic that after he bigfooted the Navy chain of command in a zealous attempt to please Trump, the mercurial commander in chief closed out Modly’s tenure by telling reporters: “I don’t know him.”
All of this is disheartening, particularly for Americans who might normally look to the Department of Defense for stability and competence in turbulent times; the military remains one of the most trusted U.S. institutions, along with scientists. But the politics of this moment have disastrously infiltrated the armed forces. It’s small consolation that the blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of military leadership. America is contending with its deadliest pandemic in a century—and with the consequences of abdicating its hard decisions to a craven class of political appointees who would rather be seen as trying to please the boss than take decisive actions to save lives.