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Captain Crozier Was Right, And His Sailors Knew It

He put Men before the Mission. That the brass removed him and killed his Navy career calls into question their own judgment.

Capt. Brett Crozier addresses the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during a change of command ceremony in November 2019. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Sean Lynch/Released)

As a fledgling officer long, long ago, I was taught to abide by the hierarchy of Mission first, then Men, and then Self. Simple enough in theory, that code is not easy to live by. 

For mere mortals, the requirement to subordinate self is almost unnatural. Anyone who serves in the military for more than a few weeks will likely encounter leaders whose personal code—never to be spoken aloud—is Me First. Their approach to accomplishing the mission and taking care of their troops blends seamlessly with their own career ambitions. The hierarchy becomes a triangle, each element connected to the others. There is no need to choose.

Now we have the case of U.S. Navy Captain Brett E. Crozier, until recently commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the 11 nuclear aircraft carriers that form the backbone of the fleet. Command of an aircraft carrier is a prize appointment, given to upwardly mobile officers. We can safely say that barring Congressional intervention on his behalf, Captain Crozier’s upward mobility has ended.

On April 2, the Navy relieved Captain Crozier of his command. Relief is a polite term for being fired. In each of the services, this happens from time to time. In the Navy of late, commanders have been fired for allowing lax discipline which resulted in accidents. In 2017, for example, the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain were involved in collisions. Both captains were fired as was the three-star admiral commanding the 7th Fleet to which both ships were assigned. Senior authorities had lost confidence in their ability to command.

Captain Crozier’s offense was of a different order. Soon after a show-the-flag port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, undertaken at the Pentagon’s direction, members of his crew had tested positive for COVID-19. Crozier reacted as the Trump administration, not to mention various slow-on-the-switch governors and mayors, should have: He saw the onset of the Coronavirus as posing a lethal threat to the Roosevelt’s entire crew of several thousand sailors. 

So he sounded the alarm, sending a letter to 19 senior military officials. The gist of that letter was a recommendation to disembark and isolate the Roosevelt’s crew, treating those infected and subjecting the entire ship to a thorough cleaning to eliminate the virus. “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.” While the ship’s operational readiness would momentarily suffer, Crozier was intent on ensuring that none of the men and women under his command would “perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”

Today, of course, many Americans are dying unnecessarily through the negligence of leaders at all levels. In the weeks to come, negligence will claim the lives of many more. Crozier stands out as one leader who was quick to assess the danger at hand and to recommend prompt and decisive action.

For this he was fired. Needless to say, his letter leaked. Navy officials were thereby embarrassed. While eventually taking the actions not unlike those that Crozier had recommended, they gave him the axe. According to acting Navy secretary Thomas B. Modly, himself a Naval Academy graduate, Crozier lost his job because the Coronavirus outbreak “overwhelmed his ability to act professionally.” 

That’s one opinion. Mine differs. Faced with a perplexing leadership challenge, Crozier made a very tough call:  This was one instance, he concluded, where Men should come before Mission, while he unhesitatingly placed his own career interests last. His superiors, up to and including Acting Secretary Modly, ought to have applauded his actions. That they did not calls into question their own good judgment. 

Of course, my own opinion matters not at all. On the other hand, my guess is that for Crozier the opinion of his sailors matters quite a lot. As he left his ship for the last time, in a moving display of support for their former skipper, they gathered spontaneously to give him a rousing sendoff. Crozier left with their cheers ringing in their ears. The men and women assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt know professionalism when they see it. 

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer at large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

 

 

 

 

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