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Crozier Was Punished for Doing His Duty

Navy Capt Brett Crozier (Department of Defense)

Andrew Bacevich comments on Capt. Crozier’s removal from command:

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.

If Crozier hadn’t pushed for the evacuation of his crew in order to protect their lives, he would still be in command today, but because he called attention to the Navy’s mishandling of the situation he was relieved. That is what makes the decision to remove him so perverse and dishonorable. He did his duty by his crew, but he did it in a way that embarrassed the higher-ups and so in Modly’s view he had to go. Crozier’s willingness to risk his command for his crew demonstrated precisely why he is an excellent commander. If the acting Secretary of the Navy had been wiser, he should have commended the captain instead of getting rid of him.

It is instructive to recall the other times that the Navy relieved captains of their commands in the Seventh Fleet in the recent past. The commanders of the USS John McCain and the USS Fitzgerald were relieved after they presided over disastrous accidents in 2017. In those cases, the ships suffered terrible, avoidable collisions with civilian vessels. Seventeen sailors lost their lives, and the two destroyers were severely damaged and rendered inoperable for a long time. The captains had failed in their duty to keep their ships and crew safe, and so it was absolutely right that they were removed. In Crozier’s case, he was given the same punishment that they were because he was determined not to risk the lives of the people under his command. An outstandingly conscientious captain has suffered the same penalty as the derelict ones. The message being sent by Crozier’s removal is unmistakable: don’t make waves and don’t call attention to problems even if it means putting your crew at risk.

According to his fellow officers, Crozier’s actions in the last week were consistent with the character of the man they knew:

“This is the last guy to go and seek attention. He’s not a glory hound — not that guy,” said Brett Odom, who roomed with him in flight school in Florida and watched him take command of the Roosevelt just six months ago at a ceremony in San Diego. “When he took command, I thought, ‘Wow, the Navy got something right here.’”

“Brett is not somebody who would go outside the chain of command to glory-seek or press-seek, that’s just not him,” said Mark Roppolo, who has known Crozier since they entered the Naval Academy together in 1988.

It seems clear that the Navy wasn’t taking the outbreak on the ship seriously enough until the captain forced them to pay attention. The captain would have been in the position to know what the situation was better than anyone in Washington, but it seems that top officials weren’t listening. If they hadn’t been forced to respond to the worsening conditions on the carrier, does anyone think that the evacuation would have started so quickly? Crozier was faulted for using poor judgment, but under the circumstances speedy action was more desirable than slow deliberation. Officers that show quick thinking and resourcefulness are supposed to be rewarded, but avoiding embarrassment seems to be a higher priority for the current leadership.

The display of admiration and support that the crew gave him as he departed the ship spoke volumes about the quality of the commanding officer that they were losing:

Several sailors filmed the moment Crozier departed and posted it on social media. The carrier’s former commanding officer walked alone off the ship with a backpack, saluted a sailor onshore and gave a brief wave to his crew before being driven away.

“And that’s how you send off one of the greatest captains you’ve ever had,” one sailor narrated as he filmed the send-off, the chants echoing on the Roosevelt’s massive hangar deck. “A man for the people.”

Many people have marveled at how there is no accountability in our government for the many failures and blunders that have occurred over the last two decades, and so it is particularly disheartening when “one of the greatest captains” is relieved of command for doing his job too well. Presidents can launch illegal wars, abuse their power, and fail to protect the country from attack and pandemic, and absolutely no one at the top pays a political or professional price for any of it. There are no consequences for top political and military leaders for their failures and crimes, but when an officer causes his superiors some public embarrassment while trying to save lives he is gone so fast that it makes your head spin.

Tweed Roosevelt, a great-grandson of the president for whom the aircraft carrier is named, had this to say about Crozier and the decision to remove him:

In this era when so many seem to place expediency over honor, it is heartening that so many others are showing great courage, some even risking their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, chose the honorable course. Captain Crozier has done the same.

The contrast between Crozier’s integrity and the complete lack of it in the White House couldn’t be starker or more revealing. The captain put the good of his ship and crew ahead of himself, as all good leaders should. The president has always put advancing his own personal interests ahead of the interests of the country for more than three years, and the results have been as bad as one would expect. While the president dithered and minimized the danger from the virus for months and wasted precious time needed to prepare for the outbreak, the captain acted swiftly and protected his sailors. If we had a president half as conscientious and dutiful as Crozier was as a captain, we would not be in such a dire situation as we are today.

David Ignatius describes the story behind the decision to remove Crozier from command, and he found that the decision has gone over very badly among retired Navy officials:

A half-dozen former top Navy officials said in interviews Saturday that Modly’s intervention was a mistake that they feared would have a chilling effect on commanders and encourage them to suppress bad news that might upset political leaders.

“I think the firing was a really bad decision, because it undermines the authority of the military commanders who are trying to take care of their troops, and significantly negatively impacts the willingness of commanders to speak truth to power,” said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview Saturday.

There appears to be a broad consensus among former officials and retired officers that it shouldn’t have happened, and it is likely to make other commanders unwilling to speak up about poor conditions in the future:

One retired four-star officer said he was worried about “undue command influence” by Modly. The acting secretary had the authority to sack Crozier but in doing so undermined the uniformed officers who normally oversee such personnel decisions. “This is much bigger than the CO of the Theodore Roosevelt,” he said. “We’ve been working for years to make our commanding officers feel free to speak out about problems.” That openness might now be quashed.

That quashing of commanders’ willingness to voice their concerns will probably lead to more avoidable accidents and deteriorating performance, and that will do more damage to readiness than anything that Crozier said in his letter. Ignatius writes that it was the civilian leadership, including the president, that wanted to remove Crozier over the objections of the chief of naval operations:

By Wednesday, Modly told a colleague he was thinking of relieving Crozier and that Trump “wants him fired.” [bold mine-DL] He was advised by several current and former colleagues, reportedly including Gilday, that such a dismissal would be unwise, and that the matter was best left to the military.

The president’s recent comments on Crozier were predictably awful:

To be clear, the president thinks it is terrible that a captain in the U.S. Navy did everything he could to protect the lives of his crew. Given the president’s own lackadaisical and indifferent handling of the pandemic for the last three months, it comes as no surprise that he finds fault with someone who did what he should have been doing all along.

The reaction among the crew to Modly’s decision has naturally been very negative:

Many sailors and their parents were furious when they learned of his dismissal.

“Just can’t tell you how disappointed I am in the United States Navy right now. We got this one wrong,” one sailor said. “We would’ve ran through walls for him. Still would.”

Crozier’s superiors were embarrassed by his letter, but what should truly embarrass them is that they punished an admired, competent commander for doing the right thing in an extraordinary situation.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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