National Security & Defense

A Captain’s Duty

Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, in San Diego, Calif., December 24, 2019 (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Erik Melgar/Reuters )
Crozier put his people before himself, but, as an officer, he should have put his nation before both.

His sailors cheered him as he left the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt for the last time. He was fired, but for sticking up for his men and women.

On March 30th, Captain Crozier, Commanding Officer, made the seemingly innocuous decision to send an unsecured email asking for support from the Navy in his fight against COVID-19 that was ripping through his sailors’ ranks. It was a cry for help, but it doesn’t read like one — its four pages contain a careful analysis of how the measures taken were inadequate and a plan to quarantine the crew in Guam. The letter tells a story of competence and concern; it shows that Crozier had the competence to prevail and that he clearly cared for the welfare of his sailors.

The next day, the Acting Secretary of the Navy relieved Crozier of command, but has said Crozier, who has tested positive for the virus, will retain his rank and commission and be reassigned to another unit. His explanation: By using an unsecured channel and going around his chain of command, he had evinced poor judgement. To some, his removal smacks of retribution for insubordination, or worse, partisanship.

In basic officer training, every Naval Officer learns what the U.S. Naval Academy’s ADM James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership calls the Constitutional Paradigm:

Moral maturity assumes that officers remain grounded in a paradigm that regularly returns them to their source of duty . . . it’s the Constitutional Paradigm beginning with the US Constitution and moving through the mission, the service [the Navy], the unit (or ship), the fellow-serviceman (or shipmate) and finally self.

The Constitutional Paradigm is a priority list in which the good of the Navy and country come before the good of the ship. Of course, it is not an algorithm; it’s a framework, a touchstone, without which it would be impossible to navigate the fraught moral complexity of military operations.

In his statement on Crozier’s removal, the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, invokes this conception of duty. He praises Crozier’s character and service, but criticizes his judgement when he says that he “Allowed the complexity of his challenge . . . to overwhelm his ability to act professionally.” So should Crozier be lauded for looking out for his shipmates, or damned for going around the chain of command?

On Monday, in an impassioned and at times crude speech over the ship’s PA system, Modly blamed Crozier for causing a political controversy. He also called him “too naïve or stupid” to command the ship if he thought his letter wouldn’t result in a media firestorm. Modly blamed the Chinese Communist Party for the pandemic in an attempt to underscore the strategic consequences of Crozier’s actions.

There’s no doubt Crozier’s preoccupation with the health of his sailors could have strategic consequences. For one, the Roosevelt was America’s only aircraft carrier deployed to East Asia. He took the risk that his actions might embolden an increasingly belligerent China and Russia by broadcasting that America’s most important military unit is operating with reduced effectiveness. Our troops are in harm’s way all over the world, and the Navy is already stretched too thin supporting those global operations. Crozier knew that his unilateral decision would force the Navy to divert units from elsewhere — possibly even to break quarantine — to fill the void in the Eastern Pacific. Finally, Crozier made the Navy’s chain of command look ineffectual and raised questions about whether America’s top military officers have confidence in their chain of command.

The U.S. Navy is the world’s most important geopolitical institution because it serves as the guarantor of global security. The global order that the Navy maintains ensures that maritime trade flows unmolested. It keeps Russian submarines off our eastern seaboard, China from seizing more of its neighbors’ islands, Iran and Saudi Arabia from all-out war, and oil flowing through the straits of Malacca and Hormuz. Without the U.S. Navy playing this role, the dollar would not long remain the world’s preferred currency. Imagine any of those dominoes falling while COVID-19 paralyzes the U.S. Any weakness in the Navy, whether perceived or actual, has global consequences.

The military remains America’s most trusted institution in an era when such trust is low and partisan animosity is high. Crozier’s action doesn’t seem politically motivated, but he should have known that half the country, led by much of the media, would cast his decision in a political light, aggravating our political divisions, and even worse, give license to other military leaders to follow suit. With America’s economy sputtering, top investment banks predicting Depression-era unemployment, and a contentious presidential election looming, America is in a fragile state. At times like this, we need our institutions at their strongest.

It is hard not to be moved by the videos of Crozier’s adoring sailors cheering him as he left the ship for the last time. Since then, many Americans have rallied to his side; they believe Crozier is paying the price for sticking up for his sailors. But as a fellow Naval Academy graduate and former Naval Officer, I was disappointed to see Crozier place his country at risk at such a vulnerable time. Crozier put his people before himself, but, as an officer, he should have put his nation before both.

Benedict D. Capaldi is a 2014 graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former Navy Surface Warfare Officer. He completed his service in 2019 and worked in Goldman Sachs' Investment Banking Division before matriculating at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

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