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HUNDREDS OF CHEERING sailors thronged the cavernous belly of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a 100,000-tonne nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier, crowding around neatly parked jets. “Captain Crozier! Captain Crozier!” they chanted, as the commanding officer, Brett Crozier, walked forlornly down the gangway into a warm Guam evening on April 3rd, bidding farewell to his warship. “Now that’s how you send out one of the greatest captains you ever had,” remarked a sailor in the crowd. The result is the latest civil-military calamity of the Trump administration.
In mid-March the Roosevelt was exercising in the South China Sea, fresh from a visit to Vietnam. Then covid-19 struck. On March 24th three infected sailors were flown off. Three days later the ship docked in Guam, with at least 23 cases. From there, on March 30th, as the virus raged through a crew of over 5,000, Captain Crozier sent an imploring four-page letter to his colleagues. The spread of the disease was “ongoing and accelerating”, he warned. The warship’s confined spaces did not allow for effective quarantine. “We are not at war,” he urged. “Sailors do not need to die.”
At first navy leaders expressed support, insisting that Captain Crozier would not face retaliation for sounding the alarm. A day later he was removed. Thomas Modly, America’s acting secretary of the navy, offered a jumble of reasons. The captain had “undermined the chain of command” and “created…panic on the ship” by copying 20-30 people on his letter. He had created “the perception that the Navy is not on the job, the government’s not on the job.” And he might also have “emboldened our adversaries to seek advantage”.
Then, in an intemperate and rambling speech aboard the Roosevelt on April 6th, Mr Modly told its crew that Captain Crozier had either deliberately leaked the letter to the media, or was “too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer”. Mr Modly mockingly called the captain—who remains a serving officer—a “martyr” and accused him of “betrayal”. He complained that “it’s now become a big controversy in Washington, DC” and told sailors, who are supposed to remain non-partisan, that “the media has an agenda”.
Mr Modly’s remarks, which were piped over the ship’s intercom and, ironically, promptly leaked to the media, were met with incredulity on the ship. They came a day after Captain Crozier was reported to have tested positive for covid-19 and reinforced the sense that his offence was to have embarrassed the administration rather than violated protocol or undermined readiness. The decision “smacks of politics rather than military discipline,” says Jim Golby, an expert on civil-military relations and a serving army officer. “It’s notable that the military officers in the chain of command appear to have recommended against his removal.”
Even before this episode, it was clear that America’s globe-girdling navy was not in tip-top shape. In January the Pentagon’s Inspector General scrutinised a dozen destroyers and found deficiencies with training. In one case it concluded that “the ship will not be able to conduct gunnery support”—including trifling matters “such as identifying where the ship is shooting”. That came on top of several troubled years for the navy.
Shoddy seamanship in the Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, resulted in two warship collisions that killed 17 people in 2017. “The navy selectively punished people,” says a former admiral. “The people at the very top who made the most egregious decisions got promoted or moved to new jobs.” The Seventh Fleet was also rocked by a separate corruption scandal, leading to reprimands for at least ten captains and admirals, and the first-ever conviction of a serving admiral for a federal crime.
The fleet is also ageing: 57% of ships are more than 20 years old. Crumbling shipyards and the relentless pace of operations have made it harder to maintain them. The navy is also short of more than 6,000 sailors—with recruitment, retention and morale unlikely to be helped by the sacking of officers who stand up for sick sailors. “Without increased and sustained funding…the readiness of the Navy’s fleet will remain compromised,” concluded a report by the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank, last year.
Then came covid-19. Though the Pentagon has stopped publishing infection numbers for individual ships, the disease has spread on several vessels. Cramped quarters on board make social distancing impractical. “It is a Petri dish of virus,” says a former carrier strike group commander. Sailors aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, a carrier moored in Japan, have also tested positive. That does not mean America’s fleet would be paralysed in a crisis—warships can lose much of their crew and remain viable in wartime—but it may keep many in port.
Mr Modly himself is only in charge of the navy because of the last mess. In November his predecessor, Richard Spencer, was fired after resisting what he called Donald Trump’s “shocking and unprecedented intervention” in the case of a Navy Seal who had been accused of war crimes. In a parting letter to the president, Mr Spencer said that this meddling had put at risk “good order and discipline”. War crimes, it turns out, can be smoothed over. Causing a stir in Washington is another matter.■