Streetwise Professor

April 5, 2020

The Case of Captain Crozier and the Coronavirus

Filed under: China,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 3:33 pm

Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break asked me to opine on the relief of Captain Crozier from command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, CVN-71. At present, I don’t have the information to make a firm judgment one way or the other. Depending on circumstances that I (and anyone else not in the Department of the Navy or Captain Crozier himself) cannot observe, I can see things going either way. (And I note, that even if I was a principal, the lessons of Rashomon should be kept in mind.)

Based on what is in the public record, the presumption must be that Captain Crozier’s actions in either leaking his letter, or disseminating it in a way that was almost certain to result in its leaking, were highly irregular, and prejudicial to good order and discipline.

But this is a rebuttable presumption. The problem is that the public does not have the information to rebut it, or to not do so. I can imagine realistic scenarios that cut either way.

I can imagine a scenario in which Captain Crozier had reasonable grounds to believe that the Navy Department (and the Pentagon generally) was insufficiently sensitive to the acute situation on the Roosevelt, and felt compelled to take extraordinary actions in order to make them aware. Bureaucracies frequently prefer to suppress information (cf. the CCP), or are so used to operating according to routine that they are incapable of handling the non-routine.

That said, if that was Captain Crozier’s belief, he should have resigned his command (and his commission) and stated forthrightly the reasons for doing so. Engineering a leak is unmilitary, and reeks of political calculation. I understand that is the way that DC plays the game, but that doesn’t make it honorable to play by corrupt rules.

I can also envision a scenario in which Captain Crozier’s understandable focus on his ship and his crew blinded him to measures that his superiors were taking to balance the interests of the crew and operational and strategic interests of the United States.

It is legendary that the first question that presidents ask during an international crisis is: “Where are the carriers?” They are the primary and most rapidly deployable asset in such crises. Making one unoperational is a weighty decision with major consequences, especially in fraught times: note China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea at the very moment the world is gripped with the coronavirus panic.

Indeed, Captain Crozier alluded to this when he said in his letter that: “If required the USS Theodore Roosevelt would embark all assigned Sailors, set sail, and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our allies.” If only it were that easy. It has taken days to disembark the crew and accommodate them in Guam. It would take that many days, or more, to reembark them and make the ship operational. Remember Kipling’s “unforgiving minute”? Patton did–and rightfully castigated his superiors for failing to do so.

Capt. Crozier then went on to say that conditions on the ship conflicted with CDC guidelines. But CDC (civilian) guidelines are created to address different situations with different trade-offs than the military must deal with.

And that is the fundamental tension (i.e., trade-off) here. Operational availability of one of the US’s most important military assets and a health risk to its crew. Captain Crozier understandably emphasized the latter. His superiors had to give much more weight to the former than did the Captain.

We don’t know what measures the Navy Department/Pentagon were taking to try to balance these very difficult considerations. Absent such information, I for one reserve judgment.

This episode implicates larger issues that I have mentioned several times.

The first is the shocking lack of data upon which decision makers have to act. What is the real health risk to the crew (which consists primarily of young, healthy individuals)? We don’t know. Why are we ignorant? In large part because of a failure to implement a random testing regime (which I outlined weeks ago) that would produce more reliable information. It is appalling that months after the risks began to crystalize that we still have to rely on data plagued with severe biases inherent in the method of collecting them.

The second is the grim calculus of trade-offs, never mind whether we have the information to make informed trade-offs. Of course we want to save lives–but not at infinite cost. To reprise a previous post, we don’t want to destroy the country to save it.

This is a grim calculus that wartime militaries must always face. They say there are no atheists in foxholes–but at the same time, there have to be utilitarians in headquarters.

Mind you that I do not write as someone who reflexively defers to command authority. The fact I chose not to remain in the Navy is the chief exhibit in that case: as I often say (including under oath in depositions) I left Navy because that’s where I learned I have issues with authority. Further, when a plebe at Navy, my final essay in the leadership course argued that disobedience of orders was justified in some circumstances: this did not go over well! (Which was a big part of my practical education that informed my decision to leave.) So I totally get that Captain Crozier may well be in the right. But I also get that he might not be. But what I get most is that I don’t know–nor do you–whether he is or not.

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  1. The part of this story that has been oddly obscured is the role of Capt. Crozier’s immediate superior, the rear admiral in charge of the task force, who was right on the ship (according to SecNav in his statement explaining his relief of Crozier). Was this gentleman unresponsive to the point that Crozier felt the need to end-run him (not showing him the letter before blasting it to his own superiors via the unsecured email system)?

    Comment by SRP — April 5, 2020 @ 6:54 pm

  2. @SRP–I don’t know. Or he had a different judgment regarding the trade-off between mission readiness and crew health. Maybe he thought Crozier was panicking. Or maybe he was too complacent, as you suggest. Like I said in the post, I can think of many scenarios that are consistent with the observations, and are basically observationally equivalent. As a result, I withhold judgment.

    But FBOW, that’s what chain-of-command is about. If you disagree with the superior’s way of handling the situation, try to circumvent him/her first by going to his/her superior, and if that is unavailing, resign. Leaking is a pernicious way to address a disagreement with a superior.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 5, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

  3. It seemed ambiguous whether Crozier “leaked” the memo, although using the unclassified system and sending the email to so many people is probably de facto leaking.

    Comment by SRP — April 5, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

  4. While I can see both sides, I think on the basis of known information, going VFR Direct to the media, which is what he did, isn’t the fix. Any CO of a deployed CVN is going to get a response to being non-combat ready. His actions remind me of Mark Felt of the FBI leaking to WaPo on Nixon instead of appearing before Sam Ervin. Dishonorable, unless he really was being stonewalled and he was docked at Guam.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 5, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

  5. With all due respect, sir – there is no justification for the unsecured email to dozens of people within the navy. There is also no allowance for disobedience of orders. None. An order given is to be executed to the best of ones ability, or refused. And if refused, there better be a very good reason for refusal – such as an unlawful order. The likelyhood of an unlawful order being given are so remote as to be impossible to calculate. Now, the biggest thing I’ve ever ‘commanded’ is a UH-1 helicopter, and the most people I can get on that is maybe a dozen(limited equipment).

    During the email debacle, and even before the SECNAV had already been in contact with the CO onboard the CVN in question. Serious actions were underway, and help was being mobilized. Also, the immediate supervisor of the CO was already onboard the CVN, and wasn’t informed of the CO’s concern until he got the email!

    His actions imperiled the readiness and defense posture of a MAJOR force projection, already on station in a very critical part of the world. The Chinese have made no bones about their willingness to expand their control of the S China Sea, all the way past the Sulu archipelago. The E China sea is already lost to them, and we are hanging on by a few boats from keeping the S China sea free for navigation. There is no reason at all that a CO of a major asset would discuss any factor of his command and the readiness posture publicly. Not only should he be fired, I would like to see him lose a stripe or two, and maybe sent into retirement.

    Our armed forces are not a lab to learn about this virus. If they want to help, and have the resources to help, and the time, and there are no other pressing concerns(like maintaining the US security), then maybe – if the CO thinks there is value could some research on viral spread, and virology uptake be examined.

    Our fleet of 12 CVNs are the backbone of what the US considered right from the start. The founders did not make room for a standing army – as they had learned the lessons of Rome and Pomerium. There was to be no march on Philly from a general bent on control of the people. However, they did make room for a navy, because a navy projects strength, and independence. In a matter of a few days, this idiot CO made China, and the rest of the world aware of our weakness. In fact, he shouted it from the rooftops! What a self-serving tool. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

    Go Army,

    Comment by doc — April 5, 2020 @ 9:17 pm

  6. It seems to me that what is happening here is a conflict between a leader and managers. If the Captain is a leader then he looks after the interests of his staff. These are people he may have to call on to follow him to their deaths. I imagine it is a very lonely place when you look back and see your followers returning to safety leaving you to do or die on your own. Or even worse shooting you in the back. Managers seem to believe that contrary to the evidence you can force people to fight and die for the money. To quote Clint Eastwood in one of his movies, “dying ain’t much of a living boy”. As for putting carriers in the South China Sea, you might as well paint concentric circles on them in red and white for the missiles. This is like China taking up the Cuban cause and sending ships to the Caribbean
    As a well known economist said once, “when goods don’t cross borders armies will”, so before you embark on economic warfare it would be as well to remind the politicians of this.
    Another thing to remember is that governments don’t keep secrets from their enemies, they keep secrets from their electors. The Chinese probably know more about the US armed forces than the Pentagon. One of their values will be morale, a very slippery thing to measure and maintain.

    Comment by Peewhit — April 5, 2020 @ 11:47 pm

  7. Interesting points all, what needs to be remembered is: the military is in the grisly business of trading casualties and lives for goals strategic, tactical, political, etc. Sometimes these goals are communicated down the chain of command, more often not. From the stories available, it seems there were strategic and political goals (just a surmise on my part). Going outside the chain of command is almost unthinkable unless a resignation of command and service is tendered at the same time as suggested by the Prof.
    Some sailors aboard don’t like being fodder – tough shit. They ought to take a look around and realize what they are part of and the oath they took. They did not sign up simply to build their resume. If they did, they made a serious misjudgement. Coincidentally, there were no quotes, at least from things that I’ve read, from sailors who understand and function in that world.
    Once again, not knowing all the facts this is just blather.

    Comment by Donald Wolfe — April 6, 2020 @ 8:48 am

  8. Watch the Navy ship movement, the US Navy projects power, wherever they go “things happen” they seem to be heading towards South America, looks like Trump started an all out assault on the drug cartels and their buddies in government.

    Comment by Joe Walker — April 6, 2020 @ 8:51 am

  9. As Gen Larry Welch used to say, “you only volunteer once in this program”.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 6, 2020 @ 8:55 am

  10. I don’t know how much of a difference this makes, but here it is, reported in several places:

    Comment by elmer — April 6, 2020 @ 9:09 am

  11. The point has been made that the Chinese “know more about US armed forces than the Pentagon.”

    One would hope that’s not the case.

    Apparently the implication is that it was no big deal to disseminate unsecured correspondence about the operational readiness of an aircraft carrier.

    I am wondering how the Chinese would know about coronavirus on an aircraft carrier, absent such dissemination and eventual publication in the media?

    Apparently, the Chinese – and others – were able to track Killery Pandersuit’s unsecured server located in a bathroom (which may be why she destroyed so much evidence).

    I can’t see that this would be the same in the Pentagon.

    Comment by elmer — April 6, 2020 @ 9:16 am

  12. Now we know the ‘rest’ of the story. The CO got it, and he got scared. All the while, clamoring behind the bellbottoms of his sailors well being. “It’s all for the well-being of the men and women under my command”. Lying arsehole. He – got – scared. He doesn’t deserve to command a pail and mop. Put him in hack for the safety of the rest of the nation.

    Comment by doc — April 6, 2020 @ 11:24 am

  13. So where, when, and how did the virus get on board the ship and when was it first identified.
    Did the Navy have instructions at that time about on-shore or supplier contact and, if so,
    were those instructions followed?

    Comment by Eric — April 6, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

  14. My understanding is the current theory is that crews caught the virus during the DaNang port call—5 days, in hotels, restaurants, touring.

    Now, Modly has removed all doubt as his being a complete DB, what an embarrassing “speech”.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 7, 2020 @ 8:00 am

  15. Modly resigned(before being fired by SecDef). Like a circular firing squad over there.

    Marines – hoorah

    Comment by doc — April 7, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

  16. I’m just hoping Navy subs haven’t been hit with the virus.

    Comment by SRP — April 7, 2020 @ 5:46 pm

  17. Thanks for this Prof.

    Just to show you that not only are you not Robinson Crusoe on disobeying orders, you’re not all that unsuited to life in the Navy: the most famous-est ever English sailor once disobeyed a clear order (‘I really do not see the signal’), and after he died they put a statue of him on top of the most ridiculously tall column anywhere, right in the centre of London.

    I’ll leave it there and won’t dare breathe a word about ‘Kiss me, Hardy’.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 8, 2020 @ 7:58 am

  18. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break–Nelson at Copenhagen was one of the examples in my paper 😉

    Comment by cpirrong — April 9, 2020 @ 10:01 pm

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