Editorial: Navy troubles: A fighting force shouldn’t be mired in politics

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The United States Navy is dysfunctional, with a failure of command from the top down. Instead of projecting an image of the most potent fleet in the world, the Navy has run aground in a mire of bad decisions and foolish chest-thumping by civilian and military leaders.

The fate of Capt. Brett Crozier, the former commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, displays a disconnect between Navy leadership and sailors. The fate of the crew shows leadership didn’t care about the growing COVID-19 spread aboard the ship until the press publicized their plight.

Capt. Crozier deserves an investigation conducted by an independent monitor to determine whether his removal from command was justified.

Officers do not get command of carriers by mistake. Capt. Crozier was well-vetted and proven in service before he was given command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. His crew knew that he was competent and cared about the welfare of his men and women in uniform.

Capt. Crozier was frustrated as the virus began to spread among his crew. He went to the chain of command, got little response and then issued an email to other officers warning them of the situation.

That letter was leaked to the press.

Without evidence, then Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly accused Capt. Crozier of leaking the email. Rather than wait for an internal Navy investigation, he removed Capt. Crozier from command. As the captain left his ship, his sailors gave him a tremendous ovation while chanting his name. Capt. Crozier also left with something else — he was infected with COVID-19.

Modly then proved that he was the man unfit for command. He visited the ship — criticized the sailors for their send-off to the former commander and launched into Capt. Crozier in a profanity-riddled tirade.

The former commander, said Modly, was “too naive or too stupid” to command. Those remarks destroyed any confidence most sailors had in the acting secretary and he resigned within days. Defense Secretary Mark Esper did not force Modly to resign, most reports said. He should have.

The evacuation of sailors, which Capt. Crozier begged for, had begun by then — but the infections had mounted. Almost 300 of the ship’s sailors were testing positive by the time Modly resigned. At least one sailor has died.

If, as some say, Capt. Crozier violated communication rules by using a non-encrypted channel for his communications, there was a way to properly resolve that question. That was via the usual internal investigation by naval officers trained for that work.

This isn’t the first blow to the Navy in recent memory. President Donald Trump himself overrode Navy disciplinary decisions in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, who was accused of war crimes. While it is true that the president is the commander in chief and had the right to intervene in the case, it was the wrong move. Like the Crozier case, it smashed morale. SEALs who did the right thing and reported Gallagher’s actions felt betrayed.

The president also fired then Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who had defended the Navy’s handling of the Gallagher matter.

The United States Navy should not be subject to political interference. The civilian leadership should intervene only in the most extraordinary cases. Neither Capt. Crozier nor Gallagher’s case rose to that level.

The damage to morale and to the normal course of the military justice system is incalculable. The Navy is a fighting force, not a football for politicians and civilian leaders who slam a captain for doing right by his crew.

The Navy must be on the high seas protecting American security, not mired in the mud of political battles.


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