The Navy Is Losing Its Fight Against the Coronavirus

Two very large ships traverse water near the rock of Gibraltar.
The USS Vicksburg escorts the USS Theodore Roosevelt through the Strait of Gibraltar on March 31, 2015. Anthony Hopkins II/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

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While the rest of the country has gone to war with the coronavirus, the sailors of the USS Roosevelt have also gone to war with their bosses. As the COVID-19 outbreak spread rapidly across the warship, Capt. Brett Crozier desperately tried to get his sailors off board and treated. When his efforts were initially stymied, he sent an angry letter to Navy brass, which was then seen by the public. Navy leadership publicly imploded, and Crozier was relieved of duty, to the ire of his sailors. Now, Crozier and nearly 300 of the Roosevelt’s shipmates have tested positive for the virus. It’s a story worth paying attention to, not only because it’s a stark example of the massive gulf between civilian and government leadership in the midst of the pandemic, but also because it shows that military might is not enough to deal with this new global battle.

On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Adam Weinstein, the national security editor at the New Republic, about the outbreak on the Roosevelt and the myriad ways the virus is afflicting the Navy and the military. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: You’ve said the military is actually more vulnerable than the outside world to the coronavirus. What do you mean by that?

Adam Weinstein: This is a very large bureaucracy that has a very specific mission, and that mission is not one that lends itself very easily to self-quarantining or social distancing or any of the precautionary measures that you need to take in contagion.

Tell me a little bit about life on a boat. How tight are the quarters? Why is it such a good place for something like the coronavirus to spread?

It varies a little bit. It’s not just your living quarters—the common areas usually have just enough space for four people to play at a card table intimately. You share headroom and restrooms, and you share showers. All of that stuff is done within small passageways because all the space needs to be taken by engineering equipment, armor, fire control, all of these different parts of a ship. There’s just no place on a ship where privacy and sanitation are really at a premium. And that’s part of the life that you sign up for.

That’s why Crozier, in his letter, made a really salient point, which is: With the exceptions of a handful of senior officers’ state rooms, like his own, nothing on a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation. And this is regarding the Roosevelt, which is the size of 3½ football fields and carries up to 5,500 sailors, airmen, and Marines. It’s a massive, massive ship. It’s easy to get lost in, but it’s very hard to find privacy in.

If you can say that about that ship, you could say that about every ship.

Exactly how the coronavirus made its way onto this carrier is still unclear, right? One theory has to do with a diplomatic trip the ship made to Vietnam in early March. It’d been planned for months—it was a pretty big deal for the Trump administration.

Most of the sailors were given some form of liberty. They stayed in hotels. They circulated and visited sites. And toward the end of that port call, they learned that two British tourists at one of their hotels tested positive for COVID-19.

The decision was made then to test with a temperature check until they could get more testing—all the sailors at that point tested negative. It was only when they got back underway that they started getting seeing illnesses. On March 22, the first sailor was diagnosed with COVID-19. It spread very quickly from there within three days. By the time the ship docked in Guam on March 27, the orders were, Stay on the ship, we’ll figure it out.

And that’s when Crozier wrote his letter.

He did a few things before he wrote that letter. That’s what’s interesting about this, because at one point, Thomas Modly—the now former Navy secretary—had basically said, Well, Crozier went outside of the chain of command. That’s not entirely true, because within a few days of porting in Guam, Crozier was already in communication with Modly’s chief of staff and his bosses. Crozier said, Get 90 percent of this crew off so we can stop the contagion and test everybody. And it seemed his superiors favored less ambitious efforts. At that point, Crozier shot out his four-page memo to probably about 20 or 30 people in the service, including his staff and a couple people who were in his chain of command as well as a couple people who weren’t.

This letter comes out, making the case that: I need to get my sailors off of this ship because it’s not safe for them. Very quickly, there’s this jumbled response from the Navy. One superior comes out supporting the captain, and then the acting head of the Navy comes in and says no.

This is what I mean when I say the virus is an existential problem for the military. Part of that is because service members of every rank have been trained to see lethality and readiness for combat as the highest values, higher than your personal well-being. It’s grounded into you from the first day you put on uniform. What Crozier posed to his superiors is that when there’s no violent threat on the horizon, how much of this lethal readiness is too much? He made this point: We can fight if you need us to, even with the virus raging, because that’s what we do. But we’re not at war with anybody right now. So there’s no reason for my sailors to die.

That’s why this memo hit everybody hard in the service, because it looks like a black eye. When it got out, it seemed embarrassing.

The response to Crozier’s memo, after it was public, was incoherent. Everybody was saying different things. Modly got on the news and told CNN, We’re working on it, we have a plan in place, which was true because he was in communication with Crozier and his staff at that point. That same afternoon, Modly’s boss, Secretary Defense Mark Esper, got on the evening news and said, I haven’t made any decision and I haven’t read the letter in full. They were nowhere near on the same page. It was the beginning of this massive schism that’s happening right now between civilian and military leadership.

What do you mean when you say that?

You see a real difference between how the admirals and the political appointees are dealing with this. The admirals are looking for how to get the sailors off and investigate what happened. But the political appointees, specifically Modly and Esper, seemed like they were completely foundering and looking for a political mitigation tactic that might save them face.

Crozier gets fired and is relieved of his command. He has to leave the ship. The way that most of the public finds out about this is through videos shared on social media of him disembarking from the ship, and droves of sailors on board the Roosevelt cheering him on.

How rare is this?

I was talking about this with other military reporters and they all said, “We have never seen anything like that.” The next day, when Modly flew out to the Roosevelt to give his own address to the sailors, there was another unprecedented event. Task and Purpose got audio of Modly giving his speech, and at the point where he called Crozier “too stupid, or too naïve,” you could literally hear one of the listening sailors go, “What the fuck?” For rank-and-file sailors to feel comfortable uttering profanities to the Navy secretary is a moment that should give us all pause.

There’s some reporting that the reason why Crozier was dismissed was that his bosses worried the president would demand his dismissal. They wanted to get ahead of that so that there wasn’t a chain of command issue. Then, of course, what Crozier did was go around the chain of command. As a former sailor, what’s your perspective on that?

I’ve always been interested in the points at which military dissent happens—when people in the chain of command reach outside to higher principles. There’s been a lot of that going on in the Navy as of late. The Navy secretary suddenly has a much more dangerous job than ever before.

Why do you say that?

Last year, the Navy was roiled by Trump’s call for clemency for Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was convicted of keeping war trophy photographs of himself with a dead Iraqi captive. So there was already this sense, when Modly came to the job, that you need to anticipate what the White House wants and carry it out. I think that’s an understanding most administration hopefuls have reached. It could be seen as a bit of a proximate factor for what happened with Crozier.

Do you attribute this breakdown between the civilian and the rank-and-file members of the Navy to Trump, or to poor management within the Navy itself?

It’s a combination. The Navy is generally a hidebound institution and is very loath to reform. The people who generally rise to the top are good at managing and mitigating changes. That being said, Trump’s presidency has brought into severe relief those existing issues in the military and in the Navy in particular. The system is not equipped for a commander in chief like that, which is why I think you might see more instances of commanders trying to do what Crozier achieved here.

And let’s be clear. He achieved it. He wanted to get his ship’s crew off that ship and to safety. Crozier seems to be somebody who was prepared for the consequences of his actions, however dire they were. And if there are more such commanders in the military, it might be interesting to see how that dynamic manifests in the next few years.

Tweet at me @marysdesk if you want to tell me what you’re thinking about during these times.

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