War Stories

America’s Military Is Under the Weather

Trump is ginning up another conflict with Iran while the coronavirus spreads through the services.

Aerial shot of the deck of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt
The USS Theodore Roosevelt is seen off the Adriatic coast between Albania and Italy on Aug. 16, 1993.* Derrick Ceyrac/Getty Images

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The outbreak spreading on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers, reveals yet another victim of the coronavirus pandemic: the American military’s ability to patrol the world’s oceans and deter or fight wars.

The Roosevelt is the most heavily afflicted ship in the U.S. fleet—93 of its more than 4,000 sailors have tested positive, 86 are showing symptoms,, and, after some delay, 2,700 are being evacuated to facilities in Guam, where the ship was ported. But it isn’t the only ship to be hit by the virus. At least two sailors have tested positive on the USS Ronald Reagan, another aircraft carrier and the only one forward-deployed in the Pacific Ocean. On the USS Coronado, a much smaller littoral combat ship, nine sailors tested positive as far back as March 18.

Warships and submarines, even more than cruise ships, are breeding grounds for viruses. Crew members are packed into narrow confines, working and sleeping within inches of one another.

And the Navy is not the only service getting walloped. According to official figures released today, 893 U.S. military personnel across all the services have tested positive, as have 306 Defense Department civilian workers, 256 dependents, and 95 contractors. Of them, 85 have been hospitalized; five are dead.

The point is, military life—whether in boot camp, routine peacetime deployments, training exercises, or combat operations—is inherently a close-contact business. If one person in a unit is infected, others soon will be too—probably many others, since they can’t follow the guidelines that most of us civilians are observing to “flatten the curve.” Social distancing, much less working from home, is impossible.

Since the outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt hit headlines earlier this week, military chiefs have taken pains to assure the country—and warn our adversaries—that nothing has changed. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly told reporters, “I would like to emphasize that if the ship needs to go, if there’s a crisis, the ship can go.” Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, chimed in: “It is fully operational now,” he said of the Roosevelt, and “it will remain so.” The top Air Force spokesman, Brig. Gen. Edward W. Thomas Jr., similarly warned, “If any adversary believed that our defenses were weakened, it would be a serious miscalculation.”

Maybe so. Many U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines, pilots, and missile launch crews haven’t been affected by the virus at all—but still, the effect is clear. “It’s having an impact on readiness,” Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, acknowledged to reporters on Wednesday.

The outbreak on the Roosevelt came to light only after the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote a four-page letter to the Navy’s top admirals on Monday, pleading for an order of evacuation and quarantining as soon as possible.*

“The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier wrote. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset—our Sailors.”

Writing such a letter to his superiors was an extraordinary step—a career-risking move. It probably would have been kept bottled up—no point alerting the enemy to our weaknesses, some admiral might have said—if someone hadn’t leaked it to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published the letter in full on Tuesday. Even then, the same day, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on CBS News that he hadn’t yet read the letter. Finally, on Wednesday, the top Navy officers expanded and accelerated the evacuation.

And yet, amid this crisis, the Trump administration has ordered U.S. military commanders to prepare a campaign to destroy Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, as part of an overall effort—spearheaded by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien—to weaken the regime in Tehran.

According to the New York Times, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Robert White, wrote a rare dissenting memo, objecting that the campaign would require sending thousands of additional troops to Iraq and would distract from the main U.S. mission in the country: training Iraqi troops to fight ISIS.

Since White’s memo, other Pentagon officials and officers have raised concerns about another problem with the plan—sending U.S. armed forces, some of whom may already be infected with the coronavirus, to a region where the virus is spreading like wildfire.

Trump, at least rhetorically, has so far sided with the hawks, tweeting on April 1: “Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

Quite apart from the many other risks of ginning up a war with Iran, the health risks to our service members are unacceptably high. Americans aren’t the only ones at a disadvantage right now. It’s time to step up diplomatic efforts to deal with our various crises and conflicts. Too bad we have so few diplomats.

Update, April 2, 2020 at 4:39 p.m.: A Reuters correspondent is reporting that the Navy will relieve Capt. Brett Crozier, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt who wrote the leaked letter, asking his superiors to deal more speedily with the pandemic spreading across his ship. The navy bosses are citing a “loss of confidence” in the captain for his presumptuousness. One wonders how many sailors, to say nothing of their anxious families, will lose confidence in the Navy. A truly responsible president or defense secretary should fire the admiral who made this decision—and replace him with Crozier.

Correction, April 2, 2020: Due to a photo provider error, the caption for this piece’s photo misspelled the name of the Adriatic coast. This piece also originally misspelled Capt. Brett Crozier’s first name.