War Stories

The Wrong Man Lost His Job Over the Navy’s Coronavirus Bungling

The captain who tried to save his crew deserves a medal. Trump’s Navy secretary removed him.

Thomas Modly testifying in Congress.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly testifies on Capitol Hill on Dec. 3. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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The valiant-turned-tragic tale of Brett Crozier—the Navy captain who was fired for going outside the chain of command to save his sailors from a coronavirus outbreak on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt—is getting seamier and seamier.

To recap : On March 31, Crozier sent a letter to several senior Navy officers, asking them to accelerate the evacuation of his ship—which he’d docked in Guam—after dozens of sailors onboard had tested positive for the virus.

On Thursday, after the letter was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Modly, declared that he’d “lost confidence” in the captain and was therefore relieving him of his command.

Two days later, David Ignatius reported in the Washington Post that Modly had told associates he’d acted at the behest of President Donald Trump. Modly then phoned Ignatius at 1 a.m. to deny the story, saying he’d moved against Crozier before he heard from Trump. Rather, he acted in anticipation that Trump would want him to do so. (In some ways, this is worse than acting in response to a direct order, because it shows that Modly’s first instinct is to think of Trump’s political motives, not the imperatives of his own job.)

Now, in the most recent development, a recording of Modly addressing the 4,000 sailors of the Roosevelt has been obtained by Task & Purpose, and it deepens the Navy’s crisis even further. Crozier’s sin, according to Modly, was that he should have known his letter would leak to the press. If he didn’t know this, given the “information age that we live in,” Modly told the crew, “then he was either (a) too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose,” and that would be a “betrayal of trust, with me, with his chain of command.”

Gasps are audible on the recording, and one sailor is heard yelling, “What the fuck?” A widely circulated video, shot a few days earlier, showed Crozier disembarking from the ship to the applause and chants of hundreds of his sailors. It is a surefire act of alienation for an acting secretary of the Navy to suggest that the captain—who probably knew he was falling on his sword when he took action to save his men—was naïve or stupid. It’s even worse to suggest that he committed a “betrayal of trust,” when—as every officer knows—betraying the Navy is grounds for court martial.

“And I can tell you one other thing,” Modly continued. “Because he did that, he put it in the public’s forum and it is now a big controversy in Washington, D.C.”

This too says much more about Modly than it does about Crozier: It reflects an impulse to protect secrets more than sailors—and, at all costs, to avoid annoying Trump, who is trying to persuade the country that the coronavirus is under control.

An obsession with secrets and protocol is a long-standing trait of the military brass, but in this case, the Navy’s top officers privately argued against Modly’s decision, preferring instead to open an investigation into Crozier’s decision. (Ship officers are supposed to move up the chain of command with such letters, but in this case, the command was moving too slowly and his men were getting sick. Crozier himself has since tested positive for the virus.) At least two retired officers—Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of NATO—have spoken out in support of Crozier’s action and against his dismissal.

Even if one accepts Modly’s premise that ship commanders shouldn’t go outside the chain of command under any circumstances, especially when doing so might incite panic about the health of the sailors and the readiness of the U.S. fleet, it is now inarguable that the secretary’s own actions—the outright firing of the captain and the insulting tone of his comments to the crew—have made things worse. He has also almost certainly torpedoed morale throughout the Navy, and it wouldn’t be surprising if, in the next quarter, retention and recruitment rates plummet.

Modly—a businessman who graduated from the Navy Academy and once served as a Navy helicopter pilot—was nominated for his job just five months ago. He replaced Richard Spencer, who was fired after disagreeing with Trump’s pardoning of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.

Unless Trump wants the Navy’s image to suffer more deeply, or wants his efforts to counter the coronavirus to seem even more half-hearted, Thomas Modly should be next to get the boot, and Crozier should get a medal.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of What Next.