Seasick: How the Coronavirus Upended the Navy

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S1: Over the last week, Adam Weinstein has been thinking back on his early days in the military. So, Adam, you were in the Navy for how long?

S2: Just four years. But I’ve been either working in or covering the military establishment since then.

S3: Adams, the national security editor at The New Republic. Now, you talked about this poem that guys in the Navy learn. Can you tell me about it?

S4: So when you go to the Naval Academy, you go in you for your first day. It’s called induction day I day. They take you in, they issue you uniforms, they shave your head, they put you in your room and teach you how to make your bed and fold your clothes.

S5: And then they give you this small book called Reef Points, which is called the Fleet Bible.

S6: And you have to memorize all of this information in this Bible and this is a process that all the service academies have, but it Navy, they have this one particular poem that you’re also required to memorize called The Laws of the Navy.

S7: The laws of the Navy is a poem that’s all about teamwork and obedience. It’s got this one stanza about taking on your chain of command.

S3: It concludes, tis well with seniors to fight. They prosper, who burn in the morning, the letters they wrote overnight.

S2: I think it’s remarkable that at the same time that, you know, they’re teaching prospective naval officers to tell Port from Star aboard. You know, the rules of the road when you’re actually underway on a ship. They’re also telling you, hey, be careful what you put in writing this lesson.

S3: It’s been top of mind for Adam this week as an angry letter from the captain of a U.S. warship caused Navy brass to publicly implode. That captain, a guy named Brett Crozier, was desperately trying to get his sailors off the USS Roosevelt as the Corona virus spread on board. But releasing a letter, it just isn’t the way the Navy does things.

S5: The first thing I thought of was the laws of the Navy. And wow, that’s a letter that’s probably going to end to sailors here. But it was also one that seemed like it was really necessary and it definitely struck a nerve in the American public right now while we’re stay at home. Quarantines and looking at how the military is dealing with these same issues that we are day to day.

S3: I mean, you’ve said that the military, you think is actually more vulnerable than the outside world to the Corona virus. Would you mean by that?

S5: Yeah, it’s it comes down to 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 quarantine or social distancing or any of the precautionary measures that you need to take in contagion.

S8: Today on the show, while the rest of the country has gone to war with the Corona virus, the sailors on the USS Roosevelt have gone to war with their bosses.

S9: Nearly three hundred of them are positive now, including Captain Crozier. And Adam says it’s worth paying attention to this fight because it shows how a rift in the military is widening. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S3: The saga of Captain Brett Crozier snowballed this week as his angry letter led to his dismissal. And then the captain’s dismissal led the acting secretary of the Navy to resign. But Adam says the debacle playing out on the USS Roosevelt, it isn’t unique.

S5: You know, it should be said that for all the attention that’s been given to the Roosevelt, it’s not the only ship that had instances of Corona virus. There’s also been reports from the USS Reagan, which is now docked in Japan. The USS Boxer, an amphibious ship, USS Coronado, which is based in San Diego and a destroyer in Washington state. And this is gonna be a problem that grows before anybody figures it out.

S10: I mean, 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 Corona virus to spread?

S5: I mean, there’s total economy of space on any ships. It varies a little bit. So, for example, you know, you have sailors who serve on fast attack submarines, which are the typically the smaller submarines who I have met, and they go to an aircraft carrier or a larger ballistic missile submarine.

S2: They’re like, whoa, it’s like it’s like getting into a Cadillac after you’ve been driving a Toyota. But it’s still it’s still tiny, it’s still cramped. And it’s not just your living quarters, your berthing spaces where I mean, the common areas are usually like, you know, enough space for people to play at a card table intimately. You share heads, restrooms, you share showers. And all of that stuff is done within small passage ways because all the space needs to be taken off by engineering equipment, armor, fire control, all of these different parts of a ship.

S6: 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. And that’s why that’s why Captain Crozier, in his letter, you know, he made a really salient point, which is with the exceptions, he says, of a handful of senior officers, state rooms.

S5: So referring to his own bedroom, none of the berthing on board a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation.

S2: Now, if you can say that about the Roosevelt, which is the size of three and a half football fields, nuclear powered aircraft carrier that carries up to fifty five hundred sailors, airmen and Marines, it’s 20 stories tall.

S3: Right.

S11: It’s a massive, massive ship. It’s easy to get lost in, but it’s very hard to find privacy.

S3: So if you can say it about that ship, you can say it and every ship. Yeah.

S1: Yeah, exactly how the Corona virus made its way onto this aircraft carrier. It’s still unclear. One theory has to do with a diplomatic trip the ship made to Vietnam in early March. It had been planned for months. It was a pretty big deal for the Trump administration. And when the USS Roosevelt docked in Danang, the soldiers got to get off.

S5: Most of the sailors were given some form of liberty. They stayed in hotels. They circulated and visited sites. And towards the end of that port call. I believe it was March 8th, they learned that two British tourists at one of their hotels tested positive for cocaine, 19. And and so the decision was made then to spot test at least with a temperature check until they could get more testing, gets to test spot tests. All the sailors, when they came back on board the ship, all the sailors at that point tested negative. It was only when they got back under way that they started getting seeing illnesses. Now, it was March 22nd when the first Roosevelt sailor was diagnosed with Cauvin, 19. It spread very quickly from there within three days. They had a handful more sailors, several who required medevac ing off the ship. And so in that short space between March 21st, when the first sailor on the ship was diagnosed and I think March 1, a 7 as they get to Guam. So they were only underway with cases showing themselves for a few days by the time they docked in Guam. And then the orders were stay on the ship. We’ll figure it out.

S3: And that’s when Captain Crozier, the leader of the ship, wrote his letter.

S4: Well, to be clear, he did a few things before he wrote that letter. And that’s what’s interesting about this, because at one point, Tom Madley, the now former Navy secretary who had relieved Crozier of his command and essentially fired him, had basically said, well, you know, he went outside of the chain of command and around his superiors.

S5: That’s not entirely true, because within a few days of them porting in Guam, Captain Crozier is already in communications with Motley’s chief of staff and his bosses. And there were disagreements at that point. Crozier said, get 90 percent of this crew off so we can stop the contagion and we can test everybody and see where we’re at. And it seemed that his superiors favored a little less stringent or ambitious efforts. And so talks with Motley’s chief of staff kind of hung up. And 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 of people into his chain of command and a couple of people who weren’t. And that’s just sort of snowballed into what we have today.

S10: So this letter comes out and, you know, this captain is really making the case that I need to get my sailors off of this ship because it’s just not safe for them. I can’t guarantee their safety and we’re not at war. He makes this point of we don’t need to be in a wartime stance. We can get people off this ship. And very quickly, there’s this kind of jumbled response from the Navy. One superior comes out supporting the captain and then acting head of the Navy comes in and says, no, no, no, no, no. This is not how we do this.

S5: Right. Yeah, I you know, I want to give. I want to give closure’s chain of command a little benefit of doubt here because of the unprecedented nature of the problem that he was really posing to them. This is what I mean when I say, you know, the virus is a bit of an existential problem for the military. Part of that is because the service members of every rank has been trained to see lethality and readiness for combat as the highest value is higher than your personal well-being. It’s ground into you from the first day you put on a uniform. And what Crozier the root the Roosevelts captain is basically suggesting posing to his superiors is, well, that’s an easy thing to tell service members. And for us as service members to say in a practice in a shooting war, there are. Our objectives are clear. But when there’s no violent threat on the horizon, how much of this lethal readiness is too much? And so he made that point. We can fight still if you need us to. Even with the virus raging, because that’s what we do. We are sailors. This is a warship. But we’re not at war with anybody right now. So there’s no reason for my sailors to die. And that seems pretty clear cut to all of us who have several weeks to sit home and think about it as we do when we read it online. For Crozier is commanders in the Navy and for the entire D.O.D.. This is not just a challenge, but really a gauntlet that’s been thrown of how much of our readiness posture are we really ready to throw aside in order to protect our people from this virus? That’s, I think, why this sort of memo hit everybody really hard in the service. Also, because it looked like a black eye when it got out, it seemed embarrassing.

S1: crochets letter was quickly leaked to the press. The acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas Moodley, he was under immediate pressure to respond along with other officials in the Trump administration.

S5: What’s interesting to me about the response immediately after closure’s memo gets out into the public is how there wasn’t any coherent one. It was everybody’s saying different things. Some models immediately got on on the news and told CNN, you know, we’re working on it. We have a plan in place, which was true because he was in communications with Captain Crozier and his staff at that point.

S4: That same afternoon, Mollie’s boss, Secretary Defense Mark S-4, gets on the evening news and says, I haven’t made any decision and I haven’t read the letter in full.

S12: While I have not had a chance to read that letter, read it in detail. Again, I’m going to rely on the Navy chain of command to go out there to assess the situation and to make sure they provide the captain and the crew all the support they need to get the sailors healthy and get the ship back at sea.

S4: They were nowhere near on the same page. The secretary of the Navy and the secretary of defense. And it was just the beginning of this massive scism. I think that’s happening right now between civilian and military leadership.

S3: What do you mean when you say that?

S5: Regardless of who in kroot Captain, Closure’s chain of command was against his requests and they were maximal requests, you start to see a real difference between how the admirals and how the political appointees are dealing with this and the admirals while they still had a ship and a captain to deal with. And so they are still looking for how do we get these sailors off and affect an investigation into what happened. But the political appointees, specifically Mottley and Asper, just seems like they were completely floundering and looking for a political mitigation tactic that might save them face.

S1: Eventually, these face saving tactics ramped up. Acting Secretary Moodley got Captain Crozier on the phone and they had a pretty good heart to heart.

S2: And Molly insisted publicly that we’re not going to shoot the messenger here the next day.

S5: He really. CROZIER And he does it with this language. It says, you know, Crozier is judgement was just obviously overwhelmed by the challenges in front of him and we have to get him out of the situation.

S1: But firing a captain who so fiercely advocated for his sailors did not go over well.

S5: Crozier gets fired, is relieved of his command, and so he has to leave the ship. And the way that most of the US public finds out about this is by videos shared on social media of him disembarking from the ship and droves of sailors onboard the Roosevelt cheering him on. Is that like how as this as a sailor, I forget as a sailor, as a journalist, like I was talking about this with other military reporters and they were all like, you know, we have never seen anything like that. Until the next day, when Secretary Molly decides to fly out to the TR to give his own address to the to the sailors of the ship over the one m.c the main intercom. And that was another unprecedented event where he basically, again, speaking to several thousand subordinates ages 18 to mid-40’s and says, well, you know, your captain was either too stupid or too naive to realize that that was going to that that letter was gonna get out to the public and give the Navy a black eye.

S13: And I don’t know where where are we on this pod with profanities? Go for it. So tascam purpose, military focused news and culture site that I once worked for. They got audio of Secretary Molly actually giving this speech.

S4: And at the point where he calls Captain Crozier too too stupid or too naive. You could literally hear one of the listening sailors go, what the fuck?

S14: I like that.

S5: As unprecedented as their raucous rallying applause for Captain Crozier was when he left the ship. Their response to the secretary of the Navy speech was. Like an eleven on the scale of unprecedented enis in the military for four rank and file sailors to feel comfortable uttering profanities to the secretary of the Navy is a moment that should give us all pause.

S10: Looking at the push and pull over chain of command here, you know, there’s some reporting that the reason why Captain Crozier was dismissed was because his bosses worried that the president would demand that he be dismissed. And they wanted to get ahead of that so that there wasn’t some kind of chain of command issue. And then, of course, what Crozier did was go around the chain of command. And I don’t know if that’s a. Good thing or a bad thing? Like, I just don’t know. As a former sailor, what your perspective on that is.

S15: It’s good and it’s bad and it’s it’s encouraging and it’s troubling.

S5: I’m always I’ve always been very interested in the points at which military dissent happens when people in the chain of command kind of reach outside to higher principles. Those are always interesting moments to me. And.

S2: There is. You’re right. There’s been a lot of that going on in the Navy of late. And let’s let’s give Thomas Manley just a little bit of sympathy that he has to secretary of the Navy has suddenly become a much more dangerous job than it ever was before his hazard.

S5: So last year, the Navy was being roiled by President Trump’s call for clemency for war criminals. Specifically, Eddie Galagher, a Navy SEAL who is accused of a whole bunch of things, but ultimately convicted of keeping a war trophy photographs of himself with a dead Iraqi captive.

S11: And that controversy really roiled the Navy and it cost the secretary of the Navy his job because the.

S2: Military uniformed officials really still wanted to make sure that some kind of punishment or discipline stuck to Gallagher.

S11: And so Richard Spencer, the previous Navy secretary, had sort of inserted himself in that process and in so doing had basically lost favor with the secretary of defense and he lost his job. Mark Esper fired that Navy secretary. And so there was already this sense, I think, when Tom modernly came into the job to be secretary of Navy, that you need to anticipate what the White House wants and you need to make sure that you carry that out and not go against it. I think that that’s an understanding that most administration hopefuls have reached. And it. Could certainly be seen as a bit of a proximate factor to what happened here when he fired Captain Crozier.

S2: Maybe he was anticipating what Trump wanted and certainly Trump, when asked about it in press conferences, were saying, oh, you know, this is the Navy. It’s not a literature course. Why are they writing letters? So that was a tough position for any secretary of the Navy to be in. But I do think that there is a sense that that job now is for keeping President Trump happy.

S11: And if you’re not going to do that, or if Mark espero says you’re not going to do says you’re not doing it very well, your jobs in trouble.

S10: I mean, you alluded to that when you talked about this sort of breakdown between the civilian and the rank and file members of the Navy. Do you attribute that to Trump or just to poor management within the Navy itself?

S2: It’s a combination of two. I would say, you know, the Navy is generally a hidebound institution and it is very loath to change a reform. And the people that generally rise to the top echelons are people who are very good at sort of managing and mitigating reforms and changes.

S5: That being said, Donald Trump being president has brought into.

S15: Severe relief. A bunch of those existing issues in the military and the Navy in particular and the system is not necessarily equipped for equipped for a commander in chief like that, which is why I think you might see more. Instances of commanders may be trying to do what Captain Crozier achieved here. And let’s be clear.

S11: He achieved it. He wanted to get his ship’s crew off that ship and to safety.

S15: And that has happened. And, you know, as a as a captain, you lose your job over that.

S11: Maybe that’s a fair trade off. You know, they do say that you’re supposed to go down with the ship when it goes down.

S15: And I think that Crozier seems to be somebody who was prepared for the consequences of his actions, however dire they may be. And if there are more such commanders in the military, it might be interesting to see how that manifests in the next few years.

S1: In the end, Captain Crozier may have been relieved of command, but it was Acting Secretary Moodley who seemed to resign in disgrace a few days after his tirade over the P.A. system on the USS Roosevelt. Moodley was out the third Navy secretary to leave during President Trump’s first term.

S5: Yeah. So it’s it’s interesting. The secretary of the Navy managed to stay in his job for maybe, what, another day or two after he fired Captain Crozier. So after Molly resigns, things get a little bit interesting.

S2: Is it in the realm of possibility that Crozier could get his job be reinstated? It is. But no further actions on that are gonna be taken until after an investigation of exactly what happened on the Roosevelt and around Crozier letter is completed. And it’s not clear how long that’s gonna take. But the D.O.D. has said that they wouldn’t make any further decisions about crochets fate until a full investigation had been done.

S16: Adam Weinstein, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Adam Weinstein is the national security editor at The New Republic. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Morra Silvers. Take care of yourselves out there. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you next week.