By Guy Snodgrass
In a 1757 letter to his Virginia Regiment Captains, then-Lieutenant General George Washington commented on the importance of good order and discipline when he wrote that, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.”
Then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly no doubt considered good order and discipline to be his primary rationale when announcing his quick decision to remove Captain Brett Crozier from command of USS Theodore Roosevelt, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with an active—and growing—coronavirus outbreak.
Crozier had crafted a four-page memorandum to memorialize his concerns about the coronavirus spreading throughout his ship, a memo he then emailed to his chain of command (and allegedly to others outside the chain of command). The memo subsequently made its way to the San Francisco Chronicle—who promptly published it—setting off a tumultuous week of intense scrutiny for the Navy as members of the media descended to scrutinize coronavirus response efforts for USS Theodore Roosevelt and the Fleet.
Modly undoubtedly intended Crozier’s firing to signal a restoration of good order and discipline by holding Crozier accountable for circumventing the chain of command. As Facebook videos and countless social media posts demonstrated, Modly’s decision had the opposite effect.
It is in this spirit that the U.S. Navy should immediately reinstate Captain Crozier as USS Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, a possibility left open by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday.
No, this isn’t an impassioned plea for justice or a call to action. More facts need to be revealed to warrant a full exoneration (or confirmation) of Crozier’s sins. Rather, it’s a quick note to highlight the positive strategic outcomes that would benefit the U.S. Navy from restoring Crozier to command—a decision that would also restore faith with Sailors fleetwide.
The U.S. Navy’s longstanding culture includes swift judgment when relieving commanding officers from command—in most cases, for good reason. But Captain Crozier’s coronavirus concerns now appear justified as cases have continued to increase (more than 450 as of this note). Just this morning, a Sailor from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was found unconscious in their room on Guam while under quarantine. Even Captain Crozier himself has tested positive.
And now the Tuesday resignation of Acting Secretary Modly offers an opening… and the U.S. Navy should take it.
Restoring Captain Crozier would demonstrate unequivocally that even senior leaders can make mistakes, learn from them, and correct them when the situation warrants. His restoration to command would also reinforce the U.S. Navy’s desire for commanding officers to make difficult decisions under incredible pressure regardless of the consequences.
Placing him back in command sends a signal far and wide that we’ve learned the lessons of the tragic 2017 USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, when commanding officers were blamed for being too passive when it came to making tough decisions surrounding readiness shortfalls, a passivity that led to deaths of seventeen Sailors.
The U.S. Navy now has an opportunity to restore faith with nearly 5,000 Sailors onboard the Roosevelt. It would also go a long way to demonstrating that the Navy’s actions align with its stated principles of “Honor, Courage, and Commitment,” which would in turn inform Sailors as they consider their “stay” versus “go” decisions as enlistments and commissions expire. Placing Crozier back in the captain’s chair also helps narrow the wide rift generated between the Navy and the American public it serves following years of misconduct: the multi-year “Fat Leonard” scandal, pushing out nascent-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran, and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher’s misconduct.
The downside to restoration? The Navy would have to admit it made a mistake.
But rarely are lessons more powerful than when leaders demonstrate humility and a true love for the organizations they lead than when they say, clearly, “We were wrong.”
Then they correct the error.
Return Captain Crozier to the USS Theodore Roosevelt. There are hundreds of good reasons to do so… and only one bad reason not to.
Guy Snodgrass is chief executive of Defense Analytics, a strategic advisory and communications firm in Washington, D.C. He is a retired U.S. Navy commander and most recently served as director of communications and chief speechwriter for former defense secretary Jim Mattis. He is the author of “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.” Follow him on Twitter @guysnodgrass.