More than a dozen members of Congress on Friday condemned the U.S. Navy’s decision to dismiss the Commanding Officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Earlier this week, in a memo leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, Capt. Brett Crozier accused the Navy of jeopardizing the lives of his crew, by failing to take swift action to mitigate an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard his ship. “Keeping over 4000 young men and women aboard the TR,” he wrote, “is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”
Anyone who has served in uniform can appreciate how extraordinary his letter was, even as its aftermath continues to unfold. In nine years as a Navy pilot, and many more since, I never witnessed or heard of anything like this. The captain of a deployed aircraft carrier directly challenged his superiors out of concern for those under his command. For that, he lost command of his ship, and almost certainly ended his career.
How did we reach this point, with the commanding officer of one of America’s most powerful warships pleading for the lives of his crew? The U.S. Navy, like the rest of America’s military, is rigidly hierarchical. It has to be. Deployed forces must be relied upon to carry out the orders of their commander in chief. From day one, every service member learns the importance of adhering to the chain of command. But what happens when the most unreliable link in that chain is its very first one?
President Trump has demonstrated, time and again, that he has no qualms about using the military to advance his personal political ends. He routinely stages uniformed personnel as props for partisan speeches. He treats deployments like political theater, as when he dispatched elements of the 82nd Airborne to the southern border to stoke fears of an immigrant invasion. And he undermines discipline and unit cohesion, pardoning war criminals convicted by military juries.
The rot may start at the top, but it reaches downwards. On the eve of a presidential visit to a U.S. installation in Japan, the Navy initially complied with a White House request to cover the words “John S. McCain” on the stern of a warship. It was a grotesque demand, designed only to spare President Trump from laying eyes on the name of a deceased critic. Trump installed the current acting secretary of the navy, responsible for the decision to dismiss Capt. Crozier, when former Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer resigned over the president’s decision to pardon Eddie Gallagher.
None of this is normal. While the military is obliged to execute lawful orders to defend the nation, that is not what is happening here. Within the Pentagon, there has been a wholesale tonal shift to match the one coming out of the White House. In keeping with the Trump administration’s hostility towards the media, for example, the Pentagon went 300 consecutive days without briefing the press. This would have been unthinkable under any previous administration, especially when the nation is deploying troops into combat zones.
The current crisis aboard the USS Roosevelt lays bare the dangers of blind obeisance to President Trump. When the COVID-19 virus first began to impact the military’s overseas operations, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper warned commanders not to take any action that might surprise or embarrass the White House, or challenge the president’s messaging about the crisis. For those on board the USS Roosevelt, the downstream effect of that order may well be deadly.
We may never know who leaked Capt. Crozier’s memo, but as a former sailor I appreciate the risk he took to spare the lives of his crewmembers. As a combat aviator, he made sure to first acknowledge that, if required, his ship would set sail and “beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our allies.” But the point of the letter is clear: “We are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
When I was on active duty, the leaders I most admired modeled not just physical bravery, but moral courage. For too many senior Pentagon leaders, however, the job description now requires standing mutely at attention as the president undermines the men and women who form the backbone of our military. When it comes to speaking truth to power, even to the president himself, we do have a few beacons to guide us. Like the vice admiral who, when the Navy attempted to cover the name of the USS McCain, defied the White House and squashed the order. In Capt. Crozier, we have another example to follow.
How do we support these leaders, those with the courage to challenge blatantly political directives that needlessly endanger the lives of those they lead? To begin with, we must acknowledge what civilian control of the military actually means. It is not simply allegiance to the president. It requires Congress to perform effective oversight. Now, more than ever, America needs its elected representatives to hold military leaders accountable.
By law, every service member has a right to alert any member of Congress about issues within the military, provided no classified information is exchanged. For those in uniform who may not trust their own representatives, there are plenty of young veterans now in Congress (including one bad-ass female Navy pilot), who have no patience with the sycophancy infecting the Pentagon. Many of these representatives have come to the defense of Capt. Crozier.
Most importantly, the American public must do its part. We must remain alert whenever our armed forces are misused by the president. The American military belongs to us, not him. In his letter, Capt. Crozier alludes to the absurd politics behind the catastrophe unfolding aboard the USS Roosevelt. “This will require a political solution,” he writes, “but it is the right thing to do. Sailors do not need to die.”
For those who have served, the greatest fear is not dying in battle. It is watching one’s brothers and sisters give their lives for no reason. That is what has been asked of the men and women aboard the Roosevelt. It is why Capt. Crozier had no choice but to write the letter. Reading it closely, however, I sense something beyond concern for his crew. I sense anger. His superiors in Washington, some 8,000 miles from where the Roosevelt is now moored, put politics ahead of people. It may well cost lives, if it has not already. That is something every American should be angry about.
Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives. Follow him on Twitter at @Team_Harbaugh.