Article By Dallas Morning News Editorial:
The weeklong drama that ended Tuesday with the resignation of Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly is all the more tragic because it didn’t have to happen.
None of it.
Not the firing of USS Theodore Roosevelt Capt. Brett Crozier for a letter he wrote about a coronavirus outbreak on his ship. Not the subsequent tirade aboard the Roosevelt that led to Modly’s resignation. Not the fear and uncertainty among military families, nor the outpouring of support for Crozier that followed his April 2 firing.
Before you choose sides about who was in the wrong here, you should first ask yourself how we arrived at this broken chain of command and what it says about our commander in chief and, by extension, the morale of our 2.2 million active and reserve service members who are under unimaginable stress in often close quarters with little room for social distancing or quarantine while deployed.
Modly, you might recall, was an “acting” Navy secretary because his predecessor, Richard V. Spencer, was fired for trying to prevent President Donald Trump from once again intervening in the military justice system’s handling of a war-crimes case involving a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder but convicted last July of posing for photographs with a dead Islamic State fighter in Iraq in 2017.
Spencer was eventually fired for not including Defense Secretary Mark Esper in his attempts to convince the White House to not intervene in whether the SEAL should be demoted, as the jury in his military trial had ruled, or be allowed to keep his trident pin, an insignia SEALs wear denoting their membership in the elite force.
All this, Spencer said in an op-ed after being fired, was highly irregular. “Normally, military justice works best when senior leadership stays far away,” he wrote. “A system that prevents command influence is what separates our armed forces from others. Our system of military justice has helped build the world’s most powerful navy; good leaders get promoted, bad ones get moved out, and criminals are punished.”
Fast-forward to last week’s firing of Crozier, a Naval Academy graduate and respected captain of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and you’ll see that good leaders don’t always get promoted. To the contrary, in this administration under this commander in chief, they often get fired.
On April 1, Modly said of Crozier that “The fact that he wrote the letter up to his chain of command to express his concerns would absolutely not result in any type of retaliation.” Yet the very next day, the acting Navy secretary did an about-face, saying Crozier was fired for sending a letter asking for help to better contain a COVID-19 outbreak aboard his 5,000-crew ship in a “nonsecure, unclassified” email that he should have known would be leaked.
In the letter, Crozier said nearly 100 of his crew members had tested positive and he called for “decisive action,” removing all but some 500 essential crew members from the ship so they could practice social distancing on the ship’s close quarters.
“Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote in the letter. “If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors.”
In a video that has since gone viral, his crew appeared to appreciate his efforts, chanting his name and applauding as he left the ship after being relieved from duty.
After firing Crozier, Modly made the misguided decision to board the Theodore Roosevelt on April 5 in Guam and say of the ship’s former captain that that if he didn’t think his letter would be released he was either “too naive” or “too stupid” to be the ship’s commanding officer. Modly apologized, but then resigned not long thereafter.
Since leaving his command, Crozier has tested positive for the coronavirus and the number of his former crew that have tested positive has risen above 150. Importantly, the Navy says it now has plans to quarantine all but 1,000 crew members in Guam, where the carrier is docked, about 500 more than Crozier argued were needed aboard the vessel.
What’s most disturbing about all this is that it reflects the chaos emanating from the White House and our commander in chief at a time when what we need is a steady hand and trustworthiness. The unprecedented number of acting secretaries in this administration and the incredibly high turnover rate in nearly every department is also a sign of poor leadership.
Modly’s performance aboard the Theodore Roosevelt was, in our view, more than enough for him to tender his resignation. But then, we place responsibility for the entire episode on the desk of the president. It’s up to him to create an administration where competent leaders and the systems they oversee, both in the military and the government, work properly.
What’s incredibly telling, and sad, in all this, is that two decent and well-respected Naval Academy graduates and military leaders are now sidelined at a time when we need them most.
Tragically, all three men, Spencer, Crozier and now Modly, exited the scene at a time when their service was needed. We’ve said it many times, but, yes, leadership matters, especially in times of crisis. Sadly, what we’re seeing is that under this commander in chief’s leadership, critical components of our system are cracking apart. That’s dangerous, even in the best of times.
©2020 The Dallas Morning News
Visit The Dallas Morning News at www.dallasnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.