Lessons on Leadership From the USS Theodore Roosevelt

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The media-fed conflagration surrounding the removal of U.S. Navy Captain Brett Crozier as commander of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-72) has finally claimed its intended scalp: Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly resigned yesterday afternoon, after meeting with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Modly had made the decision to relieve Crozier of command on Thursday, April 2; on Friday, virally-spread video footage of the crew of the ship known as the Big Stick depicted wild and raucous cheering in support of Crozier, as their departing commanding officer exited the gangway for the last time. This set in motion the Beltway chattering classes’ screams for Modly’s scalp, and these were unabated over the weekend even as first President Trump, and then Secretary Esper on CNN Sunday morning voiced support for Acting Secretary Modly.

Alas, Mr. Modly’s remarks aboard the Roosevelt Monday morning, where he’d traveled to talk to the crew directly about the change in command, went over poorly, even as they were candid and heartfelt. But in giving the crew the detailed background to the events leading to the change in command, Modly criticized Captain Crozier harshly while questioning his judgment; these remarks were audiotaped and released to the media by mid-day Monday, igniting a firestorm calling for Modly’s immediate removal from office. A wide variety of critics, including Democratic officeholders in both the House and Senate, media personalities across the political spectrum [e.g., Bill Kristol and Rachel Maddow], and former senior officers in the armed forces [e.g., U.S. Army 4-star Barry McCaffrey] all demanded Modly’s ouster.

Given the departure of the acting secretary, arguing the “balls and strikes” of “L’Affaire Theodore Roosevelt” may seem moot. But as any close observer of naval affairs can affirm regarding, in particular, the disposition of the U.S. fleet, this episode demonstrates once again a bad outcome for the forgotten men and women who answer to the appellation of “American Taxpayer” – borne of errant knowledge or willful politically-motivated misinformation, and due solely to the bonfires created by the media and their acolytes in the arrogant and often corrupt Beltway/Manhattan ruling class. 

A review of the facts here offers some valuable lessons about leadership – or its lack thereof – via an affair that, sadly, is all too typical in modern Washington. (Full disclosure: I have known Mr. Modly for more than 25 years, and as a former work colleague with deep knowledge of his personal integrity, professional competence, and most importantly, reverential love for the United States Navy and its extended family, I am a strong defender of his decision to relieve the commander of the Roosevelt; I say this having considered detailed facts of the case that most critics have blatantly ignored. I also am very hopeful Captain Crozier sees a repassage to his career in the Navy, something former Acting SECNAV Modly very much wanted as well.). Here are the relevant facts of the case, including details the screaming Beltway critics ignored in their rush to judgment:

  • The Roosevelt docked at Da Nang, Vietnam, in a historic show-the-flag visit from March 4th-9th, just the second carrier to visit Vietnam since relations were restored in 1995. While Navy operations planners are scanning the world in following the coronavirus outbreak and proceeding with caution, Vietnam had only around 20 reported cases then. The visit proceeded, as it was considered important as a signal to China, North Korea, and Russia of growing American-Vietnamese rapprochement and friendship.
  • Several of the Roosevelt’s crew stayed on shore in various Da Nang hotels, including one where two British tourists were found to have become infected with the virus; there were also visits to the Roosevelt from other nations’ naval air crews in early March. In any case, regardless of contact point, by mid-March, while cruising in the Philippine Sea, Roosevelt crew members began to test positive for COVID-19; a decision was made to put into Guam a week early, with the ship arriving there on Friday, March 27th, with 30 coronavirus infectees already identified.
  • Secretary Modly briefed the media that morning and announced there were 800 testing kits aboard the carrier, and more were being flown to Guam that day. By then, two sailors aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan, docked at Yokosuka, Japan, had also tested positive, leading to a lockdown of the entire base there, and the Navy’s concern about the combat readiness of naval airpower in the western Pacific had become heightened – especially with North Korea again test-firing missiles, and China trading insults with the United States over the virus and trade disputes, while menacing Taiwan as well.
  • By Sunday, March 29th, Roosevelt CO Brett Crozier had become increasingly alarmed about the threat of a rampant outbreak aboard the ship, with the entirety of the crew all on board in close quarters while docked at the Apra Harbor naval base. In an email interchange with Secretary Modly’s chief of staff Bob Love that day, though, Mr. Love asked Crozier what he needed: Love detected “no alarm bells, no hair on fire,” Secretary Modly relayed to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Captain Crozier merely answered “just speed,” when pressed for specific critical needs, and to “get people off the ship as fast as we could.” Following orders from Mr. Modly, Love gave Crozier the acting secretary’s personal cellphone number and told him to call 24/7 if he needed anything more.
  • Yet the next day, Monday, March 30, an exasperated and deeply-worried Crozier sent his 4-page letter to approximately 20 recipients via unsecured email, bypassing the carrier strike group commander, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, berthed just 15 feet down his passageway on the Roosevelt. Additionally, the Roosevelt CO chose to ignore the carrier's hyper-secure communications facilities with instantaneous access to Pearl Harbor, San Diego, and Washington, and also disregarded the personal cellphone number of Acting SECNAV Modly, given him the day before, for immediate direct access to the top of his chain of command. That same day, Modly’s chief of staff, Mr. Love, called Captain Crozier a second time, as follow-up, but heard no new requests or concerns, nor any notice of the frantic letter which appeared the next day, Tuesday, March 31, in the San Francisco Chronicle (which happens to be Crozier’s hometown newspaper).

The publication of Crozier’s plea for help was, as Secretary Modly pointed out, predictable in this digital communications age, but it caught the Navy brass by surprise, both in form and substance (e.g., the letter was not addressed to anyone, and contained no detailed specific action plan or insights into what about the Navy's surge of resources wasn't going well). Most pointedly, Crozier's missive did not at all "square" with the CO not talking to Admiral Baker, berthed within feet of him on the Roosevelt, at all about this, nor with the previous days' communications with Secretary Modly's staff that included availability of a direct line to Modly. Predictably though, the story made national news immediately, and among other things caused concern and consternation for the families of the Roosevelt’s crew, as well as deflating morale among the crew themselves. Infections by then had hit around 100 and were sure to grow (there are now 230 infected including Captain Crozier himself, though none hospitalized, and more than 2000 Roosevelt sailors are isolated in hotels on Guam).

Modly talked to Captain Crozier directly on Wednesday, April 1, and Crozier admitted he had avoided Admiral Baker or his other communication options [again, including the highly unusual opportunity to call Secretary Modly directly, 24/7, for anything needed, and again, having shown no outsized concern to Mr. Love on the phone within hours of emailing out his letter to a broad audience in an unsecured manner]. Crozier reiterated to Modly only that he felt the situation was urgent and did not want to be told to not send out his “distress flare.”

Here's the moment when leaders must make tough decisions: Modly, considering [a] the sequence of events and the distress caused, [b] the lack of forthrightness from Crozier, either with Admiral Baker, or Messrs. Love or Modly themselves and [c] the consequences of Crozier's strange choice for his communication of a warning, given other considerable options, relieved Crozier of command the next day, on Thursday, April 2nd.  That afternoon Modly gave a detailed press conference explaining his actions, showing unusual candor but also praising the stellar career of Captain Crozier, a decorated naval aviator and combat veteran. The Acting SECNAV also emphasized that in no way was Captain Crozier's career over and that he believed in redemption; he just felt that in this extreme situation of COVID-19, a steadier hand was needed aboard the Roosevelt

On Friday, April 3rd, the viral video of Captain Crozier leaving the Roosevelt amidst a thunderous ovation from a loyal and appreciative crew set off intense criticism of the Navy's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak on the carrier. Modly’s speech aboard the ship on Monday, April 6th, which included explicit criticism of Captain Crozier, was also leaked to the media, and only intensified the negative reviews of the Navy’s handling of the affair by the Beltway chattering classes. On Monday night, President Trump said he was now going to get personally involved as it sounded "like a dispute between two good people." Secretary Modly, in turn, issued an apology for the harshness of his remarks on Monday morning aboard the Roosevelt, and he again praised Captain Crozier and his concern for his crew, but by yesterday afternoon SecDef Esper had Modly’s resignation in hand.

Again, as of this writing, some 2000 of an anticipated 3000+ of the crew needing removal have been moved into hotels on Guam, and still, there are no hospitalizations. The ship is being thoroughly cleaned. What are the lessons and takeaways here?

  1. Clearly, Captain Crozier is to be commended for his fanatical commitment to the health and well-being of his crew. Further, he has had a stellar career, and one hopes this one incident is not a cause for exiting the U.S. Navy he loves; life is full of second chances.
  2. But the politicians and media people and armchair generals who criticized Acting Secretary Modly’s handling of Crozier never were working in full consideration of the facts. They were not aware of the communications directly between Crozier and Modly and his team, or of their 24/7 avail for Crozier; nor of the proximity of Rear Admiral Baker to Crozier; nor of the consternation and morale hit to the crew and their families, and the broader Navy family, all caused by Crozier’s letter; nor of the strategic consequences of widespread knowledge of compromised American naval power in the western Pacific, in the tense moments of the present. For President Trump and Secretary Esper to ignore all these factors, and to give in to the Beltway media bonfire stoked against Secretary Modly, is shameful, and a dereliction of leadership in its own right.
  3. Coolness under pressure, especially aboard a nuclear aircraft carrier, is of paramount importance now, as the United States works through the most serious pandemic challenge in a century, something de novo for all of us, but nonetheless unavoidable: quite simply, Captain Crozier left Secretary Modly with no choice but to remove him. To express this differently, if Crozier had given Modly or his chief of staff an itemized list of requests and been ignored, or if Admiral Baker had for some reason inexplicably muzzled him in an attempt to draw the Navy’s attention to his plight, his actions would be seen as admirable, even heroic. But as Modly has explained, first in his press conferences of March 27th and April 2nd and then in multiple media appearances since, the Navy was, in fact, acting swiftly and along the lines as talked about and needed by Crozier. This lack of judgment in Crozier while under extreme pressure is what led Modly to lose confidence in him and relieve him of command.

But the media has ignored virtually the entirety of the details here, or their timing, and hence the picture painted to the masses, capstoned by the cheering crew as their captain departed down the gangway, is a distorted one. It is egregious that Secretary Modly has been removed for making a tough call solely because of the media-fed bonfire and Democrat critics exploiting this as another opportunity to attack Trump. That is, if there had been NO media or Democrat screams, Secretary Modly would still have his job. The fecklessness of SecDef Esper here, and frankly of Mr. Trump as well, is palpable.      

As for Captain Crozier, to the degree he panicked in a moment of hyper-concern, it’s regrettable, but forgivable given the times: let’s go forward with Crozier again on his way to flag rank, in a reassignment.

Meanwhile, Mr. Modly, himself having led a long and distinguished career of service to his country, will be fine, but the American Taxpayer has lost his valuable services due to yet another all-too-frequent example of Beltway cave-in. There is no human being alive more dedicated to the United States Navy, and Modly was among the Navy's most vociferous advocates for a modernized 350-ship fleet across the 2020s [with three new Ford-class carriers], and how to make it happen cost-effectively.

So, the real leadership lesson? There are two here: first, tough calls are, by definition, never easy, but made in the fullness of all relevant facts, carry their own integrity. Mr. Modly bent over backward to offer Captain Crozier whatever he needed, including a direct line 24/7 availability. The lack of any reach-out to Modly or his staff before sending that viral distress letter that was soon in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as the bypassing of Admiral Baker there within feet of Crozier’s quarters, was dispositive. The lack of situational awareness, in terms of how that letter would be received to various audiences (the crew itself, their families, the broader Navy, adversarial powers), was also dispositive.  This is tough decision-making we can admire, even if disagreeing on substance. (Having said all this, it is true that if Modly could re-do Monday’s visit to the Roosevelt, he’d surely edit his remarks, which were harsh toward Crozier, stay aboard much longer than his 30-minute visit, and take direct questions from the crew. But however infelicitously handled his visit, it changes none of the events that led to Crozier’s unfortunate removal.)

And the second lesson here, specific to the ways of Washington: it is sheer folly for Messrs. Trump and Esper to give in to the howlings of arrogant but clueless ruling class critics inside the Beltway, who will scream epithets at someone like Modly at every opportunity, almost always, as here, in total ignorance of the facts of the case. Once again, the American Taxpayer is the loser, when good people forfeit their jobs thanks to overt political circumstances and cowardice in the face of Beltway bonfires.

Perhaps someone should remind Secretary Esper of the Navy’s motto: Honor, Courage, and Commitment. Good character traits to live by.

Mr. Chapman is an economist and investor in Washington.

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