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Crozier Considerations

Brett E. Crozier (2).jpg
Captain Brett Crozier, USN. By U.S. Navy – Public Domain, Link

This is the most that anyone has cared about what has happened on a USN aircraft carrier for a good long time.

Lotta folks asking me what I think about Captain Crozier’s relief. The short answer is the same as the short answer with most things; it’s complicated, more complicated than simple accounts will allow for. I am completely in sympathy with Crozier’s central argument: CVN-71 was capable of engaging in combat activities even under conditions in which a substantial portion of her crew was sick, but since we are not at war considerations of crew safety should take precedent. We also have clear information about the degree to which Trump poisons all things; SecNav acted as he did because Trump’s previous interventions into what are normally treated as professional military decisions have become unbearable.

There’s currently a ton of material out there worth reading. I’d advise people to take a look at this David Ignatius piece, in which Acting Navy Secretary Modly admits to firing Crozier in an attempt to pre-empt Presidential action. Here is the… erm… ill-considered speech that SecNav gave to the crew of the Roosevelt. I also suggest reading this Lindsay Cohn et al article on some of the general considerations affecting command decision-making, including the problem of competing loyalties and combat readiness. See also Doyle Hodges on the Navy’s culture of command.

For my part…

Crozier’s assessment of the strategic situation, and of the relationship between that situation and the progression of the disease on CVN-71, seem to me to be clearly correct. The Roosevelt could fight if necessary, but in a non-critical situation the lives of the sailors should take precedent. That the captain himself tested positive reinforces that threat that the virus posed to the entire crew.

The counter to this mostly has to do with ways and means. Crozier made his protest not quite in the open, but in a way that made it likely that the letter would be widely disseminated and that it would be leaked to the press. He did so without clearing his action with his direct uniformed superior, who according to his own account, would not have allowed that extent of dissemination. This complicated decision-making across the government, and broke with an array of long-standing procedures against publicly discussing the combat conditions of a warship. And the argument that ship captains can’t be allowed to determine grand strategy on their own needs to be taken seriously. The letter from the Secretary of the Navy is unusually frank with respect to the situation. CVN-71 represented a substantial portion of US naval power in the Pacific, and military power is politically consequential even under circumstances short of open war, and Crozier’s actions not only removed the Roosevelt from action for a substantial period of time, but also undermined the chain of command and put every other captain in the Navy under severe pressure to manage the problem on their own.

The counter to this is that Crozier didn’t exactly make the decision on his own; he acted in a manner that brought the problem into the public sphere, and the disposition of a major military asset like an aircraft carrier and its crew clearly falls under the heading of “issues the public should care about.” Faced with public scrutiny, the administration and the Navy decided to facilitate the evacuation of the carrier rather than keeping it in operation. And… you just end up going around and around, because everyone who’s not a populist extremist recognizes that there are subjects on which expert decision-making should receive a least some insulation from less-informed public opinion, etc.

I am circling around to the view that Crozier’s actions were correct, honorable, and laudable, and that they also created a situation that made it impossible for the Navy, notwithstanding the current occupant of the White House, to keep him in his position. The difference between a competent administration and the one we have is that Crozier would not have felt compelled to go outside the chain of command, the SecNav would not be “acting,” and the Acting SecNav would not have been so terrified of his own President that he would have acted precipitously against the captain. But decisions with strategic consequences should lie firmly with the very senior leadership of the armed forces, and the civilians that the leadership serves.

Here are a couple of twitter threads that I found useful.

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