The United States was introduced this week to a reality that many in the military community have known about for decades.
Yes, Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, resigned Tuesday over the firing of Capt. Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and comments he made about Crozier’s character. But Modly had been following a precedent set down in an order from the Trump administration on the coronavirus pandemic. The military was to be a complicit bureaucracy to the whims of the commander in chief.
Stories of this type of bureaucratic hierarchy and the disconnect it creates reach back into the infamous tales that came out of the Vietnam war. But it seems in the decades since, thanks largely to the type of cinematographic hagiography that’s come out of Hollywood we have been convinced that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are led by men and women just as honorable as themselves.
With the firing of Capt. Crozier and the immediate backlash in the press, veteran community, in online reactions and in the ebullient reaction from the crew of the Roosevelt as he left the ship for the last time, the disconnect between Big Navy and reality once again bubbled to the service.
Thanks to the laser-like coverage from The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times, Americans were made swiftly and suddenly aware of the outbreak of COVID-19 on the Roosevelt. In early reporting on March 24, it was clear that numerous crew members tested positive and it was likely that the ship would go through the same outbreak previously seen on cruise ships.
By March 30, Crozier had recognized the situation was getting out of hand and asked for further clarification, and if nothing else, to disembark much of the crew in Guam (a giant military base) for quarantine and to maintain critical operation of the ship’s basic engineering. In that request, Crozier sealed his fate, because, according to reporting in The Guardian, Navy leaders were displeased that he had “copied too many people.”
What they apparently wanted was for Crozier to treat his ship like a cruise ship, dock in Guam, confine his crew to the ship, and wait it out all while quietly working in the background to deal with this before the news got out that the military had badly mismanaged it’s operations.
At least, that’s what my own experience in the Navy tells me was going to happen. To prove my point, one of the most respected Naval figures of our time, Adm. James Stavridis, though he criticized the decision to fire Crozier, said you can’t “send everyone ashore. The ship has weapons, billions of dollars of equipment, fire hazards, nuclear reactors.” The insinuation was those things are more important than the lives and well-being of the crew. To a certain extent that’s true, like when you are actively engaging an enemy in wartime. But it’s patently ludicrous in “peacetime” as we are now.
What enemy is worth the nearly 5,000 crew members falling ill. Assume 1 percent of them die. Are we, the American people at home who are being “defended abroad” by these sailors content with that arithmetic? Should 50 sailors die to keep USS Theodore Roosevelt “mission ready” in the Pacific?
That’s a false choice. It is entirely unclear if the Roosevelt could maintain the operability of all the systems Stavridis mentioned should all 5,000 crew members be infected in the same 2-3 week period. But this is what’s on offer for the American people. A military more concerned with saving face and materiel than with protecting its servicemembers.
Wars that go on forever. Missions that constantly shift. And finally, weak opposition to this endless state of war at the national level.
And while national Democratic leaders have been careful to condemn the captain’s firing, during the Obama years, I was on deployment on the USS Iwo Jima alongside the USS Theodore Roosevelt as we prosecuted Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a war rife with civilian deaths and blatant war crimes by our allies — intentional bombings of weddings, funerals, schools, hospitals — a new front in the endless state of proxy war in the Middle East.
I guess it’s too much to ask that the media would have jumped on the blunt stupidity of our involvement in that war as they have the firing of Capt. Crozier. But the point remains clear, I am not fooled by the statements of disapproval. No matter who’s in power, they cook up deployment schedules, keeping sailors stateside often for less than a year, while working them 50-80 hours a week to get the ship ready to return to the desert.
An endless cycle of deployments for wars no one is aware we are fighting, missions that barely change from one administration to the next in Washington. Soaring suicide and domestic violence problems among servicemembers. Blood to feed the gears and boilers.
Now that the spotlight is on the gross incompetence of our military leadership in Washington, let’s not lose sight of the wider conversation about the price of never-ending wars and the disastrous consequences for our servicemembers.