The Navy’s Crisis of Special Trust and Confidence
In 1983, when Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, it was Ronald Reagan’s official duty as president to commission these new officers. The commission Modly received, along with the rest of his classmates, noted that Reagan had “special trust and confidence” in his “patriotism, valor, fidelity, and abilities.” Nine years later, President George H.W. Bush wrote the same thing to me and my Naval Academy classmates. Among my classmates in the class of 1992 was Capt. Brett Crozier who, until recently, served the Navy and our country as the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Although I knew Crozier only glancingly in our time together at the Naval Academy and we haven’t seen each other since, we have both had the experience of commanding ships and leading sailors.
On April 2, Modly announced that he was firing Crozier as commanding officer because he had lost confidence in Crozier’s judgment after Crozier wrote a letter to Navy leaders outlining his concerns about dealing with an outbreak of disease aboard his ship. The letter, which was subsequently obtained by and printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, emphasized that the ship remained ready if needed in time of war or crisis. “If required, the USS Theodore Roosevelt would embark all assigned Sailors, set sail, and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our Allies.” But since the COVID-19 outbreak could not be slowed or contained in cramped shipboard conditions, he recommended that all but the bare minimum crew required to keep the ship’s aircraft, weapons, and reactors safe and secure be taken off the ship and placed in accommodations that met the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and the chief of naval operations for restriction of movement. “This will require a political solution,” he wrote, “but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”
In a portion of Modly’s remarks specifically directed at other Navy commanding officers, he sought to clarify the reason for Crozier’s relief:
It would be a mistake to see this decision as somehow not supportive of your duty to report problems, request help, protect your crews, challenge assumptions as you see fit. The decision is not an act of retribution, it is about confidence. It is not an indictment of character, but rather of judgment.
Read on their own, the acting secretary’s words may seem reasonable. Read in the context of the Navy’s recent, persistent, and self-inflicted wounds, they ring false. The leadership of the Navy is suffering from a crisis of trust and confidence.
What Inspires Trust and Confidence in a Leader?
Leadership literature, both military and civilian, includes countless pages devoted to the question of how to inspire trust and confidence. Among the most commonly recurring themes are the need for honesty, competence, and a commitment to accomplishing the mission while taking care of people.
In his authoritative guide, Command at Sea, Adm. (ret.) James Stavridis advises commanding officers:
Let it be known that you expect honesty at all times, both up and down the chain of command. Never tolerate the covering up of unsavory facts — of trying to ‘fog one by’… Require that all reports be honest and thorough.
While none of us who were not privy to the conversations between Crozier and his chain of command can know for certain what information was or wasn’t conveyed, his letter seems admirably direct in this regard. It lays out the scope of the challenge posed by the virus, the shortcomings of the existing approach and obstacles to success, and recommends a course of action to mitigate its effects. The letter also acknowledges that an operational commitment might require that the ship fulfill its mission without such mitigation measures, at the cost of increased risk to the health of the crew, including the possibility that some might die.
Regarding competence, Stavridis encourages a commanding officer to “build on the general principles of science and engineering you studied in school,” and to consult technical manuals and other expert publications. Crozier appears to have heeded this advice: In his letter, he cites findings from a peer-reviewed article on the effects of COVID-19 in a shipboard environment on the cruise ship Diamond Princess to support his argument that an expedited and more complete evacuation of the crew to facilities meeting official standards would be likely to substantially curtail the spread of the virus and minimize harm among the crew.
The balance between protecting your people and accomplishing the mission is a perennial topic of military leadership discussion. The Armed Forces Officer, an influential guide, states simply, “Leaders are expected to guide their followers to mission success at the least possible cost.” Crozier explicitly acknowledged the tradeoff between the actions he was recommending and the impact to the mission, both at the beginning and end of his letter. He emphasized that, in his judgment, the risk to the lives and well-being of his crew outweighed the temporary risk to mission posed by taking aggressive measures to stop the virus by removing the crew from the ship for two weeks.
By these standards, it seems surprising that Modly would lose confidence in a captain who displayed honesty, competence, and a commitment to achieving the mission at the least cost to his people.
What Undermines Trust and Confidence in a Leader?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fastest way to undermine trust and confidence is to demonstrate a lack of candor, a lack of competence, or a lack of care for the people entrusted to your charge. Modly’s performance at the press conference announcing Crozier’s relief undermined all three.
Most egregious regarding candor was Modly’s attempt to imply that Crozier might have been responsible for leaking his letter to the press by noting that it was published in his “hometown newspaper.” (Crozier is from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, California, about 50 miles north of San Francisco). When pressed by reporters on whether he was suggesting that Crozier had played a role in releasing the letter to the press, Modly quickly backtracked, asserting that he did not know, and likely never would know, who had leaked the letter. Characterizing the Chronicle as Crozier’s hometown newspaper, Modly said, “was a statement of fact,” not meant to insinuate that Crozier had any personal responsibility for the leak. Instead, he said, the problem was that Crozier did not “appropriately safeguard” the information in the letter to ensure that it did not leak. No information in the letter appeared to be classified.
Modly’s apparent attempts to subtly undermine Crozier also included an introductory statement that leaders could never allow their “emotions to color judgment.” When reporters asked if he believed Crozier had acted on emotion, Modly again backtracked: “I don’t know why he sent the letter.” While the situation described in the letter is stark, the language of the letter is temperate; the most emotional statements are perhaps the assertions that, “Decisive action is required now in order to… prevent tragic outcomes,” and, “Sailors do not need to die.” These statements are more consistent with a commander heeding the advice to balance mission accomplishment against the welfare of his crew than a commander whose judgment has been overcome by emotion.
Modly argued that his problem with Crozier’s actions was not the contents of the letter, but rather the way in which Crozier bypassed the chain of command. This argument, too, suffers from a lack of transparency. Modly’s prepared remarks emphasized the importance of the chain of command and included a statement that Crozier’s boss, an admiral embarked aboard the carrier, did not see the letter until it was sent to him by Crozier. In other words, the problem wasn’t that Crozier didn’t inform his boss (he did), but that he didn’t informally tell his boss he was going to do so, in advance of formally telling him.
During questions, a reporter asked if the other people in Crozier’s chain of command were included on the letter, and Modly admitted that they were, but added that many others were included as well, though he declined to say who the objectionable additional recipients were. Incredulous, a reporter asked, “Is he being relieved because he cc’d too many people?” Modly replied that he was being relieved because, “to me, that demonstrated exceptionally poor judgment.” This pattern was frequently repeated in the press conference: Modly would make a strong initial statement that could be misleading. When pressed on the specifics, he would backtrack to a less-categorical position. The overall impression was that the acting secretary of the Navy was attempting to portray Crozier’s actions more negatively than the facts warranted — he was trying to “fog one by” the reporters, the public, and the sailors he leads.
Regarding the competence of the Navy’s response, Modly stated that nearly 3000 appropriate off-ship accommodations had been made available for crewmembers and that sailors were being tested for COVID-19, the ship was being cleaned, and a skeleton crew was remaining aboard to safeguard the ship — essentially the plan recommended by Crozier in his letter. When asked if these actions would have been taken without Crozier’s letter, the acting secretary mentioned that many of the actions required lead-times longer than would have been possible if they had begun only with receipt of the letter.
While plausible, this raises a question: Why would Crozier have sent the letter if he had known that these actions were underway and that he was receiving the support he needed? After all, he had little to gain if he knew the actions were already underway, and much to lose. At best, this suggests that senior Navy leaders hadn’t communicated effectively to Crozier the full scope of response measures underway. But, given the lack of candor and transparency in Modly’s other responses, this also raises questions as to whether the letter may indeed have been the impetus for the Navy’s actions. And the delayed pace of the Navy’s response since Crozier’s relief suggests that Modly may have exaggerated the resources available to care for the crew.
Finally, Modly’s performance did not convey a commitment to some of his most important people: commanding officers confronted with the extraordinary challenge of leading and maintaining readiness during a global pandemic. It is highly unusual for a secretary of the Navy to personally order the commanding officer of a deployed warship fired — normally this action, if required, would be taken by uniformed leaders in the chain of command. It is even more unusual for him to hold a press conference about it. And it is unprecedented for the reasons for a firing to be so thin. The standard of “loss of confidence” in a commanding officer is broad, but it is highly unusual to lose confidence just because an e-mail had many recipients in addition to those required. It seems more likely that Crozier was fired for embarrassing the Navy, because his letter pointing out the ways in which he felt the Navy was not acting sufficiently to care for his crew became a public news story.
This impression is strengthened by reports that Modly pushed for the firing against the advice of senior uniformed leaders, who wanted to conduct an investigation of the leak, and that President Trump was upset with the media coverage surrounding the letter. According to David Ignatius, Modly reportedly told a colleague a day before the firing, “Breaking news: Trump wants him fired.” Yet, when asked at the press conference, Modly stated, “I’ve received absolutely no pressure. I’ve had no communication with the White House about this.”
In reporting published late Sunday April 5, Igantius relayed a conversation in which Modly told him, “I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive.” Adding that his predecessor Richard Spencer had, “lost his job because the Navy Department got crossways with the president,” Modly also reiterated that he had not communicated with Trump on the decision prior to firing Crozier.
Ironically, two days before Crozier was relieved, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert P. Burke sent a message to the fleet regarding COVID-19 response, which stated:
There are times that you will need to push back on operational requirements. There are times that you may need to go to an installation commander for places to house your Sailors because you cannot effectively isolate your personnel. There are times when they may not be able to help. We want these decisions to be fact-based, and not emotionally-driven. If you’re not getting what you need, don’t suffer in silence, get the word up the chain. Above all, and I want you to hear this from me and the CNO, WE HAVE YOUR BACK. When in doubt, lean forward and lead.
This is a far cry from Modly’s statement at the press conference: “[Crozier] created the impression that the Navy was not reacting … that displayed poor judgment … [and] created a firestorm.”
How Will Crozier’s Firing Impact the Navy?
The challenges to trust and confidence in Navy leadership raised by the handling of this case would be daunting enough if they were the only challenges to the Navy’s credibility. They are not. To cite but a few recent examples, the Navy charged the commanding officers of two destroyers involved in fatal collisions in the summer of 2017 with negligent homicide. The charges were later dropped, but the Navy has preferred to focus on individual accountability for the collisions, while doing little to correct or attach responsibility for equipment issues that contributed to one collision, and is even now contemplating reversing manning improvements made in the wake of the other. The Navy only recently released a 2016 investigation, which found that a submarine captain who warned superiors that his crew wasn’t prepared for a challenging nighttime harbor entrance was ordered to do it anyway. His submarine ran aground and he was fired.
In another example of haste to assign blame, the president of the Naval War College was fired by the chief of naval operations last summer before an investigation into his conduct was complete. Once completed, the investigation cleared him of most of the alleged misconduct. Adm. Mike Gilday became chief of naval operations after Adm. Bill Moran, who had been nominated and confirmed for the job, withdrew from the position and announced his retirement over concerns about his continued reliance on advice from a public affairs officer who had been disciplined for poor judgment. Modly himself was elevated from undersecretary to acting secretary because his boss, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, was fired in fallout from the Eddie Gallagher affair. And the Navy is still reeling from the Fat Leonard scandal. In times like these, it is incumbent upon leaders to meet a higher standard of honesty, competence, and transparent commitment to their people, in order to rebuild trust and confidence. Sadly, the Navy’s handling of the USS Theodore Roosevelt affair only appears to have deepened the pre-existing deficit.
There is much that we do not know about communications between Crozier and his chain of command. Modly, for instance, alluded in his press conference to “50 projected deaths,” which does not appear in Crozier’s letter and so must be based on other communications. But from the information that is publicly available, the case seems to reflect honor on a captain who placed the well-being of his crew above his own professional well-being. It reflects much less positively on Navy leadership, whose response lacked transparency and smacked of retribution.
It is possible that Navy leaders were acting in good faith when they decided to relieve Crozier — Modly would have a much broader perspective than the commanding officer on the readiness implications of taking one of only four deployed aircraft carriers out of commission for two weeks. But these were not the reasons that Modly provided publicly for Crozier’s dismissal. And if the reason for firing Crozier were exactly as stated, why was it urgent to do it so quickly and so publicly?
It is customary in the Navy to refer to the captain of a ship by the name of the ship in some forms of communication and announcements. (For example, when the captain of USS Theodore Roosevelt arrives onboard, the watch would announce, “Theodore Roosevelt, arriving,” over the ship’s loudspeaker). This custom carries with it an important message: When in command, it is not the individual, but the identity of the ship or unit that is paramount. Crozier’s actions seem to show that, although he was relieved of command, he internalized this message. One can only hope that Acting Secretary Modly (who would be announced simply as “Navy” by this custom) has done the same.
Postscript: After this article was posted, a transcript and audio emerged of Acting Secretary Modly’s remarks to the crew of the Theodore Roosevelt during a visit to the ship in Guam. In his remarks, which have not been acknowledged by the Navy as official, Modly says that Crozier was either “too naïve or too stupid” to command the ship if he did not think that the information in the letter would become public. (A sailor can be heard vocally reacting to this assertion in the audio). He also declared that Crozier betrayed the trust between the commanding officer and the chain of command, and he asserted that the letter contained sensitive information about the material readiness of the ship.
Regardless of the merits of to whom or how Crozier’s letter was sent, Modly’s remarks do not reflect credit on his leadership. Leadership and command sometimes involve making unpopular decisions, including choices to remove or discipline those who work for you. But the instinct to insult and lash out at the commanding officer who had been fired, and who tested positive for COVID-19 and was in quarantine even as Modly delivered his remarks revealed the vindictiveness behind his decision. His remarks are likely to deepen any mistrust created by Crozier’s firing, and reinforce the notion that the choice to do so was based on retribution, not judgment. Modly’s words and actions have made the crisis of trust and confidence in Navy leadership more acute.
Doyle Hodges is the executive editor of Texas National Security Review and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. A retired Naval officer, he commanded a salvage ship and a destroyer, and taught leadership and ethics to midshipmen. He earned a doctorate from Princeton University, and has taught at the Naval Academy, the Naval War College, George Mason University, and Princeton.