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Imagine an above average officer - but not a Napoleon or Nelson - placed in a difficult position. And his superiors are similar to him: above average but no more.
With that in mind, consider the situation that developed in the Navy over the last week onboard USS Roosevelt.
It appears that the Captain of Roosevelt was, in fact, in communication with his chain of command and that the chain of command - all the way to the Secretary of the Navy - were trying to help. The Captain clearly perceived (whether this is correct is more or less beside the point) that not enough was being done quickly enough and so he decided to make public his concerns.
Which came off as directly criticizing his chain of command.
And so he was relieved.
There are a whole host of issues but several jump out.
First, the Captain served notice to the world that the US Navy has a problem dealing with a pandemic - which is exactly equal to a biological warfare attack.
Whether that is true or not is not the point; it sends the signal to the rest of the world that the Navy has that problem. Whether anyone wants to take advantage of that perceived problem remains to be seen, but the perception now exists.
His actions also leave every American with a friend or loved one at sea with the uneasy feeling that the Navy doesn’t have a plan to deal with an infection (or a biological weapon attack). Again, whether that is true or not, the perception now exists.
There are also conflicting public reports now from the Navy that no deployed Navy ships have any crew members with COVID-19. Yet, USS Roosevelt IS deployed (Guam is in the Western Pacific and is not Roosevelt’s home port), and USS Reagan - stationed in Japan - was reported to have several crew members (now in isolation) who tested positive for the virus.
And what was transpiring in between the Secretary of the Navy and the ship? What were the admirals doing and saying? And not doing and not saying?
The Captain wrote: “Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. ... This is a necessary risk, … Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”
In his conclusion the Captain included the following “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”
One might argue that the Captain’s wording is incorrect, and so, arguably, is his argument. He’s correct that Sailors (and Soldiers, etc.) don’t need to die in peace - or in war, after all their deaths doesn’t produce any benefit to our country. Sailors need to perform their duties in war. If that results in a net benefit to the nation, even with their death, that’s a terribly unfortunate reality of war. It’s only when their actions - the consequences of which include their death - do not benefit the nation as a whole that their deaths were in vain.
So, to be more correct, Sailors need to perform their duties. And they need to perform their duties in wartime and in peacetime. And it bears repeating that we are hardly at peace; while we seem to forget, we have forces fighting, and assisting others in fighting, bad guys in several countries in Africa, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in a few other garden spots around the world.
And while we’re not in a hot war with China, China most certainly is in a cold war with the US.
Further, several prominent Americans, to include the historian Victor Davis Hanson, have not only couched the necessary actions we must take to defeat the virus in terms of fighting a war, Hanson says that we’re at war, and that COVID-19 is the enemy (as does the nation’s Commander-in-Chief.)
Which takes us back to the ship and her crew. The crew and airwing of USS Theodore Roosevelt consists of 4,800 of fit, young and healthy volunteers serving their nation. At an average age of around 24 they are amongst the least at risk of severe illness, and they could serve a strategically vital service by remaining on board (except, of course, any who become seriously ill could be evacuated to shore medical facilities).
They represent an opportunity to gather intelligence on this enemy more detailed, more pristine, than any we have yet acquired.
By sending aboard a team of epidemiologists, perhaps with some additional medical staff, Roosevelt presented the opportunity for a controlled investigation into the virus. The ship offers a controlled environment to track the disease and to test treatments. The results would produce information vital to the national interest. And given the healthy make-up and age of the crew, they represent a low-risk community in which to conduct the data collection.
(My guess is that the crew would have supported this idea if it had been properly explained to them. Did anyone in the chain of command raise this idea?)
So, in a very real sense, Captain Crozier is wrong. While he was looking out for his crew, he, and every commanding officer, must never lose sight of their principle mission: the defense of the United States, even if that risks his ship and crew.
But the captain isn’t the only one at fault here. Return to the question asked at the beginning of this article. What happens when above average but not exceptional officers are faced with a series of difficult decisions that would challenge even exceptional officers?
The easy - and likely - answer is that you would find them all making less than stellar decisions.
219 years ago last week Horatio Nelson led his squadron into Copenhagen Harbor and won one of the great naval victories of the Napoleonic era. He accomplished this despite his immediate superior - Admiral Hyde Parker, a man of average ability who, through all the vagaries of service, managed to rise to the rank Admiral. Hyde Parker was a man who was simply not capable of doing the job assigned him. He was blessed - England was blessed - with Nelson, who won a truly great victory. If left to Hyde Parker it might well have been a disaster.
After the battle Hyde Parker was relieved by the Admiralty board. In essence, the board was saying that Hyde Parker was not competent to command and they placed on him the “blame” for a near disaster. But the thing is, the same admiralty appointed him to that position just weeks earlier. And they all knew him well, they knew his limitations, they knew he was not up to the task. They appointed him anyway. Then they put Nelson in as his subordinate, and counted on Nelson to "save their bacon.”
The same thing happens - again and again and again - in the Pentagon: the service staffs appoint someone to a job, with every possible credential (they all do - more credentials than one can imagine - on paper they are all orders of magnitude superior to Eisenhower and Nimitz.) But it’s clear to many who actually know the record of the said officers, and know the requirements of this or that job, that the officer chosen is simply wrong for the job.
Usually, they fumble through. Often they fumble through and get promoted, the hard work and the hard thinking being done by their subordinates.
So the question is this: Are services’ senior leadership lacking? And is this simply the latest example?
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...