A Failure of Discipline Under Captain Crozier’s Command
William Toti
April 6, 2020
This was the first piece written in reaction to the significant lack of balance in national coverage of the USS Theodore Roosevelt COVID issue, which seemed to ignore national strategic implications of a COVID infection that started in China and then took out of action the only American aircraft carrier deployed in the China theater of operations. It was published in Wall Street Journal on April 6, 2020. The second piece was written about the great media reaction to the perception that Crozier’s actions were appropriate because they were driven by “love” for and by his crew, and was published in US Naval Institute Proceedings a week later. The third piece was written to explore the larger issues of weighing what was best for the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt against the spread of infection to the older, less healthy, and largely low income population of American citizens residing in Guam.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly relieved Capt. Brett Crozier of command last week after the press published a letter about a Covid-19 outbreak on the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. I agonize for Capt. Crozier, who has tested positive for Covid himself. I too once commanded a warship, and I once took a controversial position at risk to my own career.
Yet I regret his decision. The video of the crew paying respects to Capt. Crozier as he leaves the Roosevelt demonstrates his popularity. But it leaves me with grave concern over the feelings first zeitgeist on display, and it causes me concern that the crew’s actions will make the ship’s situation much worse.
This event gives a worrisome peek into the fraying of America’s military command structure. That structure relies on aggregated wisdom and dispersed power. It replaces emotion with cold logic. It reins in impulse with carefully considered protocols and procedures. None of those virtues are evident in how the Roosevelt incident played out.
No doubt Capt. Crozier was concerned about the Covid crisis and wanted to escalate the issue to protect his crew. That desire is to be commended. But the crew’s welfare is only part of a Navy captain’s responsibilities, which are global in scope. Capt. Crozier’s letter effectively recommended that the Navy take an operational, forward-deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carrier offline, an event that would be classified and carry significant strategic implications world-wide, hence would have to be escalated to the president. From that standpoint, the Roosevelt was not Capt. Crozier’s ship, it was America’s. But to shotgun that kind of recommendation in a letter via an unclassified email is a violation of the highest order.
Capt. Crozier’s defenders have said he was speaking truth to power. But he could have done so directly. He could have generated serious action with a properly classified, immediate precedence “Personal for” naval message to any of at least five operational commanders in his chain of command. He could have reached out directly to the Navy secretary. Instead, according to Mr. Modly, Capt. Crozier shotgunned, thereby losing control of, an email containing classified details reflecting the state of readiness of one of America’s most important ships. The upshot is that the Chinese received Capt. Crozier’s letter at the same time as the Pentagon.
The Navy doesn’t always get it right. I spent more than a decade defending Capt. Charles McVay III. He commanded the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis when it was sunk in July 1945, the worst at-sea disaster in U.S. naval history. Like Capt. Crozier, McVay’s story captured national headlines. McVay’s surviving crew rallied around him, fighting to vindicate him even after his 1968 suicide.
McVay was convicted by a court-martial for “hazarding his vessel” by failing to take action the Navy believed would have spared his ship from a Japanese submarine attack. For more than 50 years his crew fought for his exoneration. In 1998 they recruited me—then captain of the submarine that bears the same name as their sunken cruiser—to aid their case. My role was to demonstrate through computer modeling that even if McVay had taken the recommended action, the Japanese attack would likely have succeeded. The Navy dug in and insisted it had acted properly 54 years earlier. I was warned that for the good of my future I needed to learn how to become a “company man,” but I pressed on. Congress passed a resolution exonerating McVay in 2000, and the Navy secretary officially cleared his record in 2001.
Which brings me back to the video of Capt. Crozier leaving his ship. McVay’s crew exhibited more discipline for the greater good of the ship than we saw in the Roosevelt video.
In today’s culture, even in the military, the “right” side of an issue tends increasingly to start with feelings. Social media posts—“We stand with Captain Crozier”—don’t merely reflect attitudes; they drive behavior among the public and, more troubling, among young sailors. The Journal reports that some sailors say they won’t re-enlist over the way they perceive the incident to have been handled. Imagine if this trend continues to its logical extreme—military decisions by Twitter mob.
And while Capt. Crozier recommended the crew be removed from his ship, it’s clear there was much they could have done but didn’t, as evidenced by their social-distance-be-damned rockstar departure celebration, which will likely leave them with more Covid-19 infections. The video suggests that the crew didn’t know—or worse, didn’t care—that their behavior was the naval equivalent of standing on top of a hill with bullets flying around them to generate an Instagram moment. Such behavior reflects poorly on their commander.
Command is a privilege. I pray for the recovery of Capt. Crozier and everyone else who’s been infected. But this event’s legacy also includes thousands, military and civilian, beguiled into rooting for an ineffective form of leadership, a loss of faith in a chain of command that was never properly invoked, and a horrified home front—not to mention media pundits making matters worse by sounding off on issues they don’t understand.