Command at Sea: What’s Love Got to Do with It?
William Toti
April 6, 2020
This was the second in a series of 3 articles written on the Crozier affair. The first piece was 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. This is the second piece, which 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.

While teaching leadership to my sailors, I sometimes used movie clips to make a specific point. One of the best was the superb 1949 movie “Twelve O’clock High,” starring Gregory Peck. The story starts with a character named Colonel Keith Davenport, the group commander of the 918th Bomb Group. The unit is flying daylight bombing runs over Germany and suffering terrible losses. Davenport cares for his command intensely. He agonizes for his men. He works tirelessly. He loves his men, and they love him.
 
But his love is killing them.
 
Higher command’s operations officer, Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck’s character), decides it’s time to relieve Davenport, and he is asked to take the job. An aptly named, notorious hard-ass, Savage shows up and immediately focuses on discipline. He reminds his soldiers that they are in the Army. He sets expectations and holds them accountable. Initially, they hate him. They fight him. They resist. But soon, their combat effectiveness improves, and their loss rate declines. Gradually, they realize Savage was right, and they come to respect their new commanding officer.
 
“Twelve O’clock High” dramatizes a leadership truism: it is possible to be effective while being loved, but being loved does not make one effective. Strangely, the public discourse over the story of Captain Brett Crozier and the USS TheodoreRoosevelt (CVN-71) has been largely about “love.” And although the story is still being written, there is already much to reflect on. 
 
Further, many of the issues raised by the Theodore Roosevelt incident show that the Navy is undergoing an evolution of ethos. Regardless of whether one believes this is a good thing, contemplation of this evolution is important.
 
Love
 
The often-outraged chatter over the Theodore Roosevelt affair has often gone something like this: “Captain Crozier loved and was loved by his crew.” (Some senior officers use the term “deep affection.”) There is nothing wrong with that, and it certainly is not the first time that word has been used in conjunction with a military unit. But it has been surprising to watch the degree to which “love” has been one of the dominant themes—not just by civilians, but by military veterans as well, even to the point of justifying the outcome.
 
But at what point in our Navy’s history did love begin to matter? Does love or deep affection represent the new normal in expectations for military commanders? 
 
In light of the viral nature of both the COVID infection itself, and its social media coverage, that social media seems to be not merely reflecting attitudes regarding the event, but also driving behavior of individual sailors, the public in general, and national decisionmakers.
 
While I had great affection for my crews (as I hope they had for me), I doubt the declaration or demonstration of any emotion twenty years ago would have shielded me or other commanders from fallout from our decisions. The narrative back then, particularly from the retired military community, would have been different, and would have focused on whether a commander’s decision actually worked. The most important metric was mission accomplishment. 
 
For commanding officers reading this, please do not take the wrong lessons from this incident. Crews want their captain to be competent, consistent, skilled, and professional. No crew likes to be mediocre. If your crew has affection for you because you have upgraded your ship’s performance and made it more effective, you should be proud. But if they love you for any other reason, to include the perception that you are merely their protector, a self-assessment may be necessary. 
 
Another point for reflection: People have been quick to state that the COVID crisis is something no commander has ever had to deal with before. That is true, but hundreds of battles in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq challenged other leaders with unprecedented situations. Many of these threatened the survival of entire units, just as Captain Crozier felt his entire crew was in danger. Captain Crozier’s letter justified his request of taking the Theodore Roosevelt offline, stating, “We are not at war.” But even in peacetime, military operations can present unprecedented scenarios—sometimes jeopardizing an entire crew, as any submarine commander can tell you. Even in peacetime, ships face threats—a fire in weapons spaces, for example, that require a captain to make life-and-death decisions bearing directly on survival of the crew.  Of course, gain should offset operational risk, and commanding officers should have input, including—in some cases— “veto authority.” But that must always occur within the proper channels, with the proper voices balancing the complete picture. 
 
Regarding Captain Crozier’s “We are not at war” statement— who would like to make that case to the families of the 13 American servicemembers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan so far in 2020, or to those still on patrol, under fire, overseas? Do individual commanding officers now get to decide whether the nation is at war? A generation ago if a commanding officer had unilaterally made such a declaration of peace, the reaction to that statement would have been much different.
Seeing little balance in the public discourse, I wrote an op-ed that was published on 7 April in the Wall Street Journal. I tried not to speculate on information not yet known, to avoid attributing motive or intent, but to work with the facts as they were known in the public domain. I made four observations: 
 
  • That it was difficult to reconcile Captain Crozier’s stated intent— that he was trying to send an urgent appeal for help— with what he actually did;
  • That representing the operational status of a warship should have been handled within classified channels; 
  • That military course-of-action recommendations should strive to avoid emotional undertones and should be based on analysis and logic, and; 
  • That the actions of the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew during their ad hoc goodbye celebration were an unfortunate breach of discipline that probably increased the number of infections on the ship.
I did not take a side on whether Crozier’s relief was appropriate (although I agonized for him and regretted the way he handled the issue). My analysis required making no assumptions— it was based on observations that have not been challenged. Ten years ago, those observations would have been uncontroversial. 
 
My concern is that the Crozier affair might be much larger than the carrier itself, that it might be a symptom of a more extensive, new phenomenon— the expansion of a social media-driven, feel-good zeitgeist that might be a negative influence on military command. Both the revelation and content of the letter itself, as well as the crew’s reaction to Crozier’s relief, received enormous national coverage. I made the point, in light of the viral nature of both the COVID infection itself, and its social media coverage, that social media seems to be not merely reflecting attitudes regarding the event, but also driving behavior of individual sailors, the public in general, and national decisionmakers.
 
Am I reading too much into this? Perhaps. But root cause analysis teaches us that people are always tempted to treat any problem as a one-off— something we are supposed to avoid. We are supposed to analyze an issue for systemic causes and impact. If this event was not a one-off, what does it say about future military decision-making? Does this social-media-driven reaction signal an erosion of military ethos? This is a fair concern and an appropriate subject for discussion
I entered the national discourse to elevate these matters for debate. The reaction was stunning.
 
While the thousand or so comments on my op-ed over the next 24 hours were mostly positive, the negative comments were split evenly between those written by people with military experience and those without. It was incredible to see the number of all-caps, shouting, pseudo-rebuttals that provided no cogent arguments but carried a “HOW DARE YOU QUESTION A PATRIOT LIKE THIS, YOU POSER! WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT MILITARY SERVICE?” theme. 
 
Two insights can be gleaned: first, the Theodore Roosevelt event has struck an emotional chord with the public that often fails to incorporate facts; and second, any viewpoint put forward that is perceived to be “fighting” the Navy will be received with much greater applause than one that tries to inform or explain a government action. It used to be that folks just hated Congress and the military was held in high esteem. Those days seem to have passed. And it doesn’t matter what your arguments are. Emotion will prevail.
 
I had hoped that one fact-based observation would reign over emotion, particularly with veterans—that the carrier’s sailors had demonstrated a lack of discipline in the farewell ceremony video. Many veteran commenters agreed that the display reflected poorly on Captain Crozier, but I was surprised at the number of veterans who justified the captain’s rock star send-off, as well as his shotgunning classified information via email, with emotional arguments such as “love.”
 
America has been through a lot these past few weeks. Hundreds of thousands of citizens have been sickened by the coronavirus, and thousands have died. A record number of workers lost their jobs and filed for unemployment as businesses shut down. Most Americans were trying to do the right thing to defeat the virus. Then the aircraft carrier goodbye video aired on Instagram and everyone seemed to forget about all that. 
 
Sailors disregarded everything we had been all been taught about stopping the spread of the disease. But why worry? They were just “showing their love for their captain.” With hundreds crammed into a small area around one of the ship’s elevators, would their “love” protect them from infection? Did they not learn what the rest of us did? Or did they just not care? 
 
Where were the horrified voices condemning the tragedy that these sailors had likely just inflicted upon themselves— a ripple-effect of new infections? Why were none of the pundits who make regular rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows sounding off about this? Where were the voices saying that, in the midst of a crisis, we should expect military professionals to be more disciplined than the average citizen?
 
Instead, what we heard was an excuse, “THERE IS NO SOCIAL DISTANCING ON A WARSHIP!” The truth, as Proceedings readers well know, is that the Theodore Roosevelt is an aircraft carrier, not a submarine. Her hangar bay is 700 feet long, yet that video revealed hundreds of sailors jammed into a small area around an elevator. Why have so many Navy veterans who should know better been pushing this canard? 
 
Even the chief petty officers I know are asking, “Where were the Chiefs?” I presume the Chiefs’ Mess was fully involved in transferring crewmembers off the ship, shifting watchbills and other arrangements to minimize berthing and mess-space loading and improve social distancing. But in none of the interactions do we see any evidence of an engaged and effective goat locker. 
 
Strategic Impact
Over the past decade, China has behaved increasingly as a malign actor—not just in the Pacific region but around the world. It has destroyed pristine reefs to engineer false territory and falsely claimed international waters as its own. China has used economic pressure, military expansionism, and threats of violence to intimidate less powerful democratic nations. The only moderator to its vigorous expansionism has been a powerful U.S. and allied military presence in areas China is trying to influence, and the most visible manifestation of that military presence is an aircraft carrier strike group. 
 
Taking an aircraft carrier off-line significantly undercuts the strategic posture in the region. That is a decision that cannot be made at the O-6 level, which brings us to Captain Crozier’s now infamous letter—and, sadly, to motive. The fact that the letter was sent around in unclassified channels and leaked means the Chinese received it at the same time as the Pentagon. If one believes Crozier was correct in writing and disseminating his letter widely (but not to any specific persons in his leadership chain), how was it supposed to play out? What would “victory” have looked like? Do we think it was the right thing for him to do because “he tried?” Even Yoda knows that merely “trying” is not enough. Isn’t “success” the only true measure of success?
 
If someone wants help urgently, they call 911. They don’t email 911. It takes busy senior leaders hours, if not days, to get through their inboxes. The “I emailed you because my house was burning down and I needed help” narrative does not resonate. There were other, arguably more effective, avenues available to the captain. 
 
Yes, this is 20/20 hindsight, and yes, Captain Crozier was under a lot of pressure. But that is true for all post-mission analysis— that it is informed by hindsight analysis of people under pressure. Why has the inclination been to treat this matter differently?
 
Reason
Military decisions must always be made in an environment that is as devoid of emotion as possible, even more so during a crisis. Captain Crozier was right to be worried about his crew. He was right to escalate. He was right to communicate the interests of his crew and to let the chain of command deconflict competing demands. But his letter was infected with an emotional narrative that should be avoided in the rational analysis of options.
 
This event exposed issues that get to the foundations of the Navy and command at sea. These are matters worthy of debate. Not only does this discussion not need to wait for the investigation to be complete, it should inform the investigation. 
Today, physicians are dealing with existential crises in hospitals around the world that are more acute than that faced on USS Theodore Roosevelt. Most of those physicians have no military training or experience, and yet they are, for the most part, handling the crisis magnificently, unemotionally, and with little drama. How would we react if those critical “soldiers” on the front lines of this fight allowed their emotions to influence their triage or treatment their patients?
 
We should not expect anything less from leaders in our Navy.