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Navy Secretary Is Gone But His Problems Live On

It’s Time to Restore Captain Crozier’s Command

Methinks that former–Acting-Navy-Secretary Thomas Modly protested too much.

Embattled, and facing a presidential inquiry, Secretary Modly (pictured above-left) tendered his resignation and it was accepted last Tuesday afternoon. The new acting secretary of the Navy is former Rear Admiral James McPherson.

Tellingly though, Secretary McPherson transitions to the post from his role as undersecretary of the Army. As of late, the Army’s leadership has been regarded as more stable than the Navy’s. Thus, the move to Secretary McPherson may be seen as an effort to transfer some of that stability.

The move also comes amid a coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. The ship is currently docked in the Pacific U.S. territory of Guam. Mr. Modly had accused the ship’s Captain Brett Crozier (pictured above-right) of “extremely poor judgment” and relieved him of command.

Ironically though, Mr. Modly’s allegation better fits his own behavior.

For the earlier facts as they’re known, read Capt. Crozier Isn’t the One to Relieve of Command, available here.

Apparently, Mr. Modly dealt himself the coup de grâce last Monday. That’s when he boarded the corona-stricken Roosevelt and used her public-address (PA) system to admonish her crew and further berate her absent former captain, who has now tested positive for the coronavirus.

As acting Navy secretary, Mr. Modly was a civilian. Yet, he harked back to his days as a Navy midshipmen and helicopter pilot, cursing like a sailor as his voice boomed from the speakers aboard the Roosevelt, ricocheted off her steel bulkheads, and assaulted her remaining crew.

Either Captain Crozier’s now-famous memo detailing the coronavirus outbreak aboard the ship was intended for an unauthorized audience, scolded Mr. Modly, or Captain Crozier was “too naïve or too stupid” for command.

I don’t know what Mr. Modly expected from his expletive-laden diatribe. Perhaps he knew the end of his Navy-oversight career was already a fait accompli and he simply wanted to unburden himself on those he felt were responsible. Or, perhaps, it was actually he who was “too naïve or too stupid” for leadership.

I do know, however, that the virtual ink hadn’t dried on Capt. Crozier Isn’t the One to Relieve of Command when I received 3 issues of The Wall Street Journal bearing a total of 4 articles about Covid-19, the Roosevelt, and Captain Crozier. Each also bears the indelible impression of Secretary Modly’s deepening desperation prior to his departure.

Mr. Modly then resigned before I could finish Navy Secretary to Sick Sailors: STFU!

I still wish to disclose a few things, however. This is in response to Mr. Modly’s indiscriminate allegation of media politicking that he hurled through the PA at the journalists who covered the Roosevelt to his dissatisfaction.

I want to set both the stage and the right example, because Mr. Modly’s allegation requires refutation and the events described further below indicate that far more interesting disclosures are overdue from Captain Crozier’s critics.

First—unlike Mr. Modly—I never had a horse in this race, so to speak. I have nothing to gain or lose no matter how Captain Crozier’s situation turns out, except for what’s always in play with any newsworthy topic I cover, e.g. the satisfaction of a job well done and a well-reported story, a better-informed public, and organic growth of my readership.

I’m ultimately unbeholden to any single editor or publisher. Instead, my writing appears at a great variety of outlets from across the political spectrum.

Next, I’ve never been in the military. And now at age 36, I never will be.

Like Captain Crozier though, I have the regular joy of people like Mr. Modly and their publicists first underestimating me, and then of writing about them. You’d think they’d learn. But they never seem to feel the need because most “reporters” who “cover” federal officials are little more than well-trained parrots in perpetual search of a cracker.

In contrast, I check my facts. Thus, like any good journalist, I’ve come to expect government officials to lie. Indeed, they can’t seem to help themselves. I suppose that’s the way of things; they lie, and my purpose is to find the truth. Mr. Modly proved no exception to this principle.

I’ve also come to expect them to employ well-placed mouthpieces. On the surface, these plants appear credible and truthful. Yet, when I kick the tires, the axles usually fall off of their arguments.

I certainly don’t bat 1.000 in this regard. I’ve been fooled in the past and will be again in the future, I’m sure. Generally, however, I’m known to disbelieve misinformation.

Thus, with specific exceptions, e.g. EMTs, paramedics, Coast Guard and Navy rescue swimmers, and fellow lifeguards, I’ve learned through experience that the Gipper was right, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language” really are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

That being said, I have a profound respect for our men and women in uniform. It’s fueled by my appreciation for their vital Constitutional role. Ultimately, I view that role as the preservation of human life through the projection and use of force, if necessary at the cost of their lives. And I believe deeply there is no higher calling than the preservation of human life.

I am ever mindful, for example, that American GIs liberated Nazi concentration camps. I am also mindful, however, that in the decades since World War II, our government misused our military to pursue unconstitutional aims.

My support for our troops is unending, but I do not support unending wars or wars waged unnecessarily. I am leery of the cry of the chickenhawk, for he knows it will not be he or his own who have to make good on his rhetoric.

To reiterate: we owe our men and women in uniform better than to allow them to die in vain. If the Navy’s brass can’t handle that, then we should replace the ill-suited like Mr. Thomas Modly with officers like Captain Brett Crozier.

I suppose this can be considered a “political agenda,” as Mr. Modly alleged, but that is misleading and hardly does it justice. After all, Mr. Modly was himself a political appointee. His entire agenda was therefore political by its very nature. It was also ostensibly opposed to the policy of the commander-in-chief, who was elected on a platform that included taking American servicemembers out of the way of unnecessary harm.

Finally, I can’t speak for other journalists. But I know a newsworthy story when I smell one. I will continue covering Captain Crozier’s career even if this saga drags on long after news of Mr. Modly and the coronavirus fades from prominence.

Now that the air is clear, let’s dissect Mr. Modly’s politically-motivated attacks and those of his surrogates against Captain Crozier and the crew of the Roosevelt. I’m going to use The Wall Street Journal editorial page as an example, but I’m sure other outlets published similar attacks based on the same faulty arguments.

The latest salvo aimed at Captain Crozier and the Roosevelt by The Wall Street Journal editorial page started with a whimper in the April 4th weekend issue.

Therein The Navy Captain and the Coronavirus appeared without a byline. The work can be attributed, however, to Mr. Paul A. Gigot, who is the editorial editor of the Journal, and his deputy editor Mr. Daniel Henninger.

The piece is largely unremarkable save that the Journal’s editorial page later contradicted itself. Worth noting though, are its many direct and unopposed quotations of Mr. Modly, which are simultaneously free of hard facts and overburdened with subjective opinion, and which, therefore, I won’t replicate here.

I will, however, take to task the editorialists’ claim that Captain Crozier simply “could have offered his resignation instead [of issuing his memo] if he felt he’d exhausted his ability to care properly for his sailors.”

There is simply no evidence that Secretary Modly would’ve escalated relief for the Roosevelt in response to Captain Crozier’s resignation. Indeed, it seems likely that the earlier medical evacuation of 8 of the Roosevelt’s sick sailors was the result of pressure from her captain.

Moreover, Captain Crozier’s resignation would’ve been tantamount to abandoning his crew. The captain is traditionally the last sailor to disembark from a stricken vessel, not the first, or the ninth, as the case may have been.

It’s also far more likely that a sudden void in leadership would’ve worsened the crisis, especially in terms of the crew’s morale. Captain Crozier was in fact obligated to see them through this peril. I can only imagine what these same editorialists would’ve printed if he resigned; Navy Captain Abandons Crew to Save Self, comes to mind.

Before the second shot from the Journal’s editorial page, came Aboard USS, Sailors Braced for Worst in the News section of the next issue on Monday, April 6. It was attributed to Mr. Ben Kesling and Ms. Nancy A. Youssef. To their credit, Mr. Kesling and Ms. Youssef quoted the Roosevelt’s crew in opposition to Mr. Modly’s claims—exactly as real journalists should.

The number of cases confirmed aboard the Roosevelt increased to 150.

In summation though, this article too was most remarkable because the Journal’s editorial page later contradicted it.

Mr. Kesling was back the next day in the News section, sharing an April 7 byline with Ms. Lucy Cramer on Top Navy Official Upbraids Fired Captain in Talk With Crew.

In 1 day, the number of cases reported onboard jumped to 173, roughly a 6.5-percent increase. The next day, following Mr. Modly’s resignation, the Journal reported a further jolt of 32.9 percent to a total of 230 cases. At that level, the Roosevelt accounted for more than 15 percent of the 1,500 cases then confirmed throughout the entire U.S. military.

The article also quotes heavily from Mr. Modly’s April 6 rant, making it objectively clear that the Roosevelt’s PA was the proverbial rope, and Mr. Modly himself with it.

“Do your jobs,” Modly demanded of the crew.

This was also when Mr. Modly told the Roosevelt’s crew not to speak to the media, because, he claimed, it harbors a political agenda. While largely true, Mr. Modly’s allegation was of course also largely self-serving and transparent, coming as it did from an embattled public official who regularly spoke to reporters and held press conferences trying to vindicate himself through the selective disclosure of incomplete information.

Further, most commanders likely wouldn’t try to shore up a shaken crew’s morale by reminding them, “If the ship was in combat and there were hypersonic missiles coming at it, you’d be pretty f[remainder of expletive deleted] scared too.”

That was apparently Mr. Modly’s style though, and I suppose there’s no accounting for taste.

“[K]eep your s[remainder of expletive deleted] together and take care of each other,” Mr. Modly also said, saving perhaps his harshest rebuke for Captain Crozier.

“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t[sic] going to get out into the public, in this information age we live in, then he was either too naïve or too stupid to be commanding officer of a ship like this,” Mr. Modly said. “The alternative is he did this on purpose, which is a serious violation…”

Again, I’m unclear as to if or how Mr. Modly thought his remarks were any more secure from dissemination than Captain Crozier’s memo, given he blared them out of the PA system of a docked ship that at that very moment was the focus of intense media scrutiny.

In any event though, after Mr. Modly’s remarks went public, he contradicted his own advice and availed himself of the opportunity to speak with the media and clarify his choice of terms.

“I stand by every word I said, even, regrettably any profanity that may have been used for emphasis,” Mr. Modly wrote in a prepared statement. “Anyone who has served on a Navy ship would understand.”

Yet, Mr. Modly’s remarks were not as well understood as he hoped. And once more Mr. Kesling and Ms. Cramer deserve credit for providing juxtaposition.

“All of our jaws are on the floor right now. He just made the PR situation a billion times worse,” noted one sailor in a message to a family member.

The principle shell in the barrage from the Journal’s editorial page was fired in the same April 7 issue. Therein A Failure of Discipline Under Capt. Crozier’s Command was attributed to retired Navy submarine Captain William J. Toti.

It’s unclear what, if any, fact-checking Editor Gigot did of Captain Toti’s claims. In any case, he directly contradicted the Journal’s other reportage, including that of its editorial page from 3 days prior—and indeed that of nearly every other publication elsewhere. Either the Journal was wrong, or Captain Toti is. Yet, the Journal hasn’t issued any corrections or retractions.

Captain Toti also purports to know current tactical and logistical facts about which he wouldn’t ordinarily be briefed as a retired non-flag officer. And he does so without explaining the supposed basis for his personal knowledge. He doesn’t even cite to sources speaking on condition of anonymity.

This is strange and raises questions as to the Journal’s choice to print Captain Toti’s piece.

Moreover, Captain Toti’s assertions defy common sense so as to vindicate Mr. Modly and paint Captain Crozier as unreasonable and frantic and the crew of the Roosevelt as foolish groupies under his spell.

For instance, Captain Toti opines that Captain Crozier should’ve taken specific steps instead of sending his memo and he laments “a loss of faith in a chain of command that was never properly invoked.”

Yet nowhere does Captain Toti explain his supposed knowledge of what Captain Crozier did and didn’t do inside the chain of command.

“What would motivate a captain with more than 25 years in the Navy to torch his own career?” asked the Journal’s editorial page 3 days prior.

It certainly would be absurd and extraordinary for Captain Crozier to sacrifice himself without first exhausting every other option. The Navy’s brass, on the other hand, now has a proven track record of botched high-profile matters. Indeed, for this very reason, the new acting secretary may have been promoted from a different service.

Moreover, Captain Toti strongly implies that Captain Crozier skipped steps that we already knew he took.

For instance, Captain Toti noted that Captain Crozier “could have reached out directly to the Navy secretary,” leading the reader to the seemingly-obvious conclusion that he hadn’t done so. In reality, however, Secretary Modly confirmed the opposite days earlier and the Journal’s editorial page printed, “his office had already been working with Captain Crozier” at the time of the memo. But Captain Toti omits this from his selective retelling.

In fact, the chain of command was so “properly invoked” that the Journal noted, “Over a chaotic three weeks, commanders and Navy brass debated how to handle the outbreak.”

And we know that Captain Toti was reading the Journal’s coverage. Elsewhere he lamented, “The Journal reports that some sailors say they won’t re-enlist over the way they perceive the incident to have been handled.”

Incredibly, Captain Toti thus considers this a perception problem and diverts blame away from its true causes.

Captain Toti also tellingly omits Mr. Modly’s antics. Instead, he jumps to the hyperbolic non sequitur: “Imagine if this trend continues to its logical extreme—military decisions by Twitter mob.”

Captain Toti similarly implied that Captain Crozier failed to consider the strategic implications of taking the Roosevelt “offline.” But Captain Crozier’s memo makes clear that he had.

More troubling, perhaps, Captain Toti purports to know when Pentagon officials first received Captain Crozier’s memo. And, no less, this is in an editorial complaining about the unauthorized publication of Navy communications. Either Captain Toti himself is an unauthorized leaker, it seems, or high-ranking officials pre-approved the content of his editorial, which Mr. Gigot then published despite glaring factual contradictions with the Journal’s prior unretracted coverage.

Likely worst of all though, Captain Toti baselessly blames the severity of the outbreak on the Roosevelt’s crew, concluding, “it’s clear there was much they could’ve done but didn’t.”

In support of this claim, Captain Toti cites what he describes as the crew’s “social-distance-be-damned rock-star departure celebration” for Captain Crozier, which, he concludes, “will likely leave them with more Covid-19 infections.”

But Captain Toti should know better than most, “Social distancing is a luxury you don’t have aboard a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.” Indeed, 3 days prior, the Journal’s editorial page opened with this very observation.

Instead though, Captain Toti hyperbolically assured readers that the crew’s outpouring of support for Captain Crozier “was the naval equivalent of standing on top of a hill with bullets flying around them to generate an Instagram moment.”

Again, methinks he doth protest too much.

Such exaggerations seem more likely meant to dissuade the Roosevelt’s crew from publicly supporting Captain Crozier and shift blame away from administrators than to accurately inform the reading public. The reality is that the coronavirus had already spread rapidly on board despite weeks of prior social distancing precautions and quarantines—the best the crew could do in tight quarters.

Then, in a final and further effort to suppress or at least undermine accountability, Captain Toti chides “media pundits making matters worse by sounding off on issues they don’t understand.”

This journalist, however, understands a planted and politically-motivated editorial when he reads one.

Captain Toti is correct, of course, “Command is a privilege.”

And Captain Toti is entitled to his opinion, especially in an editorial.

A captain’s commission and spot on an editorial page, however, do not bestow upon him the right to be believed when he materially omits contradictory facts, fails to cite sources, ignores practical realities, and resorts to hyperbole.

And make no mistake about it: even with the facts on Captain Crozier’s side, he still confronts an uphill battle to get back his command against a belligerent, entrenched, and at-times-absurd opponent in the form of the Navy’s brass. Unfortunately, the facts won’t always matter in this battle. Captain Toti has made that part perfectly clear.

You can sign The White House petition in support of Captain Crozier here.

On Monday, the U.S. Navy reported first coronavirus fatality from U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt crew, confirming the captain’s fears. Secretary Modley is no longer available for comment regarding someone who died from his mismanagement.

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