The military has always been known for the systematic manner it approaches problems. It always formulates a standardised institutional response that ensures, wherever a unit may be located, it has laid down guidelines and processes to follow, thus avoiding the necessity of reinventing the wheel. However, in this time of COVID-19, the world is faced with unprecedented challenges in which many standard operating procedures and protocols have been rendered irrelevant and blindly adhering to them is plain foolhardy.
This very issue is at the very core of the problem in the manner in which the US Navy hierarchy and the Pentagon responded to the incident that occurred aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt recently. This incident brought into sharp focus the vulnerabilities facing the military in the current environment, but even more importantly, showed up how an unempathatic, rigid and wholly bureaucratic chain of command lost trust and credibility among its ranks and only garnered adverse publicity. Hardly helpful, given the US Navy hierarchy was already reeling from the effects of the “Fat Leonard” corruption scandal involving scores of high-ranking officers, including sixty of Flag Rank, being investigated or charged for their involvement. As Craig Whitlock, wrote for The Washington Post
on 27 May 2016: “Perhaps the worst national-security breach of its kind to hit the Navy since the end of the Cold War.” (The Man Who Seduced the Seventh Fleet).
After the COVID-19 virus infected some of the crew aboard the aircraft carrier, the skipper, Captain Brett Crozier, sent out a four-page mail to unspecified addressees, in the naval hierarchy, laying out a detailed assessment and recommendation for handling the situation.
Briefly stated, after the COVID-19 virus infected some of the crew aboard the aircraft carrier, the skipper, Captain Brett Crozier, sent out a four-page mail to unspecified addressees, in the naval hierarchy, laying out a detailed assessment and recommendation for handling the situation. This leaked to the media, which, as is its wont, published excerpts that sensationalised the issue causing immense embarrassment to the Navy Command. An investigation was ordered into the issue by the Acting Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Thomas Modly, a former US Naval Academy graduate himself. In his initial interaction with the media he appeared to be supportive of the captain and stated: “We don’t disagree with the (captain) on that ship and we’re doing it in a very methodical way; we’re very engaged in this, we’re very concerned about it and we’re taking all the appropriate steps.”
However, a day later, he was anything but supportive, and without awaiting the investigation report, relieved the captain from his command having “lost confidence in him,” despite objections from the Chairman Joint Chiefs and the Chief of Naval Operations. He subsequently flew to Guam, where the ship was docked, and addressed the crew calling their former captain “too naïve or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternate is that he did it on purpose. And, that’s a serious violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which you are all familiar with.” Not only was this taken amiss by the crew, some of whom shouted back at him, but also by the public at large, which finally led to his resignation.
Two parallel narratives played out here simultaneously, and though closely linked, should be examined separately. One pertains to the impact of the pandemic on the operational status of this ship and the wider implications on the operational capabilities of the US Armed Forces and other militaries worldwide. The other issue has much to do with the manner in which the command echelons functioned and the associated question of leadership.
Two parallel narratives played out here simultaneously, and though closely linked, should be examined separately.
The captain’s letter, which is in the public domain, makes three critical observations:
- Firstly, regardless of conditions on board, the ship was ready “to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our allies. The virus would certainly have an impact, but in combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime.”
- Secondly, in the confined space available, guidelines could not be complied with and conducting of testing and isolation on board was impractical. Thus, the whole crew should be viewed as “close contact” and likely to be infected. He gave the example of the Cruise Liner Diamond Princess that was dealing with a similar outbreak.
- Stating that “we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily,” he recommended that the entire crew be taken ashore for quarantine, leaving behind only essential personnel for security, maintenance and disinfecting the ship. He added that “decisive action is required now in order to comply with CDC and NAVADMIN 083/20 guidance and prevent tragic outcomes.”
The captain’s first assertion that there would be no compromise with the operational readiness or its ability to carry out its assigned mission, regardless of casualties, in the event of war, is the most important takeaway. This mindset also holds equally true for our own Armed Forces as well. Undoubtedly, this could hardly have been the reason for relieving the officer from command.
Even his recommendation that the laid down SOP’s were unworkable and therefore evacuation of the crew, as it was not wartime, and since their safety was of utmost importance can hardly be faulted, as being on the spot he fully understood the situation. What must have gone against him was the fact that he wrote the letter, and more importantly, that it reached the media. Senior naval veterans here have also been critical of him for this as well. Even President Trump expressed unhappiness at his actions by tweeting “he was no Hemmingway.”
What must have gone against him was the fact that he wrote the letter, and more importantly, that it reached the media. Senior naval veterans here have also been critical of him for this as well.
Those who have served in any hierarchical organisation are aware that sometimes letters are initiated as a last resort to place matters on record, as it appears to have been done in this case, after it emerged that the Navy’s chain of command had been aware of the problem on board for about a week and was yet to issue substantive directions to ameliorate the matter. Given this virus’s exponential rate of spreading, the captain must have found himself in a serious quandary and forced to act. Even the presence of his immediate superior on board his ship meant little, as the responsibility for the safety of the ship and its crew rests with its captain. It is indeed ironical that it was the captains recommended course of action that has now been adopted.
While it is correct that Mr. Modly did initially accuse the captain of leaking the document, he subsequently withdrew this allegation, however contending that writing this letter to his chain of command was naïve as it was bound to leak out, a ridiculous assumption indeed. In democracies when governments make mistakes, whistleblowers leak information to the media to force corrective measures to be initiated, as has happened here. It is an important role that the free press fulfills.
At the end of the day the most important lesson that emerges from this incident, which is of as much relevance to us, is that militaries must focus on their primary task of protecting our national interests, and no biological incident can hinder it from carrying out its assigned mission, regardless of consequences. For the military leadership, in extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances such as these, if they wish to retain the trust of the rank and file, they must show maturity, flexibility and empathy in full measure. They must act as they would in a war, boldly and decisively without being hampered by the usual bureaucratic red tape that surrounds us.
In democracies when governments make mistakes, whistleblowers leak information to the media to force corrective measures to be initiated, as has happened here. It is an important role that the free press fulfills.
Lest it be thought that this issue is of little relevance in our context, then one could not be more wrong. As widely reported in the media, the parents of a gallantry award winner, the Late Colonel Navjot Bal, SC, were compelled to travel over 2000 Kms by road to attend their son’s funeral, because despite best efforts, a service aircraft could not be arranged for their move. Under ordinary circumstances such a request would neither have been made nor considered. Yet with a nationwide lockdown in progress such an act would have shown our political and military leadership as empathetic, caring and worth trusting, undoubtedly raising morale of all ranks. That it was not sanctioned due to bureaucratic wrangling, despite the Raksha Mantri reportedly having approved it in principle, only adds salt to the wound. It shows up our political and military hierarchy for what it is, slaves to bureaucracy and incapable of acting unless their own interests are involved.
Given the power of social media, our own rank and file have seen through our leadership, even though they may not have shown their contempt in the manner that the sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt did, when they hurled epithets back at Mr. Modly while he was addressing them.
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