April 13 — Some 580 of the 4,800 sailors in the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt have tested positive for COVID-19 as of today. One sailor has already died. The rapid spread of the coronavirus has revealed and exacerbated a bitter conflict within the Navy command and between that command and the Trump administration.
What is still to be seen is will this serious conflict among those who give the orders to maintain U.S. worldwide economic and military domination alter how rank-and-file sailors in a professional military understand their role as cannon fodder? How much does this rift at the top reflect turmoil in the ranks?
The conflict broke into the open when the Roosevelt’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, emailed a letter to 20 officers in the naval command arguing for him to allow his crew to leave the ship in Guam, be tested for the virus and enter quarantine if necessary. This letter, published in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 31, contained the sentences, “There will be losses” and “Sailors don’t need to die.” (tinyurl.com/qkqua59)
According to a lengthy article on April 12 by the New York Times’ top military analysts, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly was worried that Capt. Crozier’s letter, written after four days of rebuffs from superior officers, would anger President Trump. He wanted to take action before Trump did, so he called colleagues asking for advice on firing Crozier. (tinyurl.com/wgx9trd)
“Most of them, including Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Modly he should order an investigation into the incident, and wait and see the outcome” rather than firing him, said the Times article.
But on April 2, Modly fired Crozier, relieving him of command of the aircraft carrier. The same day, as the captain said farewell to his crew and left the ship, hundreds of sailors cheered him and chanted, “Captain Crozier, Captain Crozier.”
Apparently, the sailors also believed they didn’t need to die. The YouTube video of their cheering was seen around the world. Soon after that, Crozier tested positive for COVID-19.
In a vain attempt to scold the sailors for their support of Crozier and whip them back into line, Modly flew to Guam and addressed the crew over the ship’s loudspeaker on April 6. He insulted Crozier, calling him either “too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier if Crozier didn’t realize his letter would leak.” He also openly scolded the crew for cheering Crozier and for being overly afraid of the virus.
Modly apparently failed to anticipate that his insulting speech would also leak. The recording of his epithet-laden comments got as much publicity as the cheers for Crozier had the day before.
A storm of criticism
Modly’s comments unleashed a boomerang of criticism. Current and former top officers of the Navy criticized Modly for firing Crozier. Democrats in Congress demanded Crozier’s reinstatement. A Change.org petition demanding that had gathered 350,000 signatures by April 12.
House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., called for Modly’s removal on April 6. Courtney’s statement indicated that he anticipated a negative reaction from the rank-and-file troops to Modly’s criticism of their captain: “At this critical time, the men and women of our Navy need to know their leadership is laser-focused on ensuring their well-being and giving them the support they need to accomplish their mission.”
Before another day was up, Modly was forced to offer his resignation. Mimicking Trump’s usual behavior, the former Acting Navy Secretary said the opposite of what he had said the day before. He apologized to the crew and said that he didn’t think Crozier was stupid.
The president too had first attacked Crozier, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper immediately accepted Modly’s resignation. He and Trump apparently were ready to let Modly take the blame and be fired.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985, wrote in The National Interest on April 9 of the ongoing tension between the Trump administration and the Navy command. The “recently retired admirals Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Stravridis, former NATO commander, both have publicly supported Crozier’s actions.” (tinyurl.com/tyal3yt)
Also irritating the top admirals was the president’s previous decision to override the Naval justice system and pardon the Navy Seal commando serial killer.
If Crozier is reinstated — a decision could happen soon — it may temporarily quiet the rank-and-file protest shown when the crew cheered their fired captain.
The dilemma Trump and the admirals share, however, is that they need the loyalty or at least the obedience of the sailors to carry out wars of aggression — with or without COVID-19. The enclosed nature of an aircraft carrier, with sailors sleeping three deep in “open, shared berthing,” then working and eating together, makes this ship a likely focus of the epidemic. The infection is also breaking out in the other military branches, where troops are asking that training and exercises be put on hold.
This incident has shown the sailors that the administration is indifferent to their well-being. Will it help show these workers in uniform — even though they are professional troops — that their true interests lie not in serving the interests of the super-rich as world cops, but in joining with the rest of the working class?
Catalinotto is author of “Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions,” which covers extensively the history of the American Servicemen’s Union during the U.S. war against Vietnam.