The recent imbroglio involving the firing of the Captain of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and the subsequent resignation by Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, has provided a spectacle of theater to rival the Tiger King in capturing the attention of a quarantine weary country.
The incident began when the Roosevelt’s commanding officer, Captain Crozier, concerned about the pace of the Navy’s response to an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard his ship, wrote an e-mail to colleagues that was subsequently leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Now it appears that Modly misrepresented the dissemination of Crozier’s e mail as being significantly more careless than the distribution list implied. It was addressed to Crozier’s commanding officer, Rear Adm. Stuart Baker, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino, and Naval Air Forces commander Vice Adm. DeWolfe Miller, thus invalidating Modly’s claim that Crozier had bypassed his chain of command. Nevertheless, Modly relieved Crozier of his duties.
Crozier departed the ship in Guam amidst a well-publicized send-off by his crew who evidently held him in high regard. Then, in a bizarre sequel, Modly, apparently angered by this display of loyalty and determined to stay in the good graces of the White House, flew to Guam and addressed the ship’s crew in a terms that were at best intemperate and at times insulting to their former commanding officer. To make matters worse, despite his long trip from the United States at great cost to the taxpayer, Modly spent less than 30 minutes on board, and made no attempt to visit with the crew. After the Secretary’s speech was made public, Modly offered first an apology, then his resignation.
Unfortunately, this astonishing episode was no isolated incident, but rather another disturbing manifestation of the current administration’s drive to politicize the military. The skipper’s relief and the secretary’s self-immolation were interesting grist for the news cycle, but this dismal story points at a darker problem.
As several commentators have recently observed, the norms of civil military relations have over the last three years have steadily been eroded. When norms are continuously violated without anyone making a stand to defend them, they simply cease to be norms — the exceptions accrete into a new rule. That should be of concern, not just to the US military which has always prided itself on being apolitical, but to the country as a whole, whose democratic values depend in part on a healthy relationship between the military and its civilian leadership.
Imagine a military in which senior ranks are awarded according to political affiliation, in which political proselytization of subordinates becomes commonplace, and in which displays of political allegiance become a regular fixture of professional events. These scenarios may appear to be somewhat far-fetched, but senior uniformed leadership has already tacitly accepted the first steps down the road to a military in which this kind of behavior is the new norm.
From the beginning of this administration, it became clear that this president didn’t necessarily understand or respect the terms of the implicit contract, grounded largely on Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington’s 1957 classic The Soldier and the State, that has, throughout successive administrations, helped maintain what has been mostly a well-balanced civil military relationship, based on mutual respect and trust.
One of the terms of this unique social contract is that the men and women who comprise the armed services, who are all taught at entry that they must keep their political beliefs and military duties separate, should not be used as political props. Instead this president never misses an opportunity to shape what should be morale boosting visits to the troops into campaign rallies. He even uses the traditional presidential holiday phone calls to personnel serving overseas as an opportunity to vent about his political opponents and boast about his accomplishments as president. This behavior is more than unseemly. It is dangerous to the health of the republic.
For those in uniform, tradition is likely the most hallowed cornerstone of service. Pride in the history and symbolism of one’s unit or ship helps build the cohesion essential to withstand the rigors of combat — which is why senior officers, visiting a unit for the first time, will often begin their address by reflecting on that unit’s past glories and accomplishments. By contrast, the first visit by the president to sailors of the 7th Fleet began with a White House request to cover the name of the guided-missile destroyer John S McCain to avoid offending the Commander-in-Chief. The request, brazenly political and ethically questionable as it was, was a blow to esprit de corps, and an insult to the ship’s crew. Incidentally, what is perhaps even more disturbing about this request is that someone in uniform obeyed it, reflecting perhaps a trend of inappropriate compliance to these overt attempts to turn troop visits into political events. A few months later, Air Force officials echoed that trend by defending the wearing by Air Force personnel of hats displaying Trump’s campaign slogan during a visit by the president to a base in Germany. Air Force officials relied on the legalistic claim the displays technically did not violate Pentagon regulations, while wholly missing the point that they undermined the underlying principle.
Another term essential to healthy civilian-military relations is the understanding that civilian leadership should involve, well, leadership. The relationship between uniformed service members and their civilian masters should have at its foundation a sense of mutual respect. There are probably those who would argue that the military has no right to expect such treatment, that civilian control of the military means control, and no more. The issue is not one of protecting the sensitivities of four-star flag officers (although they too should expect fair and respectful treatment), but of maintaining a visible respect for the military institution, represented at the civil-military level by senior uniformed leaders. By insulting their leadership, civilian members of the administration indirectly assail the profession that all uniformed personnel have chosen to serve. That kind of behavior is simply not ethical, nor for that matter pragmatic, for any administration that relies, as all US governments do, on an all-volunteer force to protect the nation’s interests. The spectacle of civilian leaders mistreating uniformed officers at the pinnacle of their profession can hardly be expected to encourage an 18-year-old to volunteer to wear the same uniform.
Recent actions by those in this administration, to include the president himself, indicate a failure to understand this aspect of leadership, by displaying an attitude approaching contempt for their uniformed subordinates. When the then-acting Navy Secretary referred to Captain Crozier as “too naïve or stupid” to be a ship’s commanding officer, he violated a central tenet of leadership which is never to defame a subordinate in public. Intemperate language, even profanity in such a forum are all, perhaps, forgivable — personal attacks are not. But Modly’s gaffe pales in comparison to the example set by the president himself when, in a now well publicized incident, he called his senior military advisors “a bunch of dopes and babies… losers” who “don’t know how to win anymore.” These less than encouraging words from their Commander-In-Chief can hardly be expected boost the morale of all those in uniform who are expected to sacrifice much for the same cause. This conduct is so far from the historical norms underlying the functional relationship between civilian leaders and the uniformed military it is difficult to believe they were uttered by a president. Even President Harry Truman, when faced with a general actively conspiring against him politically, fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur while preserving respect for the institution. Abraham Lincoln did not lambast Army of the Potomac commander Gen. George B. McClellan for his failures, even as he showed him the door to the end of his career.
As with any relationship, trust is a vital component in the implicit contract between the military and its civilian leadership. And central to that trust is an understanding that uniformed leaders should be allowed to take care of matters within their own jurisdiction such as military justice or the relief of subordinate personnel. A mature leader understands that just because you may have the power (authority) do to something does not necessarily make it the right thing to do (discretion).
The president has inserted himself a number of times into the handling of military justice cases, often undercutting his subordinate commanders by doing so. His granting pardons and clemency to troops accused or convicted of war crimes sent a message that such behavior is acceptable thus undermining a bedrock precept of the U.S. military’s code of professional ethics. During the investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, the president maintained a constant running stream of acerbic commentary, and when a botched court martial ended in Gallagher being acquitted on most charges, Trump congratulated him and lambasted the prosecution team. Then the president overruled the decision taken by Rear Adm. Collin Green, head of the Navy’s Special Warfare Command to take away Gallagher’s trident pin thus expelling him from the SEALS. In the subsequent altercation, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer was fired for opposing the president’s intervention, although the Secretary of Defense intimated at the time that it was for trying to go behind his back to strike a deal with the White House. It was an astounding saga that might have been entertaining were it not for the its sobering message about loss of trust between this country’s civilian leadership and the military. An encouraging sequel might involve, for instance, an effort to protect Green’s career, but he has, instead, announced his retirement a year earlier than scheduled.
Another tenet of leadership is the principle that if an action can be executed by a subordinate with equal effect, then that subordinate should be empowered to take such action. In his rush to please the president, Modly took the decision to relieve Crozier or to convene an investigation out of the hands of the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. This is more than just an issue of hurt feelings. By doing so, Modly rendered invalid any investigation into the incident conducted by a uniformed member of the Navy. Modly’s actions suggest that he didn’t understand his own oath of office. Even political appointees have an obligation, to the institution — in this case the Navy itself — that transcend their political affiliation or ambition. Instead, Modly had, in the words of Admiral Mullen former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “become a vehicle for the president.”
The president is, of course, not obligated to follow the advice of his military leaders but, in the spirit of this implicit contract, should at least consult them before making decisions about military operations or personnel. This President has consistently declined to do so, making instead decisions of great import based on impulse rather than consultation and deliberation.
His arrangement with Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea, to halt exercises with South Korea, a long standing US partner, was made without consultation with the Pentagon, and his announcement by Twitter that US forces would withdraw from Syria took by surprise even the Secretary of Defense, who resigned as a result. Trump subsequently went back on that decision only to repeat it ten months later, again without warning. This decision, made as it was without any attempt to mitigate its catastrophic effects on the US’s Kurdish allies, went ahead unopposed visibly by anyone in uniform. Unlike Secretary Mattis, no one, it appeared, was willing to make a stand on principle.
Acts of personal vindictiveness and retribution also violate the trust between leader and led. It was not Modly’s decision to relieve Crozier that forced his resignation — it was the perception that he had crossed the line by taking revenge on the errant skipper that caused his downfall. In fairness, his boss had already set a dreadful example in this regard, and one that appears to have gone largely unchallenged. When Army Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, an officer working in the NSC, made the decision to testify before impeachment hearings about Trump’s conversation with the president of the Ukraine, he drew the president’s ire. This manifested itself first as a series of personal attacks by Twitter and culminated in the order to have Vindman, summarily dismissed. But mere dismissal was evidently insufficient an act by itself. Instead Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient, was frog-marched to the gates of the White House in an ostentatious display of humiliation obviously intended, as the French say, pour encourager les autres – a dynamic that set the tone for personal threats against the officer by Trump acolytes. Even that wasn’t enough. In an act of familial retribution, redolent of totalitarianism, Vindman’s brother who was uninvolved in the impeachment hearings was also fired from his position in the NSC. It is unclear what role the Army’s leadership or indeed the Joint Chiefs chairman played in trying to prevent this near criminal treatment of a serving officer who had done nothing more than follow the dictates of his conscience. The real truth teller will be what happens to Vindman now. If the Army wants to send a message in return about its institutional autonomy regarding internal personnel decisions, norms, and martial values, then he will be promoted with his peers.
The last term of the implicit contract between the military and its civilian leadership is a reminder to both of the obligation that all military members take to support and defend the constitution, not the president or his administration. There’s another important aspect of the oath of office that pertains to this discussion because it is the source of an implicit obligation that senior service members have to all enlisted personnel. Both officers and enlisted personnel swear to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, but while officers then state that they have no reservations about taking office, and promise to execute their duties to the best of their abilities, enlisted personnel pledge to obey all those placed over them. This distinction places a burden of responsibility on officers to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. In war that may involve dissenting against policies that waste lives to no purpose. In peace it might require taking a stand to preserve the dignity that all who wear the uniform are entitled to expect. That dignity rests on a tradition of service to country, untainted by the vicissitudes of partisan politics. Speaking of this responsibility to protect their subordinates the authors of a recent OpEd, both retired senior military officers wrote “When generals and admirals fail in this mission, they become senior uniformed bureaucrats rather than leaders.”
In fairness though what can military leaders be expected to do in the face of such consistent and rampant violation of rules that are central to the identity of their profession? Speaking up would doubtless lead to their rapid replacement with someone more compliant to the president’s whims. Nevertheless, speaking up, and continuing to do so publicly once out of uniform, to Congress and to the media, is perhaps the only way to highlight to the American public the destructive effect that this administration is having on a relationship that is a fundamental aspect of our democratic society. One can respect, for example, General-then-Defense Secretary James Mattis’ reluctance to criticize the president too specifically, for fear of undermining the relationship between this president and the current and future Secretaries of Defense. At some point, though, the principle of devoir de reserve must yield to a duty to act.
Taken individually, perhaps none of these incidents was considered important enough to trigger such an action. But the problem with never making a stand on principle, is that pretty soon you find that the ground has changed irrevocably beneath you. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, all that it will take for this president to succeed in subverting the military will be for its leadership to say nothing.
Andrew Milburn retired in March 2019 as the Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command Central. Over a 31-year career he commanded Marine and Special Operations forces in combat at every rank. He is the author of When the Tempest Gathers: From Mogadishu to the fight against ISIS, a Marine Special Operations Commander at war
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.