Relieve Trump of command
Fallout continues over Capt. Brett Crozier being relieved of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Crozier had sent a four-page letter up the chain of command warning about the cornavirus outbreak aboard his vessel. Crozier called on the Navy to take action to prevent members of his crew from dying. After the email was leaked to the press, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly relieved the commander over the objections of uniformed military leaders, claiming Crozier had sent the letter “over nonsecure, unclassified email” and copied it to ” 20 or 30 other people.”
After flying to Guam to publicly castigate the ship’s former commander before his former crew, Modly resigned. It seems he exaggerated the distribution of the letter and misrepresented his reasons for firing Crozier. “Breaking news: [President] Trump wants him fired,” Modly reported told a colleague the day before relieving Crozier.
Retired Chief of Staff at Special Operations Command Central, Andrew Milburn, writes in a Military Times commentary that Modly’s “intemperate and at times insulting” speech points to a “darker problem” in Donald Trump’s maladministration of his relationship with the US military. Milburn was blunt:
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.
One norm is that the men and women should not be used as political props. Instead, Trump “never misses an opportunity to shape what should be morale boosting visits to the troops into campaign rallies.” What’s more, Trump at a Pentagon meeting called senior military officers “a bunch of dopes and babies… losers” who “don’t know how to win anymore.”
Milburn offers a harsh assessment of Trump’s tenure:
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 on the importance 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.
The wrong man was relieved of command. Trump’s granting pardons or clemency to troops accused of (or convicted of) war crimes; his interference in the trail of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher (also accused of war crimes) and his expulsion from the elite service; and Trump’s “acts of personal vindictiveness and retribution” against officers for honorable actions that reflect badly on him all contribute to the erosion of the traditions and norms that make America’s military a disciplined, professional organization. At some point, Milburn writes, military officials have a duty to speak out publicly about “the destructive effect that this administration is having on a relationship that is a fundamental aspect of our democratic society.”
One cannot place all the blame on Trump. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the torture and rendition programs of the George W. Bush administration thoroughly greased the slope down which Milburn sees the military sliding. But Bush is home in Texas. Trump is in the Oval Office adding to, not undoing, the damage done before him.
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Note: The pandemic will upend standard field tactics in 2020. If enough promising “improvisations” come my way by June, perhaps I can issue a COVID-19 supplement.