Video: Sailors cheer wildly for captain fired over letter pleading for help with coronavirus outbreak

As I said yesterday, this was a perfectly foreseeable PR catastrophe for the Navy. It’s one thing to reprimand Capt. Brett Crozier for circulating his letter to the Navy begging for help to quarantine sick sailors onshore.

It’s another to humiliate him by relieving him of command.

Yesterday the acting Secretary of the Navy complained that the letter created “a little bit of a panic on the ship.” Is that right? I’m not getting a strong vibe from these clips of Crozier’s send-off yesterday that his crew is relieved to see the panic-monger go.

To the extent there was panic among the crew and their families, what was the cause? Crozier’s letter, or the fear that Navy commanders would ignore the letter?

“The idea that it got out there and it created panic among families — you don’t think the families didn’t already know what was going on on that ship? You don’t think the sailors weren’t already telling their families what was happening on the ship? That’s ridiculous,” said David Lapan, retired Marine Corps colonel who served as the top spokesman for the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Marine Corps.

“It’s more believable that the letter would cause the families to be upset that the Navy wasn’t taking the right steps to protect their loved ones.”…

“What signal does this send to the fleet?” he said. “Relieving that commander under these conditions makes it appear to be retaliation. It makes it appear the Navy is more interesting in not being embarrassed rather than taking care of sailors.”

Precisely. The message received by other officers won’t be “make sure you don’t cc too many people in your letter about a plague spreading on your ship.” The message will be “don’t make trouble for us, no matter how urgent the problem is.” John Kirby, a retired admiral, also sees relieving Crozier of command as a strange overreaction:

Even stranger is the fact that Mark Esper, the Secretary of Defense, is taking heat lately for how he’s handled the spread of coronavirus within the military, “punting tough choices over how to slow the virus to local commanders.” Well, with Crozier we have a case of a local commander who acted aggressively to protect his sailors. His prize for doing so was being fired. The House Armed Services Committee has noticed:

Even among PR catastrophes, it’s a special kind of catastrophe that leads to public statements of no confidence in the CEO by key constituents.

The best defense of the Navy I’ve read is this thoughtful thread by Bryan McGrath, who used to command a Navy ship himself. Crozier did the right thing in protecting his sailors, he allows — but the Navy did the right thing too by firing him, for the simple reason that officers can’t be encouraged to wage PR battles in the media in the name of making sure that the leadership is attentive to their particular concerns. The Navy has a global problem right now in assuring readiness amid a pandemic. Crozier’s letter, which was probably designed to leak, forced them to prioritize his. That point is well taken, but (a) as McGrath notes, we don’t know right now if the Navy was as attentive to the problem onboard the Theodore Roosevelt as they claim to have been, and (b) per Lapan and Kirby, it seems punitive to take the extreme step of relieving Crozier of command. Surely there was some lesser form discipline that might have been imposed on him for acting extraordinarily in an extraordinary situation.

He’s not losing his rank or being drummed out of the service, by the way. The Navy has taken enough of a PR beating already over this episode. It doesn’t want to invite a worse one.