SECNAV Says Fired Captain ‘Naive or Stupid’

Thomas Modly, the acting Secretary of the Navy, has embarrassed himself and must go.

When Captain Brett Crozier was fired from his command of the Teddy Roosevelt after a four-page plea for help was published in the press, I was somewhat sympathetic to the rationale offered by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly.

This morning, when retired Navy commander Doyle Hodges tweeted out his excellent War on the Rocks article making the case that Modly acted in haste and with questionable ethics, I offered a partial defense:

But when I was alerted that Modly had publicly called Crozier “stupid,” I was angry.

When I got more context, I became outraged.

NYT (“Acting Navy Secretary Slams Fired Captain as ‘Stupid’“):

The U.S. Navy’s top civilian excoriated the fired commander of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt to its crew on Monday as the sailors huddled on the island of Guam amid a coronavirus outbreak among their ranks, according to a transcript that was leaked online Monday. The New York Times has obtained an audio recording that supports the transcript’s authenticity.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly addressed the crew of the aircraft carrier on Monday afternoon via the ship’s internal loudspeaker system. In a profane and defensive address that one crew member described in an interview as “whiny, upset, irritated, condescending,” Modly took repeated shots at the integrity of Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who was removed from command last week, and eventually injected partisan political tones into the address by attacking former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly criticized Crozier’s removal.

The audio of the speech is here.

Task & PurposesJeff Schogol has a good account (“Acting Navy Secretary blasts USS Roosevelt captain as ‘too naive or too stupid’ in leaked speech to ship’s crew“) for those who can’t listen to the audio for whatever reason:

“If he didn’t think, in my opinion, that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either A, too naive, or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this,” Modly told the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew on April 5. “The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the UCMJ which you are all familiar with.”

[…]

Modly also chastised the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew for cheering Crozier when he left the ship, claiming the former commanding officer’s memo caused concern among residents of Guam, where the ship is currently docked.

“So think about that when you cheer the man of the ship who exposed you to that,” Moldy said. “I understand you love the guy. It’s good that you love him. But you’re not required to love him.”

“Crew of the Teddy Roosevelt, you are under no obligation to love your leadership, only respect it,” he continued. “You are under no obligation to like your job, only to do it. You are under no obligation, you are under no obligation to expect anything from your leaders other than they will treat you fairly and put the mission of the ship first.”

The acting navy secretary took aim at the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew, telling them their only concern right now should be how they can help each other during the crisis.

“That’s your duty,” Modly said. “Not to complain. Everyone is scared about this thing. And let me tell ya something, if this ship was in combat and there were hypersonic missiles coming in at it, you’d be pretty fucking scared too. But you do your jobs. And that’s what I expect you to. And that’s what I expect every officer on this ship to do, is to do your jobs.”

I am, as of this writing, a Department of the Navy employee. So I do not say this lightly: Modly must be removed from his office immediately. He has lost the respect of the entire Department with this speech.

I am sympathetic to the notion that Crozier intended for his letter to leak. If so, it was wrong, regardless of the good intentions for his crew behind it. But it is simply outrageous for a member of his chain of command—let alone the acting Secretary of the Navy—to demean him in public in this way. Let alone to a crew, many of whose lives he may well have saved by his actions.

And, to make matters worse, this happened after it was public knowledge that Crozier himself had tested positive for COVID-19.

It’s simply unconscionable and shameful conduct on the part of any leader, much less the senior leader of the United States Navy.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Nightcrawler says:

    I agree. However, nothing is going to happen to this guy, and we both know why.

    22
  2. Bill says:

    I agree. However, nothing is going to happen to this guy, and we both know why.

    I am in total agreement with the above.

    7
  3. MarkedMan says:

    @Nightcrawler: I’m not so sure nothing will happen to him. If Trump sees him as a liability, he’s a goner.

    6
  4. Mikey says:

    It’s simply unconscionable and shameful conduct on the part of any leader, much less the senior leader of the United States Navy.

    This would apply, had he been chosen for his leadership ability rather than for how firmly and lovingly he planted his lips on Trump’s voluminous ass.

    7
  5. Jen says:

    It just seems so very wholly unnecessary to go after Crozier like this. The recording of sailors yelling “what the f*&^” right after Modly makes the “naive or stupid” comment is telling. This is a way to make yourself irrelevant. What a horrible person Modly is.

    11
  6. CSK says:

    @MarkedMan:
    I’m with you. Trump demands unquestioning loyalty, but has none himself. If it gets too messy with Modly, Trump will shiv him.

    9
  7. mattbernius says:

    Beyond all of what’s already been stated, this guy needs to be removed for thinking some how he could give that speech, under this context, and not have it leak. At best he is naive to the point of gross incompetence.

    The karma wheel has spun particularly fast on this one.

    I honestly don’t see how he survives the black eye he just gave himself, the navy, and ultimately the Commander in Chief.

    12
  8. Sleeping Dog says:

    Modly, will remain acting secretary, he’ll never be confirmed. Even by Moscow Mitch’s senate. Horrible nominations are being confirmed, in large part because they keep a low profile so that the wider public doesn’t notice. Modly has been noticed.

    3
  9. CSK says:

    @Jen:
    I’m convinced that people who say the things that Modly did do so because they take pleasure in saying them. Much like Trump.

    8
  10. mattbernius says:

    BTW, my bet is that he will be resigning by the end of the week — most likely in the next 48 hours. There’s no way that he can survive doing that in an election year.

    4
  11. Teve says:

    Jim Wright at Stonekettle asked, do you know the decades of hard work and learning and determination you have to have and do to be the captain of an aircraft carrier? And then have some civilian idiot show up and call you stupid and tell your men that they should be concerned with their mission instead of their health?

    His whole thread is worth a read. If I recall correctly he was a Warrant Officer in the Navy for like 20 years.

    10
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    If Sean Hannity defends Modly on tonight’s show, he’ll stay.

    10
  13. Teve says:

    Modly graduated from Harvard Business School, so if all the roles were reversed Fox would be 24/7 Elitist Ivory Tower Egghead Viciously Attacks our Troops During Wartime. And the Senate would’ve already had three hearings. Eleventeen to follow.

    19
  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Modly is a goner. No way trump is going to defend a lose like him.

    2
  15. Teve says:

    @Michael Reynolds: dammit that’s probably true.

    2
  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    And BTW for those who may have missed it, our genial host has a pair.

    25
  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @mattbernius:

    my bet is that he will be resigning by the end of the week

    Doubtful. Remember…he is only in the job because he let Trump intervene in the Eddie Gallagher case. He’s a good toadie. Good toadies can stay. That’s how we roll in Trumpistan.

    6
  18. Kit says:

    Crew of the Teddy Roosevelt, you are under no obligation to love your leadership, only respect it,”

    When I was a kid watching the latest Hollywood B film, these lines were put in the mouth of the cardboard villain. What more does a guy need to do to signal to the audience that he’s the bad guy? Have a length of toilet paper stuck to his heel as he exits the men’s room?

    7
  19. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I do not believe that you get to command one of the most complex war machines ever built by being stupid, or naive.

    13
  20. Andy says:

    As a Navy vet I agree completely.

    9
  21. mattbernius says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    I’ve been wrong about a lot of stuff, so who knows. But the fact remains that time and time again, we’ve seen the loyalty with PoTUS is never a two way street. You can be the best of toadies, but if you do anything that threatens to derail Trump you are cast aside.

    Keeping him would be a millstone around Trump’s neck with a lot of military voters and will cause friction with a lot of base Republicans. Turning him into the newest coffee boy is far easier.

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Hannity’s only part of the equation. And I doubt he’ll even address it. Carlson is equally important. He’s also more politically astute. I can’t see him backing Modly (especially since it was the Daily Caller that broke the news).

    5
  22. Michael Reynolds says:

    @mattbernius:
    Trump hasn’t been able to let his evil out lately, being forced to stay on script. He may back Modly just because he feels bullied by reality.

    50/50. I’d bet but I only bet on longshots, the pay-off’s not worth it otherwise.

    6
  23. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @mattbernius:

    loyalty with PoTUS is never a two way street

    Of course, this is absolutely correct…but he was getting rid of the Captain, who had become an embarrassment to Trump.
    Sometimes Palace intrigue can be soooo complex!!!
    /snark
    We will see.

    2
  24. Nightcrawler says:

    @MarkedMan:

    You may be right. Unfortunately, even if he is replaced, it will just be with another unqualified Mango Manchild sycophant.

    2
  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I have come to the realization that this is all much ado about nothing. I mean, it’s not like the SecNav disrespected the troops by saluting with a cup of coffee in his hand. Right? And neither did he trade 5 POWs to get back an American soldier who was a bit of a looney (some called him a “deserter”) and was captured by the enemy and then let military justice take it’s course without interference.

    Perspective guys, we all need to keep a little perspective.

    11
  26. Stormy Dragon says:

    I am, as of this writing, a Department of the Navy employee. So I do not say this lightly: Modly must be removed from his office immediately. He has lost the respect of the entire Department with this speech.

    Thank you for taking a stand on this, Dr. Joyner.

    17
  27. Jay L Gischer says:

    Respect, James. For you. For the Navy.

    For Crozier. I think Crozier made a calculation that it might cost him his job, but it would be worth it if it helped his crew. And that is what service is about.

    I saw that “naive or stupid” quote earlier, and thought, “well, that’s shots fired”. I wonder if Modly leaked the transcript himself, thinking it would make him look good to his boss.

    4
  28. senyordave says:

    I continue to be baffled by the support that Trump gets from the military. I have read it is in the 60% range. Yet he shits on the military constantly and certainly seems to have done everything he (and daddy) could to evade the draft. I think a Democrat who acted like Trump would have about support in the 20% – 30% range.

    14
  29. gVOR08 says:

    Modly’s speech gives us a taste of what Captain Crozier was having to deal with.

    What are the odds only one ship in the Navy has Covid? Other Captains have been warned to not embarrass the administration. In a week or two Trump will make some grandstanding pretense of taking care of the sailors. FYI, most recent poll I found quickly has Trump underwater 42/50 in approval among active duty military.

    ETA – I hadn’t seen senyordave’s comment. I hope what I found is more up to date (Dec ’19).

    2
  30. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Cudos for you Joyner. This is what happens when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for talent to run DOD. When Mattis left, the last vestige of Civilian competence went with him. We can only hope that the Chairman has enough of Trump’s ear to keep the wheels on until November. This is GD shitshow.

    3
  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @gVOR08: I believe he’s further underwater than that. Competency is currency in the military. Incompetent people cause more work for others and get people killed. The hardcore Republican sevicepeople might like how Trump pisses off Dems….but personally they know he’s a boob and not up to the task of being CINC. I think Biden will get a significant percentage of hold your nose votes from the military. The shitshow must end.

    3
  32. wr says:

    @Jim Brown 32: Weren’t you defending the firing as necessary just this weekend and saying that politics probably had nothing to do with it?

    2
  33. senyordave says:

    @gVOR08: My 60% number was actually 58%, and I believe it was sometime in fall of 2019. The same poll broke it down by race, and it mirrored non-military polls, with him doing very well with white males, and not so well with everyone else.

  34. Kari Q says:

    Sadly, at Redstate they are celebrating Modly as a heroic truth teller.

    I suspect that Trump will step into this and “save” Crozier by ordering the Navy to reinstate him as commander of the ship. It’s easy to say and will be popular in the general public. Completely in Trump’s comfort zone.

  35. Grewgills says:

    @wr:
    To be fair, his and James’ position were quite similar at that time. Crozier knew that he was likely submitting his resignation letter when he sent his email. He judged, rightly I think, that it was worth it. It was a right thing for him to do to try and protect his crew and it was a right thing to do within the culture of the navy for him to be relieved of his command for doing so.
    What Modly has done since and Trump’s manifest incompetence as CINC and just about every other duty of the president are separate issues that I think Jim and James also seem to more or less agree on.

    8
  36. CSK says:

    @Kari Q:
    Same at Lucianne.com: Modly’s a hero.

  37. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @wr: It was necessary…and he would have been relieved anyway regardless of who the President was. If you are going to publically disagree with your boss and his bosses…you can no longer stay in Command. Period. Being relieved is NOT a rare occurrence in the Service. He’s not being court martialed or reprimanded because he did nothing wrong.

    This is why Crozier should have never wrote the letter, it was never going to get him what he wanted in terms of the outcome he sought for his crew. He has regular meetings with the people that could authorize what he wanted–it was really a resignation letter.

    What the letter predictably did, was get Trump and his merry band of minor leaguers involved at levels they have no experience or business being involved….which is bad for the sailors and the mission

    The American military system is built off of centralized control but decentralized Executive. The Commander in Chief or the Secretary getting involved in matters 6-7 links down in the Chain of Command is a problem….a big problem.

    5
  38. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Grewgills: My position exactly. Thank you for capturing it so concisely.

    2
  39. Jen says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    it was never going to get him what he wanted in terms of the outcome he sought for his crew.

    I don’t know how you can assert that. He wanted them off the ship to get medical care and slow or stop the spread. That (finally) happened. But not until he himself was also infected.

    I don’t know how many have read the piece by Teddy Roosevelt’s great-grandson that ran in the NYT, but it’s worth reading.

    1
  40. Teve says:

    Last i heard 173 sailors from that ship have tested positive.

  41. wr says:

    @Jim Brown 32: “He has regular meetings with the people that could authorize what he wanted–it was really a resignation letter.”

    And they refused, because it would piss off Trump, as Modly has flat out said.

    Sure, it was a resignation letter, because there was no other way he could hope to save the lives of the people serving under him.

    The chain of command failed completely here, and he stepped outside it because it was the only way he could save lives — and I’m sure he knew he’d be removed for it.

    But the problem here is not with the Captain — it’s with a chain of command that has become so corrupted by the president that they are eager to murder their own sailors rather than risk annoying him.

    That you and James keep deferring to the great wisdom of the chain of command is essentially declaring that “I was just following orders” is a legitimate excuse for anything.

    4
  42. wjs says:

    I doubt this will cause pro-Trump flag officers to change their mind about why they support the status quo and why they’re okay with it. They’re willing to follow orders so long as it rewards their own privately held worldview.

    I also don’t think any of them would hesitate to freak out if this were the sort of thing that might have happened during a Democratic presidential administration.

    1
  43. mattbernius says:

    Ok, so my calculus had not included Modly doing an about face and issuing a midling apology. I have no sense of how that changes the calculus.

  44. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Jen: communications flow between higher headquarters and subordinate units is fairly standard throughout through the DOD. So I’m fairly certain that he had a videoconferencing or teleconference with his boss and his counterparts within PACOM and PACFLEET at least weekly. Also, most Commands across DOD have set up Coronavirus task forces, usually led by the Command’s senior medical officer to track status of infections and recommend fix actions to Commanders. The ones I am personally aware of have been going for about a month so I’m sure the one in the Pacific was going before that since that’s where this started.

    Keep in mind that public health decisions at a unit level is NOT a high level decision. So Capt Croizer and the Carrier Group Commander, together with PACOM and PACFLEET, who ownsthe US facilities in the region, could have decided to go with Crozier’s reccomendation. They chose not to and took a more modest approach.

    The civilian equivalent of this would be a be a Branch manager, District manager, and District facility manager disagreeing on security measures in place at the Branch. The District manager, and District Facility manager are both fully empowered to authorize and implement the Branch Manager’s recommendation to close the Branch for 3 weeks…but disagree they need to close the Branch to implement new measures. The Branch manager, fully convinced of his position, writes a letter to the CEO and board of the company, that unless the Branch closes down for 3 weeks to implement increased security measures, employees are in danger and could die. Obviously the CEO is going to evaluate this carefully, if for nothing else but CYA…and decide which of the arguments make the most sense in the context of what the company does. For the Branch manager to appeal that high…he’d better be right because those kinds of decisions aren’t made at that level…he’d have to have shown gross incompetence in the decision the District manager and Facility manager made. They tested about 2000 crew and offloaded 1500 sailors off the boat before Crozier wrote the letter…he wanted 4500 off–immediately. It’s hard to say having not been in the room, but I’m not sure why Crozier didn’t see pushing to get another 3000 tests and running a South Korean test, trace, and quarantine model as an acceptable stop gap. As I said before, the next few weeks will tell if he was right.

  45. James Joyner says:

    @Jim Brown 32: This initially went into moderation because you used a different name. Let me know if you prefer the other one.

    1
  46. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Joyner: James, thank you. I’m using the computer at my parents house and my nephew’s name auto-filled in. Duooohhtt!

    2
  47. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @wr:
    The refused, because removing and quarantining 4500 sailors in that region isnt feasible. That’s slightly less the size of a medium US base. Its obvious you have a pre-existing view of Military officers so what do you want us to say? It’s also obvious you have no idea about the motivations or decisions calculus of military leaders.

    The bottom line is no Commander is going to jepordize the mission or his/troops for “What does Trump think?” No Commander could, or would, run a decision ENTIRELY within their authority…up the Chain of Command to find out what Trump or his appointed Toadies thinks about it. It can take Days to Weeks to get something to the President for decision.

    So unless you have a source or citation, that the regional Commanders reached out to to the CNO or SECNAV for an opinion to remove 4500 sailors (because it was the best option) from the TR and were told “no”– you’re really just projecting what you’d like to think happened.

    1
  48. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    Dude, this was all politics from the start.

    The bottom line is no Commander is going to jepordize the mission or his/troops for “What does Trump think?”

    Of course they will. Don’t be ridiculous. Any assumption of integrity is just that, an assumption. We’ve seen the Trump corruption spread through the Intel community and the DOJ for starters, do you really think the military is exempt? Crozier took the action he did because he rightly observed that nothing was going to be done to help his crew. And nothing was going to be done because the Pentagon is terrified of Trump.

    Ignatius, who has excellent sources in defense and intel:

    Acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly, in an extensive interview about the firing of the commander of a disease-threatened aircraft carrier, said he acted because he believed the captain was “panicking” under pressure — and wanted to make the move himself, before President Trump ordered the captain’s dismissal.

    “I didn’t want to get into a decision where the president would feel that he had to intervene because the Navy couldn’t be decisive,” Modly told me in a telephone call from Hawaii at about 1 a.m. Sunday, Washington time. He continued: “If I were president, and I saw a commanding officer of a ship exercising such poor judgment, I would be asking why the leadership of the Navy wasn’t taking action itself.”

    Modly says explicitly that he acted for fear that Trump would act. He didn’t say he feared Esper. He wasn’t being leaned on by the Chiefs. He didn’t even say his hand was forced by circumstances. He said he did it to forestall Trump. And then he followed it up by flying 8000 miles to be a fucking asshole to Crozier’s crew in an effort to win the caudillo’s praise.

    2
  49. dazedandconfused says:

    @Jim Brown 32: @Jim Brown 32:

    I quite agree this appears to have been a Navy problem, not Trump (as yet) problem, but here’s a credible source about what is currently known about the communications between Crozier and the Dept. prior to his issuing the letter:

    https://warontherocks.com/2020/04/the-navys-crisis-of-special-trust-and-confidence/

    Says Crozier wasn’t intending to empty the ship, and had a plan to maintain the ability to get to sea again quickly if something cropped up.

    IMO, FWIW (not a heck of a lot) Crosier decided that unless a war broke out somewhere he was taking that boat to Guam, hell or high water. Had the gambit of a public statement not worked to change the Depts mind he would have committed straight-up insubordination to get there. He had to know his career was over with the letter anyway.

    2
  50. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: My point is…that a mid level decision such as how many, and how fast to quarantine sailors… IS insulated from beltway politics. If we were talking decisions made at the 3 & 4 star level you’d have a point because that’s about the lowest level that beltway politics starts to creep into the equation.

    What we are talking are decisions made at the O6-O8 level– that level of decision making has insulation from politics of the day because 99% are below the radar of politicians. Not immunity from ANy politics..but insulation.

    This is corollary to the Eddie Gallagher situation. The then wise chain of command in that situation was magically right to court martial and discipline him…and now its evil and corrupt, bowing to Trumps every whim. When do we get to the realization that the situation isn’t skewed–its the viewers perspective?

    1
  51. mattbernius says:

    I’m not bragging. I’m just happy to have been right about a political prediction for once:

    Modly resigns:
    https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/politics/modly-resign-crozier-esper-trump/index.html

    5
  52. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @dazedandconfused: Really good article and I agree with it. I acknowledge that its possible that Crozier was right…he has a staff of medical experts on board so I’m sure his recommendations were based on their assessment. The author was fair in that if you weren’t in the meetings with Crozier and the regional Commanders, it’s hard to know what type of relief they could provide now and what help they would have to scrounge up elsewhere and get to Guam later (if any were promised)
    I dont buy that Crozier wouldn’t have known that status of the additional support– that would be something multiple levels of Command would be watching. COVID19 is every Commander’s number 1 priority right now.

    Maybe its Hubris but I was naive and arrogant enough to believe no one could take care of my people better than me. While I find it honorable what Crozier did, I find it puzzling that he would sacrifice the opportunity to salvage the best possible outcome for his people. Unless of course the letter got him everything he wanted. We wont know that however until someone on the Strike Group Commader’s (or PACFLEET) staff talks about what the immediate and midrange plan to mitigate risk to the crew was. All this will come out in due time.

    His point about leadership is well taken. A lot of the Services are having problems…this is a talent management issue. It’s hard to keep talented leaders in the military when there’s a boom economy and you have to compete with the private sector who can offer more money and a better quality of life. A good percentage of your rock stars leave after 6-8 years if the economy is good.

    1
  53. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @mattbernius: Well I’ll be! Miracles are still possible!

    2
  54. Tim says:

    @mattbernius:

    I guess somebody must have pointed out to Modly that he had to be naive or stupid to think he could have made such an idiotic address to the crew of the TR and not have it get leaked to the press.

    Gotta love Karma!

    1