Captain Crozier And The Ghost Of Billy Mitchell

Billy Mitchell, at the court martial he wanted…

Why I didn’t think to include the tale of General Billy Mitchell in the Ethics Alarms posts regarding Captain Brett Crozier, the former commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt who forfeited his job by going around the chain of command to protect his crew, I really don’t know. But it’s normal for people to forget about Mitchell, and I don’t understand that, either. He, like Crozier, was an unconventional Ethics Hero, and a crucial one. And he may well have saved the world.

Do you not know the story of William Lendrum Mitchell, born December 29, 1879, died February 19, 1936? You should. Every American should.

He grew up in Milwaukee., Wisconsin. At age 18 he enlisted as a private in the army, and by the age of 23 he had become  the youngest captain in the U.S. Army. It was a pattern; being a prodigy and trailblazer in the military came naturally to Mitchell. In 1913, at the age of 32, he became the youngest officer ever assigned to the General Staff of the War Department in Washington. At a time when most in the military considered the airplane a novelty, “a risky contraption” of little or no value in combat,  Mitchell immediately saw the potential of air power, and believed that planes represented the future of warfare.

The United States had only fifty-four air-worthy planes  when it entered World War I in 1917, and only thirty-five air-worthy officers, including Mitchell, to lead them. Again he was a first, this time the first  American officer to fly over enemy lines. He organized the first all-American Air Squadron; one of his recruits, Eddie V. Rickenbacker, became a legend as  Mitchell moved his American air units to counter Manfried von Richthofen, the “Red-Baron.” When Germans planned to unleash a major ground offensive and the Allied commanders were desperate to learn where  it was being mounted, Mitchell volunteered to fly low over the enemy’s lines, and his daring mission discovered thousands of Germans concentrating close to the Marne River. Armed with Mitchell’s intelligence, the Allies launched a surprise attack on the German flank and scored a major victory. Mitchell’s solo reconnaissance flight was hailed as one of the most important aerial exploits of the war.

Mitchell continued to employ air power to bolster the American war effort, with marked success. After the war, now a brigadier general, he began arguing passionately and often undiplomatically for the United States to modernize its rotting fleet of combat planes and to create a separate branch of the armed services. Although Mitchell organized a  demonstration to prove what properly flown and armed planes could do, sinking a submarine, a destroyer, a cruiser, and finally the captured German  battleship Ostfriesland, which many naval experts considered unsinkable, he couldn’t get the bureaucracy, including an apathetic President Harding, to budge. The Army and Navy brass continued to insist that Mitchell’s vision of what an air force  could do was fantasy, the equivalent of science fiction.

By June 1924, Mitchell’s underfunded Air Service had deteriorated to only 750 occasionally airworthy planes. Believing that the neglect of what he considered a crucial weapon would handicap the U.S. in any future war,  Mitchell told the press bitterly,  “There are those in Washington who should be severely taken to task and court-martialed for their deliberate neglect of aviation. Today we haven’t a single airplane in service capable of engaging in war with a first class enemy.” For that he was demoted to colonel. When the dirigible Shenandoah crashed in bad weather, killing 14 airmen, Mitchell decided to play the most dangerous game for a military officer. In a series of letters and interviews with the press,  he laid out the future of air warfare as he foresaw it, advocating the development of paratrooper capability (at that time, his pilots didn’t even have parachutes) and the building of aircraft carriers. He predicted an eventual attack on the Hawaiian Islands, including Pearl Harbor; he insisted that air power would be the key to controlling the Pacific. Knowing that he was engaging in insubordination, he accused his superiors of “incompetence, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration of the national defense”.

Mitchell had decided to force his court martial as the only way to dramatize the importance of his ideas and shock the bureaucracy out of its dangerous inertia. It was the equivalent of civil disobedience, but military style. As he predicted, President Coolidge ordered that Mitchell be court-martialed, and as he intended, the trial gave Mitchell and other air power advocates a public forum to warn the nation, explain his vision and condemn those keeping the United States from taking full advantage of the potential of a modern, capable air force. Among the witnesses backing Mitchell at his trail was Eddie Rickenbacker, and then-Congressman Fiorello La Guardia.  Nobody on the he court-martial tribunal had ever flown a plane, and it found him guilty. (The only member of the tribunal to vote for acquittal was General Douglas MacArthur, who would have his own insubordination crisis in the war to come.) Mitchell received what the tribunal called a lenient sentence in consideration of his war record: suspension of rank, pay, and command for five years. Instead of submitting to the punishment, Billy Mitchell resigned.

Mitchell’s prognostications and warnings, however, had an almost immediate effect, especially after one by one his predictions came to pass.  He had said, “German militarism endangers the world”. He had predicted, “The British Isles will some day be vulnerable to mass aerial attack.” He had asserted, “Airborne armies can be dropped behind enemy lines with devastating effect.” He warned, “Japan may unleash a war in the Pacific. She could attack America by striking first at Hawaii, some fine Sunday morning.”

Five years after leaving the army, he said, “In their lifetime my children will see aviation become the greatest means of national defense and transportation all over the world and possibly beyond the world into interstellar space”.

Mitchell was a catalyst for rapid change. By 1932, President Roosevelt invited him to the White House for a briefing  on Mitchell’s concepts for a unification of the military in a Department of Defense. He died in 1936, and by then many of his most important recommendations were being implemented. He was posthumously promoted back to general, and received many civilian and military honors. Billy Mitchell is now known as the Father of the United States Air Force. In a movie about his trial, Mitchell was played by Gary Cooper.

Mitchell proved for all time that an officer could earn serious military punishment and still be right in his actions,  benefiting the Armed Services even while defying them. My father, who defied his command a few times himself in his military career, taught me about Bill Mitchell when I was about 12, though the lesson confused me at the time. Dad said that Mitchell was a hero, that he behaved the way soldiers should be prepared to behave when necessary, and that he deserved to be court-martialed.

Now it is looking as if Captain Crozier, who deliberately breached the chain of command, knowing it would end his military career, to protect his crew and demonstrate that Navy protocol was not appropriate during the outbreak, might be reinstated.

The ghost of Billy Mitchell is smiling.

22 thoughts on “Captain Crozier And The Ghost Of Billy Mitchell

  1. Billy Mitchell was already a legend when my dad joined the Army Air Corps early in 1941 and I can remember him talking about Mitchell in 1947, well after the war, when the Corps legitimately became the its own Air Force. I found out about General Billy, the icon of the newly independent Air Force, when I heard my father for the first time arguing in anger with another man concerning the courts martial (though I couldn’t have understood what that meant at the time). He was saying something like “but we knew about Pearl Harbor; we knew about it! Billy told us it was coming.” I thought he was talking about one of the kids in my class named Billy. He had to explain everything later and I don’t think I understood much of it at the time. But I remembered the words and understood the General had sent a warning about the event that “started” that part of The War (the most terrible thing anyone could think of, thankfully finished), and that made Billy Mitchell a seldom heard magic word in our house: a hero.

  2. Tangentially related.

    Jack, have you ever read ‘The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail’ collected in Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein?

      • Ah, It’s easy enough to obtain being still in print. Time Enough for Love, one if his later works… Erm you do know his health was poor for the last decade of his life, yes? …Anyway, it attempts to wrap up the set of his earlier stories commonly called Future History, As a novel, it catches us up with Wodrow Wilson Smith, AKA Lazarus Long from Methuselah’s Children, that’s the framing device, in practice it’s a themed anthology with Lazarus telling the stories as a framing device. ‘The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail” is the first story Lazarus tells.

        If you like it, it kicked off a set of four novels, all of which could have been his last book, ending with what was his final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

        • Thanks for the recommendation. It’s many years since I’ve read any of Heinlein’s books but I see that it is amongst a collection of books I bought from a second hand book shop a couple of years ago so I will have to see about reading its 607 pages when I have finished some other books I’m part way through.

          • It can be difficult to go back to Heinlein, he was born in 1907 and it shows. A bit like watching some old episodes of The Honeymooners. You appreciate a classic for what it is, and sometimes you still have to cringe.

            What are you reading? I just finished The Invisible Library series and could use fresh reading material.

              • I have enough nerd cred to just ignore something like that.

                Then again, I could go on for a few thousand words showing the similarities with each being a member of a group taking well-established entertainment and transitioning it to a new era. Of course, the result is both dated and flawed, how not? For the latter, they–and their contemporaries–had to figure it out as they went along. For the former, if they weren’t problematic in any aspect, it’d mean we didn’t advance as a society. I certainly hope people have more stuff figured out in 80 or 100 years than they do now.

              • RAH had far more knowledge about Intersex people than most realise.

                “All you zombies” describes in detail a syndrome not in the medical literature till the mid 70s, 15 years later. 17BHSD, somewhat similar to the 3BHSD syndrome I have, but with more Persistant Mullerian Duct syndrome.

                I know a lawyer in CA whose biology is similar to Elizabeth Andrew Jackson “Libby” Long. Born looking male, 47,XXY chromosomes, transitioned when given the opportunity.

                Re: Crozier – I have changed my view based on seeing the address list of his e-mail

                Sent to the 3 Admirals in his direct chain of command, namely, Commander of Pacific Fleet, Commander of Pacific Naval Air, and Commander of the task force the Theodore Roosevelt was in.

                CC’d to 7 captains, namely air group commanders on the Theodore Roosevelt, commanders of other ships in the task group, and the senior medical officer of the Theodore Roosevelt,

                10 recipients in all. Not “20 or 30”. Adhering strictly to chain of command, with CC to the handful of senior officers in the task group with Need To Know. Exactly in accordance with the book.

                So yes, Crozier was libelled.

            • “What are you reading?”
              I’m reading “Vortex” by Robert Charles Wilson and I was also trying to study track and field rules for some officiating exams I have coming up next year but I might leave those until next season as I think I am more likely to find it easier remember the rules during the summer season rather than in winter.

  3. A Navy perspective:
    ADM Arleigh Burke: “A commander who fails to exceed his authority is of not much use to his subordinates.”

    A Navy example:
    A senior Navy intelligence leader whose provocative comments this year about Chinese bellicosity stirred an international controversy has been shelved in the wake of an investigation into his conduct, Navy Times has learned.

    Capt. James Fanell, the director of intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet, has been removed from that position by PACFLT boss Adm. Harry Harris and reassigned within the command, Navy officials confirmed.

    Fanell warned during a February public appearance that a recent Chinese amphibious exercise led naval intelligence to assess that China’s strategy was to be able to launch a “short, sharp war” with Japan, an unusually frank assessment about a closely watched region.

    His comments, which ran counter to the Pentagon’s talking points on building ties to the increasingly assertive Chinese navy, were picked up by media outlets from The New York Times and Reuters to London’s Financial Times and Daily Telegraph. Top defense officials, including the 4-star head of the Army and the Pentagon spokesman, were forced to respond to his comment in the following days.

  4. An interesting aspect of taking the initiative in achieving dominance in military power is that it must always be carried forward with greater commitment and zealousness. Once the race begins, it cannot be ended.

    So, weaponry and military action and strategy always advance. My understanding is that today things have advanced so far that except for local skirmishes, and in the event of an actual conflagration, those elements that we now consider necessary militarily, are made obsolete when it comes to new war-techniques: Fourth-generation warfare, cyber-warfare and asymmetric warfare so-called.

    Since a great deal about modern warfare has to do with control of the mind — what people see and think — the nature of the battles of today are uniquely strange. Politics, worldview, economics, and I would include here the nature of ‘spectacle’: all these things are now, and will become evermore constant and present in wars fought.

    It is interesting — for cynical minds of course! — to consider the Events of 9/11 within a context of ‘spectacle’ and to try to grasp the connections to ultra-modern warfare. And then to consider this Pandemic (as some are) as a sort of ‘dry-run’ (as a person I know used the term) for a type of military control formerly unknown and un-experienced.

    It is a wonderful time to be alive though, to cower in uncertainty and fear, to look at one’s children’s eyes and wonder what world they will live in *next year*, to fear one’s fellows, to have the joy of living life in free and open ways taken from one, bit by bit, moment by moment, year by year. We should not recoil away from dystopia though, but rather learn to master it.

  5. I just don’t know about this one. Given the current state of “the press,” “going to the press” doesn’t inspire a great deal of admiration in me. I remain skeptical.

    • I wonder what did he really expect them to dol? His crew was mainly young and in good health. Yes, a lot of his crew was sick and in a foreign port, but it should be expected that most of the sick would recover in a few days to a week. Advertising an ‘undermanned’ and ‘disabled’ aircraft carrier in a foreign port publicly is not usually considered a good move. I just wonder if the Navy was right to tell him to wait it out, if they weren’t ‘ignoring’ his requests, but had analyzed the options and gave him the one they were advised was the best. There probably wasn’t much the Navy could do. Any replacement crew would just get sick from the virus throughout the ship. Evacuate people with serious symptoms? Sure. Evacuate the crew and leave an abandoned aircraft carrier in a foreign port? No.

      I think back to November and December when my students seemed to be dropping like flies from Flu A, Flu B, and a flu-like illness that didn’t test positive for flu. Should I have done something ‘heroic’ instead of continuing to do my job, taking virus-laden assignments from students with a variety of aliments, and grading them with (gasp) no PPE? In other words, I am not convinced his superior’s orders were as disastrous as the press would have us believe.

      If he thought he had to do it, fine. However, he knew what was going to happen and I think he should just accept his punishment. I am tired of Lt. Col. Vindman’s thinking Democrats in Congress need to back them because their superiors didn’t agree with them. Remember, treating people like this as heroes also led us to the impeachment of Trump and if you enable every Lt. Col. or higher to go to Congress every time they don’t get their way, you will destroy the military. Every such officer will be going to Congress every 2-3 days and they will be justified. I firmly believe their superiors make the wrong decisions a large percentage of the time. So, there has to be a limit to this type of behavior to only the most severe of circumstances. I am just not convinced this one counts.

  6. Billy Mitchell was always a mystery to me as a kid. An almost disturbing outlier. But we shared a first name, even if a diminutive, and the coolest WWII bomber (the B-25) was named after him and used to bomb Tokyo FROM AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER! And that raid was headed up by a guy named, improbably, Jimmy Doolittle! And of course, we read the book, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.”

  7. I am having a hard time coming to grips with consequentialism and moral luck in these cases. I admit I personally don’t know if think Crozier did the right thing. I get the idea that he was trying to protect his sailors but how exactly does he know what the cost of his actions will be? How can he weigh the costs and benefits without a complete picture of the costs? Would we feel the same way had an adversary took some military advantage in the region after knowing of our crippled carrier? Was it moral luck that the Chinese or NORK’s decided not to push the envelope upon learning of the crippled carrier given what we know about Belt and Road? I cannot answer those questions but they need to be considered when evaluating Crozier. Simply looking at crew health is myopic.

    In the Billy Mitchell case his prognostications proved true and the outcome resulting from his act of defiance was good. Are we not employing consequentialism as a reason to look the other way at Mitchell’s actions to achieve his objectives? What if all uniformed personnel decided to use the press to push their own beliefs on how to best achieve military success?

    It just seems like we use consequentialism as a dodge to denounce things that go right because we either don’t like the actor or the act itself, while if we like the actor (kings pass) and perhaps not the act and things turn out well we don’t denounce the act by claiming consequentialism.

    Perhaps I am just thick and don’t understand the nuance of the subject matter.

    • NO, it’s a great observation. In Mitchell’s case, the fact that his pre3dictions came true (many of them) is frosting on the cake, and yes, that’s all moral luck. However, he was right about the potential of air power when he made his objections, and he was right to put his career on the line to make the case publicly. That’s not moral luck, any more than we would say that the fact that the world is round is moral luck. Mitchell would have been right if there had been no WWII. “We need parachutes” and “It’s stupid to let the Army and the Navy compete with each other” doesn’t need subsequent events to validate them.

      Crozier, like Mitchell, had to know he would be ending his career by his actions, and that was courageous whether he was right or wrong. I wouldn’t reinstate him, but the Mitchell experience is, I think, one of the factors that may have loosened the military’s absolutism in such controversies.

      • Maybe it was reading about Billy Mitchell that planted the seed that blossomed into my belief (valid or not, who knows) that “career” is just a fancy, poly-syllabic synonym for “job.”

        Would I trust Crozier with the command of one of the Navy’s fourteen crown jewels? No.

        • In Mitchell’s case, it was more like a mission. He was born rich: he didn’t need the job or the career. Ne was in the military because he believed in what the military did, obviously passionately.

  8. As a cadet at the USAF Academy (class of 1969) Billy Mitchell was, of course, among the pantheon of heroes. Nonetheless, my philosophy professor, Col Malcolm Wakin, had us debate the ethics of the Billy Mitchell trial. He was not trying to get us to “an answer” (although it seemed pretty clear that the members of the Court were biased, and our debate centered more on Mitchell’s actions); rather, to engage in debate. It was one of the reasons he was my favorite Academy professors. Always probing. Always promoting open debate. This is a rather long intro, but I wanted the background of my own “ethics awakening” known. Wakin was a major when he started promoting the idea that military academies should include philosophy departments. Other officers denigrated the idea, but the USAF decided to establish and Academy philosophy department and selected Major Wakin as its first department head. At the time, that meant a “temporary” promotion directly to full colonel! Therefore, not long after being called “silly” by many other officers, he outranked them. He was department head for many years, eventually retiring as a Brig General and being sought by many companies and the US Olympic Committee to provide ethics advice.

    Beside the ethics debate we, of course, learned the history of the Mitchell trial. Jack, you not d some of the most pertinent facts. Douglas MacArthur (whom I hold in low regard for some of his WWII and Korea actions) was a courageous outlier on the Court. He was the court’s youngest member and the only vote against conviction.

    Testifying on behalf of Mitchell , in addition to LaGuardia, were icons for Air Force cadets: Eddie Rickenbacker, Hap Arnold, Carl Spaatz, Ira Eaker, Less known to many who were not at the USAF Academy in my era, was Robert Olds. Olds was a strategic thinker who eventually retired as a Major General, shortly before he died at age 46. If you don’t know his story, you should read about him. One of his sons was Robin Olds, who was in a West Point class that graduated early to join WWII. Gen Robin Olds created many fighter tactics (such as the move used by Tom Cruise in Top Gun). He was an ace in WWII and again in Vietnam, where he and his wing man, Chappie James, were known as “Black man and Robin”; Chappie became the first African American 4 star general. Robin Olds was our Commandant of Cadets during my final years at the Academy. Bigger than life. Yoi can read about him in a decent book, Fighter Pilot.

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