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. Continue reading →
The last time we visited the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, things seemed ready to slip into relative calm. Yes, the captain has breached policy and navy protocol as well as the chain of commend, but he had received the necessary punishment that he had to know was coming. His gambit had worked, focusing sufficient media and public attention on ship’s plight to goad the Navy into acting with more compassion and dispatch, getting the Wuhan-infected sailors off the carrier and into treatment. The Acting Navy Secretary had made the proper, if unpopular call, and the President had backed him up. Yes, the mainstream media was stirring the pot and making it seem like the captain had been unfairly punished—didn’t the cheers of his crew prove that?—but the public is used to this dance by now: the “Whatever the President and His Appointees Do Is Wrong Waltz.” Here was how the Times, the national “paper of record,’ described Captain Crozier’s firing yesterday, for example:
“Mr. Modly’s response last Thursday was to fire Captain Crozier, accusing him of circumventing the Navy’s traditional chain of command by copying more than 20 people on the emailed letter.”
Fake news. The use of the word “accuse” falsely suggest that there was any doubt in the matter. Crozer did circumvent the Navy’s chain of command by copying more than 20 people on the emailed letter, ensuring that it would reach the public. This was a major breach of security and military procedure, a firing offense in every branch.
And of course it was deliberate.
But I digress. The inability of the Times and virtually every other news source should be an assumption by now. That’s a different Ethics Train Wreck. Continue reading →
Captain Brett Crozier was the commander of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt which had been docked in Guam following a Wuhan virus outbreak among the crew of more than 4,000. With about a hundred members of his crew infected, he decided to take the extraordinary step of sending a letter to the Navy pleading for resources and to have the afflicted sailors quarantined from the rest. In the four-page letter sent via a “non-secure, unclassified” email that included at least “20 to 30” recipients in addition to the captain’s immediate chain of command, including some crew members.
Crozier wrote that only a small contingent of infected sailors had been off-boarded, with most of the crew remaining on board the carrier, where following official guidelines for 14-day quarantines and social distancing was physically impossible. He wrote
“Due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this. The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating…Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. … This is a necessary risk…We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors….Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”
Of course, the letter leaked to the press, and the situation became a news story and a subject of unwelcome controversy for the Navy. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly initially told CNN in response to questions about the appeal,
“I know that our command organization has been aware of this for about 24 hours and we have been working actually the last seven days to move those sailors off the ship and get them into accommodations in Guam. The problem is that Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now and we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create tent-type facilities.”
Although the letter had the desired result, with members of the crew gradually being removed from the carrier, the Captain had broken the cardinal military rule never to go outside the chain of command. Crozier had multiple conversations with the chief of staff to Modly before his letter was publicized in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Navy had told Crozier to “call us any time day or night,” and gave him Modly’s personal cell phone number to update the situation and raise further concerns.
Then the e-mail leaked. Crozier was dismissed as captain by the acting Navy Secretary for what Modly called “extremely poor judgment,” going outside the chain of command, and disseminating the memo over an unsecured system. President Trump backed his appointee’s unpopular decision. Continue reading →