The command cultures of the U.S. Armed Forces are among the world’s best. Any doubter should read Tom Clancy’s nonfiction biographies, Studies in Command. Another point of reference is the NOVA series, Carrier, filmed aboard the U.S.S. Nimitz, lead ship of the class of which the Theodore Roosevelt is a member.
Each of the services share the challenge of human resource management, but with differences in detail. The Army and the Marines share a problem unique to land warfare, the strain of combat where the soldier is directly and often personally responsible for killing the adversary and bearing witness to the death of one’s buddies. The challenge is to enable this frame of mind, with the soldier remaining psychologically whole in the non-combat world.
Sometimes the hardest task is the most perfectly done. Because land warfare is so upfront personal, the Army and the Marines had no choice but to excel in human resource management. The last steps of perfection have come only in the past few years. The Navy is a little behind. While PBS Carrier displays the best of Navy human resources, there have been serious lapses, concentrated in the commissioned ranks.
Within the past 20 years, four lapses have involved smaller ships. Two separate problems are demonstrated:
- Conflict resolution that over prioritizes command authority.
- Excessive “can-do” attitude, where the tempo of operations exceeds watchful human endurance.
USS Shiloh (CG-67) under the command of Captain Adam M. Aycock, when it was also known as the (Navy Times) “U.S.S. Bread and Water.” Quoting Wikipedia (boldface mine):
…reported extensive morale problems universally blamed on the CO, Captain Adam M. Aycock. Among the complaints were widespread depression and suicidal tendencies, a dysfunctional ship that sailors felt was ill-prepared for combat, an overworked and deeply stressed crew, and a constant worry of extreme punishment for minor infractions. Sailors were dismayed that despite a significant number of the ship’s crew filing severely critical complaints of Aycock’s leadership in the command climate surveys, the only action taken by the Navy was to counsel him…
USS Cowpens (CG-63), under the command of Holly Graf. Between 2002 and 2010, Graf held positions with command authority. It took 8 years for the Navy to recognize Graf was not fit for command:
…Subsequent reports by Time revealed that Graf had a history of abusive treatment of subordinates as far back as her tenure on the Curtis Wilbur. Previous complaints had not been acted upon by Navy leaders. Many who served with her thought she was the closest thing they’d seen to an actual Captain Bligh. For instance, while she was commander of the Churchill, a propeller snapped just as it was leaving port, leaving it dead in the water. Graf grabbed the navigator and dragged him to the outdoor bridge wing while cursing at him.…many Churchill sailors, knowing that Graf’s career would have ended if the Churchill had run aground, started jumping for joy and singing Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead on the fantail. Kaprow later said that the crew’s morale was the lowest he’d ever seen in his 20-year naval career. … said that Graf frequently spat at other officers and threw things at them--including ceramic coffee cups and binders…
The resolutions of these situations over weighted the importance of command authority, motivated by fear that the final authority of the captain would be undermined by removal for maltreatment of the crew.
In 2017, two Arleigh Burke class destroyers collided with commercial vessels, killing 17 sailors. Quoting from Wikipedia,
On 17 August 2017, the two senior officers and the senior enlisted sailor in charge of the naval vessel were relieved of their duties. The Navy planned to discipline up to a dozen sailors, including the commanding officer, for watchstanding failures that allowed the fatal collision.
On June 19, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their report on the accident. Their finding that the probable cause of the incident was a “lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy, which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures.” Along with their complete report they provided a series of recommendations including changes to Navy bridge equipment and training procedures. This is the first independent investigation document released on any of the recent US Navy navigation incidents.
These factors have been cited, to combine and potentiate:
- Excessive tempo of operations.
- Lack of time for training.
- Lack of training.
Specific measures have been taken to remediate. This does not address culture, the ingrained habits of thought that linger even as the forms are changed. A super-carrier operates at high tempo with the discipline of doing things right, which is maintained only if you keep doing them.
To bring all of this to a halt, to have 10% of U.S. surface warfare capability stand down, is an extremely difficult decision, in denial of “can-do.” It requires a comprehension of COVID-19 dangers that has been slow coming to everybody. Captain Crozier may have been more viscerally aware than most flag rank officers of a particular danger.
The virulence of a virus can change. For each general type, there probably is an upper limit, but this is not known. In the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, virulence increased rapidly in military encampments.
This is discussed in COVID-19: A Warning. From The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919,
…during Chesney’s third phase, August 23 to November 8, more than one-third of the 6th Artillery Brigade, 1,636 soldiers, contracted influenza and 151 died. Chesney concluded that “…these successive outbreaks tended to be progressively more severe both in character and extent, which would speak for an increasing virulence of the causative agent.”13
The commanding officer of Camp Grant couldn’t take it:
…fellow officers later told reporters that Hagadorn had been showing the strain of the epidemic.26,27 Troubled as more than 500 soldiers died of pneumonia under his command, on October 7, he committed suicide with a pistol shot to his head.
Hypothetically, in the high density living quarters of the Theodore Roosevelt, COVID-19 could mutate to greater virulence. History is full of apocryphal stories. The modern record is held by a Hantavirus strain in the Four Corners region. In 1993, an apparently healthy person died in 3 hours. (CDC) Tracking a Mystery Disease: The Detailed Story of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS)
(NY Times) Navy Captain Removed From Carrier Tests Positive for Covid-19. This could be his get-out-of-jail card. It might also deprive the Navy of a learning experience.
Captain Crozier identified and responded to a novel hazard that, without action, in all probability would have substantially disabled his ship and cost lives in the process. His response was unorthodox because the novelty might have concealed a time bomb with a short fuse.