When leaders emerge from chaos, it’s best to follow
By GORDON C. MORSE | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: April 20, 2020
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NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) — We do not know the disposition of Capt. Brett Crozier, the former commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. As of this writing, the outcome of a Navy investigation remains imminent, but undisclosed.
But we do know that Crozier laid the basis for his April 2 relief when he wrote to his superiors about the coronavirus then loose upon his ship.
“I fully realize that I bear responsibility for not demanding more decisive action the moment we pulled in [to Guam],” he said, “but at this point my only priority is the continued well-being of the crew and embarked staff.”
Crozier also said, according to a report in The Washington Post on Thursday, “I believe if there is ever a time to ask for help it is now regardless of the impact on my career.”
Quarry the marble and carve in those words. Put it on a pedestal. Read them out loud frequently. Salute.
Capt. Crozier may return to his command of the TR — a thoroughly sensible and potentially heartening outcome.
Or not. We’ll see.
But we can close in on a few conclusions, if only because this episode so closely resembles past catastrophes when authority got exercised absent specific understanding of conditions far removed.
In the classic formulation, you find someone, safe and protected, screaming orders, while the fellow up front, eye-balling the situation, pleads, “You don’t understand.” It never works out well.
Such figures — the ones in the rear areas — were referred to as “chateau generals” in the First World War.
Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, observed recently that the coronavirus pandemic could be this generation’s “Pearl Harbor moment” — which works on a couple of levels.
He probably meant how the news of Pearl Harbor, abruptly delivered, embraced the entire nation at once.
But he may as well been referring to Pearl Harbor for the military surprise it was and the fact that the United States was so utterly unprepared for it.
It’s tough to explain, as you rummage through old newspaper clips. An Illinois member of Congress, Fred A. Britten, undertook a well-publicized effort to spotlight strained relationships in the Pacific region, including “Japan’s open preparations for war” and that was in 1925.
He was not alone. Yet, on Dec. 7, 1941, America’s military and political leadership stood there with its collective jaw on the floor as Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck Hawaii.
How do such things happen? Americans have long struggled to understand, as they have struggled to understand how you can sit in Washington, hear a ship captain’s plea for help and not immediately support him.
But you do find things — sometimes late at night, while rummaging about — that illuminate the very human aspect of the problem.
This comes from the late Thomas E. Schelling’s foreword of Roberta Wohistetter’s “Pearl Harbor Warning and Decision,” published by Stanford University Press in 1962.
It says much about sudden, threatening events and their effect upon governments, bureaucracies, military commanders, people.
"Surprise, when it happens to a government, is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that action gets lost.
"It includes gaps in intelligence, but also intelligence that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it.
"It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the alarm that has gone off so often it has been disconnected.
"It includes the unalert workman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of.
"It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement.
“It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late.”
In the case of the TR, it wasn’t terrorism. It wasn’t the commies. But it was just as lethal — a virus — and it was attacking. It was “the occasion” and the captain rose to it.
As of Thursday, 655 sailors on the TR had tested positive; one has died.
We should study this one long and hard. Pull it apart and unflinchingly see what happened.
A democracy that doesn’t embrace the Capt. Crozier’s of the world has even bigger problems than a pandemic.
After writing editorials for The Daily Press and The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s, Gordon C. Morse wrote speeches for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, then spent nearly three decades working on behalf of corporate and philanthropic organizations, including PepsiCo, CSX, Tribune Co. and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Dominion Energy. His email address is email@example.com.
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