What were they thinking? Professional Judgment in the Crozier/Modly Affair

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When former acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly announced he was relieving Captain Brett Crozier from command of the USS Theodore RooseveltModly noted that Crozier showed “poor judgement” and “…allowed the complexity of the challenge…to overwhelm his ability to act professionally.” He emphasised this was not a matter of Crozier’s character, but his judgment.

Since this incident– and subsequent actions by Modly laid out in this timeline– have been framed in terms of professionalism and judgment, I will use these events as a case study to examine judgment and discretion within the military profession. 

As with any case study, we have limited information and our conclusions, including those here, might shift with new information. Using case studies in ethics is less about the ‘right’ answer and more about exploring ethical concepts and questions to inform reflection and action.

I explore some possible judgements of three parties: Captain Crozier; Secretary Modly and the senior naval leadership to consider what judgements they may have made, relative to the idea of the military profession.           

It is important to define Professional Judgment and Discretion (PJD) (as I do in my newly released book On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community) and its place in the military profession. Judgment and discretion is a subset of the broader category of prudence. It is a virtue concerned with deliberating about means and ends directed towards the end of action. If one wants to be a lawyer, one might deliberate on the various courses of action to achieve that end, with the idea that one will choose one to act on. 

In the military this judgment and discretion are informed and bounded by military professionalism and the moral norms of that community of practice. My understanding of professionalism involves “…unique activities, requiring expertise and training undertaken for the public and engaged in by professionals chosen and regulated according to internal community standards.” 

The exercise of professional judgement and discretion is critical to the profession, and while done by individuals, is assessed by the community of practice. The removal of the captains involved in the McCain and Fitzgerald crashes is one example; the disagreement about Trump’s actions (especially relative to the Trident issue) in the Gallagher case is another.

We turn now to the three parties involved. In the case of Captain Crozier we only have the memo he wrote. The language is strong and urgent, “This is not war, soldiers need not die.” He outlines the situation and risks aboard his ship into the larger context of both COVID 19 and military readiness. Some have noted how unusual the memo is in terms of tone and the wider than usual distribution list. In sending the memo, he was appealing to a broader audience than his direct chain of command, which might lead us to ask about the intent of the memo. Was it a call for assistance hoping others might intervene for faster action or was it a documentation of conditions and his concerns? 

It may be both; where the audience is the broader community of practice of the profession. Relative to the moral obligations of the profession he is articulating care for his ship and crew, which is also consistent with moral understandings of his role as captain. He knew failing to follow bureaucratic conventions for format, tone and distribution of the memo was violating communally held norms; that was likely designed to send a message. 

He is giving a risk assessment rooted in his professional expertise and the obligations he is charged with. He acknowledges the convention of Commander’s Intent, noting he needs to be ready to fight and that the situation is compromising the required human element to achieve this. 

Finally, the time factor involved conveys why he might be taking such measures; he knew the stakes, and his actions were an appeal to his community of practice for help when the bureaucracy did not seem to be working with enough urgency (in his view). 

Modly’s decision to relieve Crozier also departs from the norms of the community of practice. He apparently made his decision against the advice of senior military leaders; judging not that Crozier’s cause was problematic, but rather the way Crozier went about addressing it (the memo and its distribution). 

Modly viewed Crozier’s actions as a betrayal to himself and Crozier’s duty to his ship and crew. From Modly’s perspective, the request for assistance sent prior to the memo had been received and was being acted upon with as much urgency as possible.

Modly viewed the memo as demonstration that Crozier was emotionally overwhelmed by events, had lost perspective and violated the Chain of Command which ultimately undermined Modly’s ‘trust and confidence’ in him– a long standing Navy criteria for command. 

If this is Modly’s reasoning, what we do not know is why he thought removal was necessary, as opposed to other sanctions. We also do not know why Modly got involved rather than allowing the senior naval leadership to handle it. 

One answer is that Modly wanted to avoid the President getting involved– but that presents another kind of chain of command problem and violates the standard norms and practices of the military. Another possibility is that Modly wanted a quick end to the story in the press and thought decisive action on his part would achieve that. 

This reasoning seems borne out by the press conference (with Chief of Naval Operations Michael Gilday) to announce Crozier’s removal and its justification, as well as the investigation into the climate that led to these events. 

However, the subsequent trip to Guam, his remarks to the crew of the Roosevelt and a public spat with a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s family over a critical Op-Ed in The New York Times seem very out of character given the norms and practices of the military community. This dissonance was expressed in a second round of fierce backlash from the public and members of the military, including calls for Modly to resign. 

What was the judgment involved here? Was it to show the President he had things in hand and intervention (like with Gallagher) was unnecessary? Was it to defend the reputation of the Navy or to reassert the principle of civilian control of the military? Was it a message to the rest of the Navy, especially other captains with ships that were or would soon be in Crozier’s situation, about how to proceed? Was he concerned that the Chain of Command was so fragile that it required strong actions, even ones inconsistent with the norms and practices typical in the military profession?

Amidst these events, the senior leadership of the Navy has been very quiet; nearly silent. What are the judgments here? There are several layers of operational leadership between Crozier and the CNO, including Modly, that could have played a role. 

There were consultations and advice given– reports claim the military leadership were against Crozier being relieved– but beyond that we have little to go on. Is it possible they judged that Modly was right about re-establishing the Chain of Command and civilian control of the military? What was the impact of the Gallagher case and the firing of Secretary Richard Spencer (in November 2019) in their reasoning?

They might have preferred Modly keep his job and thought that any intervention by the President would only further damage the Navy. Did they view preserving the reputation of the Navy as a professional obligation? Were they concerned with the strategic implications of continued focus on the story, especially relative to China? 

While there are more questions than answers here, we can see which considerations of professional judgment and discretion might relate to the military profession, and which might be outside of it. The first issue is the chain of command (both operational and administrative) which is not an end in itself within the military profession. 

It is designed to facilitate the smooth functioning of the military, reinforce obedience, good order and discipline which are all designed to produce mission accomplishment and combat effectiveness. Obedience, in particular, can be renegotiated in certain circumstances, provided it contributes to these two aims. A similar point could be made about the bureaucratic processes (communication practices) and artifacts (memos); they are there to achieve these other ends. 

It is worth noting the moral values, norms and practices that define a community of practice do change over time. Members of the profession renegotiate these parameters in light of their shared understandings and context. 

Violations of norms, values and practices may bring attention to something within the community of practice that requires change. At other times, violations are responded to and addressed by the community as illegitimate, resulting in the expulsion of the member. 

This case raises the question of whether the actions of Crozier, Modly and senior naval leadership are the first or the second. This communal answer will depend on whether the members of the profession think the judgments and discretion exhibited were rooted in shared concepts and identities of the military profession, and were an attempt to renegotiate the norms, values, practices and identity of the military profession. 

About the Author: Pauline Shanks Kaurin holds a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University, specialising in military ethics, Just War thinking, philosophy of law and social and political philosophy. She is the author of On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community (2020) on US Naval Institute Press. You can follow her on Twitter at @KaurinShanks.

The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent the position of the US Naval War College or the Department of the Navy.

Image Credit: US Navy