Judah Ben Hur: I didn’t try to kill the governor. I’m not a murderer!
Messala: I know you’re not. … I wanted your help. Now you’ve given it to me. By making this example of you, I discourage treason. By condemning without hesitation an old friend, I shall be feared.
The convoluted plot has thickened in the morality play surrounding Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly’s action in relieving Capt. Brett Crozier of command of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, with both Modly and President Donald Trump stepping in it big time Monday, it’s congealed into an impenetrable, impassable morass.
Act 1, Scene 1: A righteous officer stands up for his endangered crew, hundreds of whom – including, it turns out, him – are stricken with coronavirus. But does so in a passionate email dispatched to more than 20 individuals inside and outside his chain of command – and ultimately leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Scene 2: A heartless civilian leader cuts short the customary investigation and removes our protagonist, Messala-style – over the protests of past and current naval officers, including, possibly, his own chief of Naval Operations. With some peers alleging, via the New York Times, that the captain’s real crime was “charging headlong into the Trump administration’s narrative that it had everything in the coronavirus pandemic under control.”
Scene 3: The president stands by his acting secretary, agreeing “100%” with the removal decision.
The story line would have been twisted and controversial enough had it ended there – but the Sturm und Drang would eventually have subsided. Because Modly’s position was at least as compelling in its way as Crozier’s concerns for his crew.
Sometimes, seemingly Messala-style steps are taken in contravention of normal public relations or political considerations to send a harsh and unmistakable message to a more targeted audience.
No officer who cared about his or her career could have mistaken Modly’s message: Thou shalt not go outside the sacrosanct chain of command, no matter how virtuous your motives. Nor let loose a sensitive email to the wrong people on a non-secure platform.
Clearly, no organization can maintain discipline if underlings feel free to ignore bosses’ directives or go over their heads, for whatever reason. If it happens in the military, as Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup puts it in a less honorable context in “A Few Good Men,” “people die.”
And today’s most junior corporate employee is drilled on being punctilious about what gets into emails, where they go, and how. A loosed message can find its way into almost anyone’s hands (even a liberal newspaper). And the corporate counsel’s nightmare is how Microsoft executives were devastatingly pinned down in cross examination by careless missives two decades back.
It strikes one as an especially bad idea to reveal that a major military asset, one of just 11 aircraft carriers, is not mission-capable in a message fully accessible by our enemies. Especially when, as this correspondent is assured by knowledgeable sources, that secure means exist to rocket that information to the top of the house via the chain of command.
Modly had a point when he stated Monday: “If (Crozier) didn’t think … that this information wasn’t going to get out into the public, in this day and information age that we live in, then he was either … too naive or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this. The alternative is that he did this on purpose. And that’s a serious violation of the (Uniform Code of Military Justice) which you are all familiar with.”
Except that the secretary displayed the same appalling lack of judgment he accused Crozier of in unleashing that opinion, not in the Pentagon’s deepest bowels to his best friends, but directly to a horrified crew seen days earlier in viral videos chanting the captain’s name. And added, for good measure, the term “betrayal” – essentially a charge of treason.
Modly backtracked and apologized, but the damage was done. As recordings of his ill-considered utterances ricocheted across the media, Trump stepped back in, cutting the legs out from under the hapless secretary by insisting, “I’m going to get involved and see exactly what’s going on there, because I don’t want to destroy somebody for having a bad day.”
As if a “bad day” is what’s involved.
The upshot: as the curtain rises on an unplanned Act II of this tragic melodrama, the clear message to officers is now at best muddled – and at worst, precisely the opposite of that at first brutally, but appropriately, delivered.