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When duty goes AWOL: Military leaders must take a stand on civil-military relations

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Recent events have shone a bright light on civil-military relations and the profession of arms.  Sound civil-military relations are fundamental to our democracy, and fundamental to such relations in that the military is subject to civil authority. The profession of arms recognizes that authority and upholds morale, discipline and good order while serving as stewards of the traditions and values of the profession.  

Among those traditions and values is taking care of the physical and emotional well-being of service members. In peacetime, it is the very first priority; in combat, it becomes second to mission accomplishment, but is still a very strong second. When generals and admirals fail in this mission, they become senior uniformed bureaucrats rather than leaders.

In the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was accused by his fellow SEALs of murdering a wounded captive with a hunting knife in Iraq in 2017. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted of most charges except for posing for a photo with the body of an Islamic State fighter. The Navy demoted Gallagher for the lesser charge of which he was convicted. President Trump canceled the demotion. When Rear Adm. Collin Green initiated the formal process to take away Gallagher’s Trident pin — the symbol of the Navy commandos — and expel him from the SEALs, the president overruled the initiative and the secretary of Defense fired the secretary of the Navy, who supported Adm. Green’s initiative. Green reportedly will step down in September, a year early.

This exercise of civilian control of the military clearly undermined good order and discipline and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In these cases, the top of the relationship — the civilians — failed to keep their faith to it.

Now we have the case of Capt. Brett Crozier being relieved of command of the USS Theodore Roosevelt by the Acting Secretary of the Navy because of Crozier’s concern for the well-being of his crew facing a coronavirus outbreak aboard ship. Capt. Crozier, who contracted the virus himself, placed the well-being of his crew above his Navy career and forced a politically sensitive Navy bureaucracy to act. Again, civilian authorities had the right to relieve Capt. Crozier of command without any formal inquiry. The acting secretary of the Navy stated that he had “lost confidence” in the captain; however, it was clear his crew had not.

In both cases, civilian authority over the military was legally exercised. However, in both cases the tradition of arms was damaged by the silence and assent of senior uniformed bureaucrats, the admirals and generals charged with being the stewards of the institution that is the U.S. military.  Not one resigned in protest, as they had the right — and in some cases the obligation — to do. When good men remain silent, evil prevails.

The profession of arms weeps at this dereliction of duty, the failure of institutional stewardship, and the disruption of sound civil-military relations. On Thursday, the Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly resigned, in the latest fallout from the incident.

His departure, however, will not be adequate to repair the damage. To echo the incredibly inappropriate, political message to “all hands” from Adm. Robert Burke, the vice chief of naval operations, following the Crozier firing, all of this makes the Navy, the senior uniformed bureaucrats and the U.S. government look as if they don’t know what they’re doing.

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 after more than 35 years of service. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and Harvard’s National and International Security Program.

Lawrence B. Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Army colonel and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He is now a visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary.

Tags Colin Powell Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Mark Esper Thomas Modly United States Navy USS Theodore Roosevelt

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