Capt. Brett Crozier was removed from command of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt for imploring the top brass to help him deal with an outbreak of the coronavirus on his ship and leaking the request to the press. The thing is, the ship’s namesake, Teddy Roosevelt, when he was a colonel with the Rough Riders, did exactly the same thing!
The U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, with a crew of 4,800, had 137 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Capt. Crozier wrote an e-mail to his superiors asking for permission to bring the ship to port so that the men and women on board could leave their close quarters so they could be isolated ashore. What got him into trouble was copying the message to 20-30 people, apparently including a reporter. The media reporting the story, of course, embarrassed the Pentagon and, worse, violated the chain of command by attempting to exert public pressure from outside on a military decision. (Read this account for the details.)
So Capt. Crozier was fired and faces possible disciplinary hearings. But the ship was docked at Guam and the crew was taken care of. When Capt. Crozier walked off the ship for the last time, his crew cheered him in a rousing ovation for sacrificing his career for the good of the men and women under his command. (Read this and watch the video.)
Flash back to the summer of 1898. The Spanish-American War was all but over. The U.S. Army Fifth Corps, including Col. Theodore Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” cavalry unit, was stationed in Cuba. A malaria epidemic struck, infecting nearly 4,000 of the 4,270 men of the Fifth Corps. But though some died, a person could survive malaria. Then the far more deadly Yellow Fever started to break out.
The generals and other officers knew that a Yellow Fever epidemic could kill thousands. No combat operations were underway, just garrison duty. There was no need for the troops to be there. They resolved to write the top brass asking that the garrison be redeployed to an area that would be safe from Yellow Fever. The generals worried that they might jeopardize their careers if they made this request, so they asked Col. Roosevelt if he would draft a letter.
He did, and this is what he wrote, reportedly sending a copy to a reporter from the Associated Press. From the Navy Times, which tells the whole story [my bolds, my brackets]:
MAJOR-GENERAL SHAFTER. SIR:
In a meeting of the general and medical officers called by you at the Palace this morning we were all, as you know, unanimous in our views of what should be done with the army. To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands.
There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once. Yellow-fever cases are very few in the cavalry division, where I command one of the two brigades, and not one true case of yellow fever has occurred in this division, except among the men sent to the hospital at Siboney, where they have, I believe, contracted it. But in this division there have been 1,500 cases of malarial fever. Hardly a man has yet died from it, but the whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep, when a real yellow-fever epidemic instead of a fake epidemic [i.e., malaria], like the present one, strikes us, as it is bound to do if we stay here at the height of the sickness season, August and the beginning of September.
Quarantine against malarial fever is much like quarantining against the toothache. All of us are certain that as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the condition of the army, we shall be sent home. If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die.
This is not only terrible from the standpoint of the individual lives lost, but it means ruin from the standpoint of military efficiency of the flower of the American army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you. The sick list, large though it is, exceeding four thousand, affords but a faint index of the debilitation of the army. Not ten per cent are fit for active work.
Six weeks on the North Maine coast, for instance, or elsewhere where the yellow-fever germ cannot possibly propagate, would make us all as fit as fighting-cocks, as able as we are eager to take a leading part in the great campaign against Havana in the fall, even if we are not allowed to try Porto Rico. We can be moved North, if moved at once, with absolute safety to the country, although, of course, it would have been infinitely better if we had been moved North or to Puerto Rico two weeks ago. If there were any object in keeping us here, we would face yellow fever with as much indifference as we faced bullets. But there is no object.
The four immune regiments ordered here are sufficient to garrison the city and surrounding towns, and there is absolutely nothing for us to do here, and there has not been since the city surrendered. It is impossible to move into the interior. Every shifting of camp doubles the sick rate in our present weakened condition, and, anyhow, the interior is rather worse than the coast, as I have found by actual reconnoissance.
Our present camps are as healthy as any camps at this end of the island can be. I write only because I cannot see our men, who have fought so bravely and who have endured extreme hardship and danger so uncomplainingly, go to destruction without striving so far as lies in me to avert a doom as fearful as it is unnecessary and undeserved.
THEODORE ROOSEVELT, Colonel Commanding Second Cavalry Brigade.
This so-called “Round-Robin Letter” hit the newspapers almost immediately. Major-General Shafter, to whom the letter was addressed, was furious. President McKinley was indignant. The public, of course, was on the soldiers’ side.
The Fifth Corps was removed to New York state, which that same year elected Teddy Roosevelt governor. Two years later, he was elected Vice-President under President McKinley. After McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States, serving two terms and getting his face carved onto Mount Rushmore. And eventually getting an aircraft carrier named after him.
Feel free to debate whether or not the Pentagon was right to dismiss Capt. Crozier. I see why working around the chain of command by going to the press is a serious breach of military discipline. I also see why concern for his people might motivate a dedicated commander to cut through military bureaucracy. Again, Teddy Roosevelt did the same thing for the same reason.
Roosevelt was arguably one of the best writers of our presidents. (He wrote 18 books.) You have to love the line, “we would face yellow fever with as much indifference as we faced bullets.” I’m sure that’s what our men and women in the military feel about the coronavirus.
Photos: Detail from Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Rough Rider by George G. Rockwood / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Capt. Brett Crozier, U.S. Navy / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons