Trump Defense Secretary Mark Esper Has His Donald Rumsfeld Moment
Relieving a captain who warned about coronavirus on his aircraft carrier is Rummy-esque: dismissing an inconvenient message and risking servicemembers’ lives.
In December 2004, a National Guardsman forced the secretary of defense to hear something he didn’t want to acknowledge.
When Donald Rumsfeld arrived for a town hall with troops in Kuwait, Spc. Thomas Wilson told the architect of the Iraq war that he was digging through landfills for scrap to jury-rig into armor. “Shouts of approval and applause” resulted, ABC News reported, as Rumsfeld was presented with the gulf between his commands and their reality. After telling the troops to settle down, Rumsfeld responded with a line that defined the indifference to servicemembers that marked both his tenure and the war: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want.”
It would be two more years before Rumsfeld stepped down in disgrace. But his secretaryship died on Dec. 8, 2004 at Camp Buehring, because it was there the U.S. military learned that their lives were not priorities to Rumsfeld. And this week, in a much different crisis, Defense Secretary Mark Esper had his Donald Rumsfeld moment.
Coronavirus is hardly the deliberate choice that the Iraq war was, although a mountain of internal documents casts doubt on the seriousness with which the current administration confronted it when it mattered most. Throughout, and particularly during the intense month of March when coronavirus staggered America, Esper has emphasized balancing two priorities: the lives of servicemembers and the readiness of the military to wage war as needed. If that balance seems banal, a basic responsibility of any defense secretary, that’s because it is. Yet this week, a senior Navy officer sacrificed his career to say that coronavirus has upended the balance with a fury the Pentagon is not matching.
Capt. Brett Crozier has a coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier he commanded, the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. It’s so intense that servicemembers in Guam scrambling to aid their shipmates have broken their own quarantines, set up sickbays in areas —like the ship itself—that can’t follow social-distancing guidelines, and feared that, in the words of one, “we’re fucked.”
On Monday, Crozier requested what he called an “extraordinary measure.” He needed to offload his crew except for the most essential personnel needed to maintain the ship’s nuclear reactor and the safety of its weapons systems; isolate his 4,800 sailors, and treat the 93 sailors (and counting) infected with COVID-19; and disinfect the entire ship before it can resume operations. Doing otherwise, Crozier wrote, “is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care. … Sailors do not need to die.”
Crozier’s plea was a watershed. Aircraft carriers are the most tangible symbol of American power in existence. Stopping their operations concedes that COVID-19 has overwhelmed the military. And what Crozier said has resonance beyond the deck of the Theodore Roosevelt. He tacitly called the Pentagon into question for prioritizing readiness— that is, placing soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen into training exercises and, when deployed, operations—before the novel coronavirus is contained.
“We’ve already lost more people in America than the whole Iraq war and it’s only been a month,” said Josh Manning, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and Iraq war veteran. Pentagon leaders are “in denial of the severity of the problem that faces them, so they try to diminish it, undersell it and make themselves less culpable for these unspeakable acts against the people who signed up to serve this country. That’s not what leadership is supposed to be.”
Those leaders, in a series of press conferences, concede that the Navy can only socially-distance aboard ship “to the maximum extent possible,” as the Navy’s surgeon general put it on Mar. 19. They just think it’s a necessary risk. Crozier effectively said that as long as the Pentagon thinks that way, it will have neither readiness nor servicemember health— only a crisis of public health creating a crisis of American power.
Esper’s response was dismissive. In a Tuesday interview hours after Crozier’s letter surfaced in the San Francisco Chronicle, Esper told CBS that he hadn’t “had a chance to read that letter, read in detail.” Still, he said, “I don't think we're at that point” of needing to evacuate the ship as Crozier urged. Esper simultaneously conceded that U.S. adversaries were “not at this time” taking advantage of coronavirus.
Navy leadership took Esper’s cue on Wednesday. While the chief of naval operations, the acting secretary and the senior enlisted sailor briefly praised Crozier for raising the issue, they neither committed to shutting down the ship as Crozier requested, nor to protecting the captain. Acting Secretary Thomas Modly said he was “disappointed” in Crozier for saying the Navy was endangering its sailors, and suggested Crozier could be punished for the letter appearing in the press. Late Thursday afternoon, Modly announced that he relieved Crozier from command. “I can assure that no one cares more than I do about [sailors] safety and welfare,” he told reporters, blaming Crozier for a “breakdown in the chain of command.”
Still, Modly conceded the previous day that the Navy was having “discussions” about pausing operations and exercises in order to prevent another Roosevelt-like outbreak. Yet hours later, Esper stood beside President Trump to endorse a new Navy-centric mission. Destroyers, close-to-shore Littoral Combat Ships, surveillance aircraft and other military assets will now accelerate maritime narcotics interdictions off the coast of northern South America. “Transnational criminal organizations continue to threaten our security,” Esper said, contradicting his comments to CBS the day before.
In an indignant tone that Rumsfeld would have recognized, Esper derided “this narrative out there” holding that “we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way. That's not feasible. We have a mission.”
Guy Snodgrass, a retired U.S. Navy aviator and communications director for Defense Secretary James Mattis, said that pausing operations wholesale would be a provocative mistake. “I don’t believe it’s a great signal to tell Russia, China and anyone else watching that the U.S. can’t handle coronavirus and operate simultaneously,” he said. “Nor is it necessary—an asymptomatic ship that’s been underway during the outbreak doesn’t need to be sidelined but those with outbreak signs might need to be, depending upon severity.” Crozier, with whom Snodgrass once served, “is on his third senior-level command. He’s not a spring chicken who doesn’t understand the finer points of national security,” he noted.
“Based on Esper’s comments, he exudes confidence that he’s on the correct path when balancing readiness and personnel needs. The American people don’t seem to share that same perspective,” Snodgrass observed. “There’s a gap there. It’s up to the Defense Department to recognize the gap and take proactive steps to better explain their position if it concerns them. And, frankly, maybe it doesn’t.”
For some post-9/11 veterans, Esper’s position was reminiscent of the disregard they remembered their old leadership displaying toward them. Trump has likened the response to coronavirus to a “war,” and they recognize this kind of war intimately.
“Rummy and Esper seemingly have a direct connection of indifference,” said Joe Kassabian, an Afghanistan war veteran, author and co-host of the Lions Led By Donkeys military podcast. “Like who the fuck are we prepping for war with that makes having a goddamn plague ship at sea a good idea? The captain of that ship clearly was worried about the health and welfare of his crewmates but the military doesn’t give a shit.”
Kassabian observed that on Army installations, leadership was still making time for drug tests, physical training, and other routines that jeopardized social distancing. Amidst the routines, Army leadership has been improvising against coronavirus as its base commanders struggle to impose quarantines for returning servicemembers who, in early cases especially, were treated with disregard that Esper himself resolved to fix. Last week, the Army halted most training—only to reverse course. At the same time, Esper said pausing those routines would come at commanders’ discretion, rather than his own direction. His directives during March reluctantly put more and more military activity on ice, and all after the curve swelled: military rates of infection now exceed civilian rates.
“It’s always galling to see military leaders put party before their duty. Rumsfeld did that back in 2004 and Esper seems to be doing the same thing now. There’s a raw vileness to it when it comes from someone who wore the uniform, as Rumsfeld and Esper did,” said Matt Gallagher, an Iraq veteran and writer whose second novel, Empire City, will be released next month. “It’s one thing when a political suit does it, Republican and Democrat, you come to expect it, but when they’re veterans themselves, it brings the old term blue falcon to mind.”
Esper’s response to the outbreak on the Roosevelt was a microcosm of “the broader parallel between 9/11 and America’s response to the coronavirus,” Gallagher continued: “It’s part of a long and undistinguished tradition of our political leaders reacting to a crisis instead of anticipating one, and not being careful and deliberate in the aftermath of one, instead of reactionary and loud.”