Who's the Villain of the USS Roosevelt?
People like clean storylines with an obvious, likable hero and a sinister, hateable villain.
When real life tells us a story, our minds will mold the facts to fit our desired storylines. In other words, we will create a hero and a villain for every story, even if there aren’t any.
As we retell our semi-fictionalized story to ourselves or others, we pad the hero’s character and tarnish the villain’s with each telling. The more we think about such stories, the more angelic the hero becomes and the more demonic the villain.
The problem is that real life is full of stories that have no real villain. Others have a villain, but we don’t know enough to figure out who it is. Our impatience and our desire for clean lines turns innocent people into villains to satisfy our emotional need to be right and for our the story to conform to our world views. It also turns neutral characters into heroes, overlooking their ordinary failings and maginifying their ordinary traits into superpowers.
This week, the Captain Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a US Navy aircraft carrier, was relieved of command by Thomas Modly, the acting Secretary of the Navy. Modly briefed reporters on the reasons. Chief among them, Crozier released to the media a letter the captain had sent to his chain of command regarding the conditions on the ship as a result of coronavirus. The letter contained classified information, and very little time passed between Crozier’s delivery of the letter via email and its publication in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
In military lingo, Crozier jumped the chain of command.
If you look the comments under news stories about this series of events, you’ll see two camps:
People who say Crozier was completely right and Modly completely wrong.
People who say Modly was completely right and Crozier was completely wrong.
The two sides are, in Scott Adams’s terms, watch two different movies on the same screen. In one, Crozier is a hero and Modly a villain. In the other, Crozier is a villinous traitor and Modly a reluctant hero.
But what if there is no villain? Or if there is a villain, but the villain is neither Crozier nor Modly?
Let’s assume that Captain Crozier, who knew well the crew conditions on the ship, believed that his people were in mortal danger, not from enemy torpedoes, but from a virus spreading throughout the ship. Assume, for charity’s sake, that Captain Crozier alerted his boss and requested to come off deployment to separate the infected sailors and minimize spread. Let’s say the captain was getting (normal) Navy pushback on his suggestion. Captain Crozier decides that he must act quickly and dramatically. He feels so strongly about getting his sailors to safety that he willingly offers his own career.
Assume that Crozier knew that sending that letter would be it for him. And he did it anyway.
Now, let’s switch point of view to Thomas Modly. He he gets a desperate letter from the commanding officer of an aircraft carrier in the midst of a global pandemic. Before he’s had a chance to act on the letter, the letter’s contents appear in the press. Reporters want his response.
The Secretary realizes that one of his captains has done something the captain would punish a sailor for doing: he’s jumped the chain of command all the way to the press. In so doing, Captain Crozier set an example for the 5,000 sailors under his command that it’s okay to appeal to public pressure when the chain of command is moving too slowly for your tastes.
Something had to be done.
Assuming all this, Crozier and Modly both acted properly. Crozier sacrificed his career for his crew; Modly accepted the role of villain in the public’s mind in the interest of military discipline.
Whether I’m right about Crozier’s motives will be obvious. If he threw his career away for his own political purposes, he will whine and complain and point fingers at everyone under the sun. If, however, he is the kind of leader who will take the fall to save his crew, we have to recognize his heroic virtue, even if his methods were questionable.
As the father of a sailor onboard the USS Roosevelt, I hope and pray that my Pollyannaish scenario is true. Everyone who likes happy endings should, too.
P.S. The villain in this whole story is Communist China. No matter how the Crozier sub-plot plays out, remember that.