In 1878 the British composers Gilbert and Sullivan created one of their best comic operas, HMS Pinafore, a send-up of the Royal Navy that enjoyed great success. In one of the main scenes the civilian head of the Navy, Sir Joseph Porter, known as the First Lord of the Admiralty, explained how he had risen to such eminence by singing
Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn’t fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule.
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navee!
I know this production well, because I sang in it a very long time ago (in the part of the sailor Dick Deadeye, if you really want to know), and I’ve always borne it in mind when various navies have been reported as being mismanaged by idiots who have stuck close to their desks and condescended to those who go to sea and actually command ships and sailors.
According to the 2019 US military manual Defense Support of Civil Authorities “The mission of the Department of Defense in a pandemic is to preserve US combat capabilities and readiness and to support US government efforts to save lives, reduce human suffering, and slow the spread of infection.” But these instructions came to nothing during the hideous farce in which the commanding officer of the US Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, Captain Brett Crozier, was summarily relieved of command by the Navy Secretary. This all began when Crozier, aware of the threat of the pandemic and regretting that nobody in the senior echelons was doing anything constructive about it, sent a note to his superiors indicating that only a small number of sailors had been disembarked from his ship and that this was contrary to guidance concerning quarantine and social distancing.
Crozier wrote that “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors . . . Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board [the Roosevelt] is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”
Like all good officers, Crozier put his subordinates first in his priorities — ‘First, your subordinates; then your ship; last, yourself.’ It’s the same in almost every Military Service in the world, and if this leadership is discouraged then armed forces fall apart. It seems, however, that the Pentagon is indifferent to that outcome and is content to not only discourage good leadership but is prepared to destroy those who display it.
Never reluctant to become involved and to make an ever greater fool of himself, the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the armed services, butted in and declared “He shouldn’t be talking that way in a letter. I thought it was terrible what he did.”
In the Pentagon at the time the Navy Secretary was Thomas Modly who had once been a navy helicopter pilot, but then, as the White House told us, went close to his desk and when selected by Trump was “currently a Managing Director in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Government and Public Services sector and is the firm’s Global Government Defense Network Leader, where he is responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of solutions for government defense clients worldwide. Prior to this, Mr. Modly served as the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Financial Management and as the first Executive Director of the Defense Business Board. He also has extensive private sector expertise as a corporate development and mergers and acquisition specialist.”
And in an exhibition of vicious spite the gallant desk-bound merger-specialist Modly sacked Captain Crozier then flew at vast expense to Guam and addressed the ship’s company over the speaker system, trying to justify his action and insulting their former commanding officer to a background of jeers, yells and catcalls from the crew. He declared that Captain Crozier was “too naive or too stupid” to be in command of the aircraft carrier.
Which brings us back to the comic opera HMS Pinafore, when desk-bound Sir Joseph addresses a sailor named Ralph, saying “. . . Now tell me — don’t be afraid — how does your captain treat you, eh?
Ralph: “A better captain don’t walk the deck, your honor.”
The entire ship’s crew: “Aye Aye!”
Sir Joseph: “Good. I like to hear you speak well of your commanding officer; I daresay he don’t deserve it, but still it does you credit.”
It is sad that sometimes Art repeats itself as pathetic absurdity.
And one wonders what the sailors of US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf might think of their commander-in-chief who tweeted on April 22 that “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” Use of the phrase “shoot down” in relation to little patrol boats attracted derision, but is nevertheless a distinct threat that could easily lead to war with Iran, which seems to be what he wants. As reported by the Washington Post, the incident that took his ever-tweeting attention took place the previous week, when “the US military said 11 small vessels belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted ‘dangerous and harassing approaches’ toward a fleet of American ships, including the USS Lewis B Puller, an expeditionary mobile base vessel, and the USS Paul Hamilton, a destroyer. In one case, an Iranian fast boat zipped by within 10 yards of a Coast Guard cutter.”
It is doubtful if any US navy commanding officer would “shoot down and destroy” a little motor boat that “zipped by” his ship unless direct orders had been issued to the effect that the rules of engagement at sea had been altered to include such an eventuality. The Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist stated that “the president issued an important warning to the Iranians. What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense,” which is absolutely meaningless. The cavorting was indubitably childish and silly and offended against the accepted norms of courtesy at sea, which most navies take very seriously, but in no manner could it be regarded as hazarding US lives.
The absurdity of the Trump-Pentagon reaction to a few zooming motor boats is part of Washington’s concerted effort to bring Iran to its knees and encourage the population to rise up against the batty mullahs who run the country so badly. That this encouragement is involving the deaths of countless harmless Iranian civilians by denial of vital anti-pandemic assistance through vicious sanctions is neither here nor there : what matters in the Pentagon is the ascendancy of its war machine around the world.
The Pentagon’s fandangos are indicative of misdirected priorities, which themselves reveal a deep malaise among Washington’s supposedly best and brightest. But the malaise is not Covid-19: it comprises the diseases of ignorance, pettiness and malevolence which are the stock-in-trade of the commander-in-chief, who is sticking close to his desk and his golf courses, and making us all sea-sick.