With the almost suffocating quantity of coronavirus news, the story of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the nuclear aircraft carrier and its commander, Captain Brett Crozier, may be beneath your radar. It should be introduced with a historical precedent, albeit an imperfect one.

Henry II, believing he would have a loyal supporter, named Thomas a Becket Archbishop of Canterbury. Once appointed, Becket began to display an independent streak. History records that, in his frustration, and before a group of courtiers, Henry declared, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”. As is habitually the case with mob bosses and, as the jailed Michael Cohen has described is also the case with President Donald Trump, there was no direct order to murder Becket. Nevertheless, in 1170, understanding the king’s desires, four knights set off from the court in Normandy, crossed the English Channel and murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The four knights, immediately identified, were not executed but merely exiled.

A number of unwritten rules have developed for dealing with the President. Daily pandering, in the most sycophantic terms, is essential. Everything the President says or does is perfect. If the President contradicts himself, even within twenty-four hours, both statements are absolutely correct. For the above reasons, anything critical of the President must be wrong. Criticism of the administration, even if the President is not mentioned, will lead, at the very least, to exile. All decisions of subordinates must be based on how they will play with the White House.

The saga of the Theodore Roosevelt began some two weeks ago, when the carrier left the Vietnamese port of Da Nang. Shortly thereafter, as the carrier steamed towards Guam, two crewmen tested positive for Covid-19. Fearing the spread of the virus, Captain Crozier discussed possible measures with his immediate superior, Admiral Stuart Baker, who was aboard the Roosevelt, although not in command of the ship.

Fearing the spread of the virus after the ship had arrived in Guam, and deeply concerned for the health of the ship’s some five thousand crew, on March 30 Crozier, realizing fully that he was breaking the strict rules of the chain of command, sent a memo to some twenty naval officers pleading to be permitted to disembark a significant number of crewmen. Already, at least one hundred crewmen had tested positive. Inevitably, Crozier’s memo was leaked to the media, although there is no suggestion that this was done by him.

The following day Thomas Modly, acting Secretary of the Navy, saw the memo. He decided that Crozier had “cracked under pressure” and had acted outside the chain of command. Modly subsequently stated that there had been no direct intervention by the President. However, he knew that Trump was exceedingly unhappy with the uproar, both within the Navy and in the media. Notwithstanding the fact that Admiral Michael Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, was strongly opposed to Crozier being relieved of command, Modly overruled him and dismissed Crozier. Immediately, Crozier received almost unanimous support, particularly from his Naval Academy classmates and senior retired officers. When Crozier, following his dismissal, left the Roosevelt, the entire crew gathered on deck and loudly cheered him, many stating that Crozier was the best officer that they had ever served under.

In Washington, Modly was enraged by this show of support and, the next day, flew the 8000 miles to Guam and, in a profanity-laced speech, addressed the crew over the ship’s loudspeaker. Among his other comments, Modly declared that, “Crozier was either too naïve or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this”. Needless to say, Modly’s comments were recorded and immediately leaked to the media.

In desperation, Modly tried to apologize “for any confusion” he had caused. “I don’t think Crozier is naïve or stupid”.

Not surprisingly, Admiral Gilday and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were horrified by the chaos. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said he was “appalled at the contents of Modly’s address to the crew. He has completely undermined the uniformed leadership of the Navy and the military leadership in general”.

Although he stoutly maintained that he had not been put under pressure, on April 7, Thomas Modly resigned as acting Secretary of the Navy. Anyone who believes that must not be familiar with the history of Henry II and Thomas a Becket. In the wake of this SNAFU, the Navy has done almost precisely what Captain Brett Crozier so passionately requested. Meanwhile, Crozier has been fired, is infected with Covid-19 and is in quarantine. His error, as described by his colleagues, was “charging headlong into the Trump Administration’s narrative that it had everything under control”.