Mad Man Modly: The Secretary of the Navy Gets the Boot

Mea culpa. In "Coronavirus Lays Low the Military" (, Apr. 2), I wrote that "it’s taken the military several weeks to realize what’s going on" with Covid-19, and that "judging from the mixed messages sent by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, it still hasn’t figured it all out."

This was way too kind since it implies that Esper was honestly wrestling with the problem when, as is now clear, he’s not honestly wrestling with anything at all. Along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien, rather, he’s part of a spooky cabal that is in full-scale denial about Covid-19 and, what’s worse, sees it as an opportunity to take out longtime foes. In recent weeks, these mini-Dr. Strangeloves have:

  • Floated a plan for an anti-Shi’ite offensive in Iraq that could cause the government to fall and plunge the entire country into civil war.
  • Indicted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on trumped-up drug charges, thereby throwing that country into deeper economic disruption as well.
  • Stepped up sanctions against corona-devastated Iran, an effort that includes vetoing an emergency $5-billion IMF loan needed to battle the disease.

In the 1340s, Mongols used catapults to hurl diseased cadavers into the besieged Crimean city of Caffa, now known as Feodosia, in order to spread bubonic plague. Today, the US blocks money for ventilators and prevents the import of lifesaving pharmaceuticals in order to spread Covid-19.

Strangelovian as all this is, we now have the curious example of an attack dog in human form named Thomas Modly, who has just gotten the ax for calling an aircraft-carrier skipper "stupid" and "naïve" for trying to safeguard the health of his crew. A former Pentagon business consultant who was named acting Navy secretary last November, Modley is the best example in years of why the scariest people among us are not the toughest but the most cowardly. A relentless self-promoter, he was reportedly terrified of suffering the same fate as his predecessor, Richard V. Spencer, who wound up on the sidewalk after daring to oppose Trump’s decision to let accused Navy SEAL murderer Eddie Gallagher off with a slap on the wrist. So when it came to a skipper who didn’t mind sticking his neck out in behalf of his crew, Modly figured that the only way to deal with him was to go after him the way Trump would, only worse.

So he pilloried Brett Crozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, as "too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer of a ship like this" because he didn’t realize that a four-page memo he wrote calling for quarantining the crew to combat a corona outbreak would likely be leaked. He called him disloyal for blabbing to the press, even though there’s no evidence that Crozier sought to do so. And he described him as self-promoting even though there’s zero evidence of that as well.

"I understand you love the guy," Modly acknowledged in the course of an unhinged fifteen-minute rant over the TR intercom on Monday. "It’s good that you love him." But Crozier was guilty of a "betrayal" because he allowed his concerns to be "put it in the public’s forum, and it’s now become a big controversy in Washington, DC, and across the country about a martyr CO [i.e. commanding officer] who wasn’t getting the help he needed…."

"I expect you never to do that to your shipmates either," he went on, "the ones on the shore right now who told me that when Captain Crozier’s email made it to the San Francisco Chronicle after working fifteen-hour days, they were demoralized because they knew what they had been doing for you guys since the 25th of March to get you guys what you need."

So thousands of sailors shown cheering Crozier in videos that quickly went viral weren’t cheering him at all, you see. All that lusty applause aside, they were actually complaining that that he was throwing them overboard and that real heroes like Modly weren’t getting the thanks they deserved.

"If I could offer you a glimpse of the level of hatred and pure evil that has been thrown my way, my family’s way, over this decision [to fire Crozier]," the Navy secretary said, "I would. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not about me."

No, of course not, even though Modly– or "Moldy," as he’s known onboard the TR – was really trying to save the day.

This is pure stomach-turning nonsense, of course, which is why Modly deserved the Order of the Boot more than anyone in recent history. But before we allow this creep to slink off into the sunset, we should give his Apr. 6 comments a bit more attention because of what they say about the uber-hawks who now dominate foreign policy.

One is that they don’t just regard the press as biased, but as an outright hostile force. As Modly put it: "…the media has an agenda. And the agenda that they have depends on which side of the political aisle they sit. And I’m sorry that’s the way the country is now, but it’s the truth. And so they use it to divide us. They use it to embarrass the Navy. They use it to embarrass you."

Which suggests – what? That the press is the enemy, that the military and the media are on opposite sides of the battlefield, and that one will have to suppress the other if a real emergency arises, like the one we’re in now?

A second is that anti-Chinese rhetoric has reached levels that are truly dangerous. "One of the things about his [Crozier’s] email that bothered me the most was saying that we are not at war," Modly declared. "Well, we’re not technically at war. But let me tell you something. The only reason we are dealing with this right now is because a big authoritarian regime called China was not forthcoming about what was happening with this virus. And they put the world at risk to protect themselves and to protect their reputations."

So we’re not at war, except that China’s behavior is so derelict that we might as well be. A seemingly passing comment about hypersonic missiles suggest that Pentagon fears about growing Chinese military prowess is not the least bit theoretical or abstract. "I tell you something," Modly said at one point, "if this ship was in combat and there were hypersonic missiles coming at it, you’d be pretty fucking scared too." It was a Freudian slip that suggests that top brass is indeed "pretty fucking scared" about the threat that such weapons pose, especially to America’s eleven aircraft carriers, which are now as obsolete as a World War I-era dreadnought.

Finally, there’s the suggestion that merely by disclosing a problem, Crozier "compromised critical information about your status intentionally to draw greater attention to your situation."

This is pure authoritarianism. It’s the belief that merely airing a problem is disloyal because it provides the enemy with information he shouldn’t have. "Loose lips sink ships" may be warranted in wartime. But that’s not the case now, as Crozier pointed out in his Mar. 30 memo, and any suggestion to the contrary represents an effort to impose strict martial values in a time of peace.

This should be reason to pour yourself another scotch. Modly deserves to get the ax since he’s a danger not only to the crew of the Teddy Roosevelt but to US naval personnel in general. But Pompeo, Esper, and other latter-day advocates of germ warfare are threats to the world at large and should not only be canned, but forced to stand before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity. As for Trump, not only has he thoroughly blown the anti-corona effort here in the US, but he’s now pushing the same misbegotten policies on other countries as well. The world has a problem, and it’s not Covid-19. It’s the United States.

Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at