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Relations Between The White House And Military Leadership


When Navy captain Brett Crozier realized that many of the sailors on his ship were infected with the coronavirus, he wrote a highly unusual email drawing wide attention to the situation. President Trump didn't like it. Three days later, Crozier was ousted from command and had to leave the ship. The order to fire Crozier came not from his commanding officers but from a civilian, the secretary of the Navy, a Trump appointee.

The incident showed what it means to have civilian control of the military - a principle that's been highlighted more than once under this administration. Army General George Casey Jr. led the multinational force in Iraq and then served as the Army chief of staff. Now retired, he lectures on civil-military relations.

Welcome, General Casey. Good to have you with us.

GEORGE CASEY JR: Thank you, Tom. Nice to be with you.

GJELTEN: So you were at the top of a military chain of command. You also dealt extensively with civilian authority up to and including a president. What are your thoughts about how the situation with Captain Crozier unfolded?

CASEY: Well, I mean, if you take the secretary of - the acting secretary of the Navy at his own words, when that email that - or that letter that he sent by email surfaced, he felt that he had been overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenge and lost his ability to operate professionally. And so he lost confidence in him, and he called for his relief.

Was that his prerogative? Yes, it was. The fact that he did it so quickly, without the completion of an investigation, was something that struck me as a bit irregular.

You know, as a service chief, one of the questions I would have asked was, what was it that we did or didn't do that caused someone that we had hand-selected for this very significant command to take such drastic action to protect his crew? And, in fact, what - from what I've read, both the service chief and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggested that an investigation be conducted to find out what exactly had happened.

GJELTEN: And so there wasn't any investigation - at least, not yet. And it makes me think - there must be times when officers may chafe a bit at civilian involvement. Is there a kind of a natural tension between civilian authority and military authority? Is that what you've found?

CASEY: Sometimes there is. I mean, it certainly depends on the issue. But that's part of the military's responsibility - to work with the civilian leaders to ensure that they understand the military implications of what the civilian leader is suggesting. Some people think that, you know, the military ought to advocate for certain policies. It's our job to provide our civilian leaders military advice on the military implications of the policies or things that they're suggesting.

GJELTEN: I would think that inevitably, there are going to be debates. What's the sort of the ideal situation for handling those debates between civilian and military leaders?

CASEY: Probably two things when I - I'd say, one, the civilian leader needs to create an environment where open debate and dissent are encouraged, especially today because the issues that we're dealing with, the national security issues that we're dealing with, are so significant and so complex that if you don't have healthy dialogue and debate, it's difficult to come up with an appropriate policy or strategy. The second and probably even more important is the discussion and the debate has to take place in private.

GJELTEN: Are you satisfied, are you happy with the way the balance of civilian and military authority is playing out right now?

CASEY: You know, I think for me, it's important that the civilian leaders when they're dealing with national security issues stay at the right level - you know, that they stay at the level of developing appropriate strategies, making sure that the policies are right, making sure that the military has enough resources. It's troubling to me that sometimes they're drifting down into what I would consider almost a tactical level. And so I would think civilian leaders are better suited by staying more at the national and strategic level.

GJELTEN: That's retired Army General George Casey Jr. He's the former Army chief of staff. He now teaches civil-military relations at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School.

General Casey, thank you for your time.

CASEY: You're welcome, Tom. Nice to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.