Columns July/Aug 2020

Ethical Perspectives on Captain Crozier’s Letter

By Russell Willerton | STC Member

The COVID-19 virus has affected people around the world. Nations, states, cities, businesses, and organizations of all sizes have had to adjust their activities in response to this dangerous and sometimes lethal pathogen. Decisions about how best to respond to this invisible threat are often vexing. Many factors are involved in decisions that impact the health of large groups of people.

One example involves a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and Captain Brett E. Crozier. In late March 2020, Crozier was the captain of the Theodore Roosevelt, a carrier with a crew of more than 4,000. At the time, a small number of sailors had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Crozier knew that the tight quarters on the ship would allow the virus to spread. In a letter dated 30 March 2020, Crozier expressed his great concern. He noted that he could not adequately quarantine sailors with the virus on the ship, and that sailors could not follow virus-protection guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the Navy (in a document known as NAVADMIN 083/20). The final sentence of the letter stated what he desired: “Request all available resources to find NAVADMIN and CDC compliant quarantine rooms for my entire crew as soon as possible.”

The letter does not state to whom it was written. Crozier emailed it to more than 20 recipients out of concern that his immediate supervisor would not let the letter reach a larger audience, according to David Choi. A copy of the letter was obtained by—some would say leaked to—the San Francisco Chronicle, which published it online.

Crozier was removed from command of the Theodore Roosevelt by Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly. Many sailors cheered and chanted in support of Crozier as he walked off the ship in Guam. Modly later apologized to Crozier and resigned his post. As this column was written, Navy leaders recommended reinstating Crozier to his post on the ship, but Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had not done so.

Conflicting Principles

In a discussion of workplace ethics, Mike Markel writes that employees have specific obligations to their employers. These include competence and diligence, generosity, honesty and candor, confidentiality, and loyalty. He adds that loyalty should not be absolute; employees should try to stop their employers from behaving unethically, even to the point of becoming whistle-blowers who expose such activities.

Crucial to the operation of any military organization is the concept of following the chain of command. When individuals do not follow the chain of command, they risk disrupting the organization’s operations, disrespecting the organization’s values, and being penalized for insubordinate behavior. (A full discussion of chains of command and military protocols is beyond the scope of this column.) By contacting others and not following the chain of command, Crozier is subject to criticism of his loyalty to his employer. Within a chain of command, Markel’s ethical principle of confidentiality is relevant as well. Crozier’s commanding officer, Rear Admiral Stuart Baker, could well have considered Crozier’s act to have breached confidentiality. According to Choi, Baker did not support sending the letter to Navy leaders.

Following the chain of command is a means of demonstrating loyalty; failure to follow the chain of command can be seen as disloyalty toward superior officers.

And yet, Crozier clearly demonstrates loyalty to his sailors, whom he was employed to lead. In his letter, he writes that he wants to “achieve a COVID-free” ship to protect the crew. Noting that the Navy is not at war, he focuses on two primary goals:

  • Preventing unnecessary deaths, reducing the number of sailors with COVID-19, and preventing spread of the virus
  • Regaining readiness and capacity for warfighting as soon as possible

Crozier shows his loyalty to those under his command by putting their health and safety first.

Crozier’s letter displays honesty. He does not paint a too-rosy picture. Crozier uses candor, which Markel describes as reporting to one’s employer problems that might threaten quality or safety.

Crozier’s letter also reveals his competence and diligence. Crozier uses vocabulary and formatting that a military audience expects to see. He begins his letter with a “BLUF” summary, which Kabir Sehgal defines as putting the bottom line of an issue up front for the reader to recognize and understand. Crozier plainly states the problem his ship faces, which is that he cannot comply with the CDC guidelines and the NAVADMIN 083/20 guidance on travel during the COVID-19 epidemic with the full crew on board. The formatting and organization of the letter clearly separate content into sections that help readers follow and understand.

In addition, Crozier cites an epidemiological study about the COVID-19 infection on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, calling it “the only comparable situation encountered thus far.” He uses the evidence from the article to argue for removing the crew from the ship (minus essential personnel) and sanitizing the ship.

Markel writes that blowing the whistle on one’s employer is a drastic step, but it is one that may be necessary. Whistleblowers might face retaliation in big and small ways; they might lose jobs. Markel advises working with employers and leaving whistleblowing as the last resort.


While some details of the situation have not been revealed, and some aspects of the situation are difficult for civilians to understand, Captain Crozier’s letter provides a number of questions to consider:

  • Is Captain Crozier a whistleblower?
  • By emailing his letter to a number of people besides his supervisor, was he disloyal?
  • By emailing his letter to a number of people besides his supervisor, was he rhetorically effective?
  • What factors should limit one’s loyalty to one’s employer?
  • What principles of ethical behavior or ethical decision-making do you see revealed in this situation?



Your responses are welcome. Please contact me at Your responses might appear in a future column.



Choi, David. 2020. “Fired US Navy Captain Reportedly Emailed His Coronavirus Warning Because He Believed His Boss Would Have Prevented It.” Business Insider. 5 April 2020.

Crozier, B. E. 2020. “Request for Assistance in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic.” Letter. 30 March 2020.

Gaffni, Matthias, and Joe Garofoli. 2020. “Exclusive: Captain of Aircraft Carrier with Growing Coronavirus Outbreak Pleads for Help from Navy.” San Francisco Chronicle. 31 March 2020.

Markel, Mike. 2017. Practical Strategies for Technical Communication, 2nd edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Sehgal, Kabir. 2016. “How to Write Email with Military Precision.” Harvard Business Review. 22 November 2016.

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