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Novel Threats is a series of brief conversations with fellows and affiliates of the Reiss Center on Law and Security exploring the intersection of the coronavirus pandemic and key national security challenges.

Lindsay Rodman on Coronavirus, the U.S. Military and Leadership

August 12, 2020

Lindsay Rodman is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Reiss Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law and is Executive Director of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. She began her career at the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP, leaving in 2008 to become a Marine Corps judge advocate. In 2010-2011, she deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. As a Marine she also served as Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as a White House Fellow, placed at the National Security Council as Director for Defense Policy and Strategy. Upon leaving active duty, Rodman served as the special assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and as Senior Advisor for International Humanitarian Policy in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. She was the Director of Communications and Legal Strategy at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America throughout 2019.  Full bio

The author’s views are expressed in her personal capacity and do not represent those of the U.S. Marines Corps.

U.S. troops deployed around the world cannot “work from home,” and unfortunately may be particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Troops also operate within local communities abroad at a time when many countries are restricting travel by Americans. How has the military responded to the exigencies of operating and training during the pandemic?

I think it’s fair to say that the military has responded with mixed results. The high-profile case of COVID-19 aboard the U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt did create some urgency within the Department of Defense (DoD) to address COVID-19 by significantly altering the way the military operates. Until this incident, DoD was resisting overarching changes to its operational tempo. The Navy was still attempting to maintain its forward posture in the Pacific for national security reasons; in March and April, there was still no realization about how fundamentally we all had to change our behaviors and approaches.

In the language of the military, COVID-19 presents a real readiness challenge. The military’s primary mission in peacetime is to be ready for war. The imperative to “work from home” due to COVID-19 presents three major challenges in the context of the military. The first is practical: for many occupational specialties, work from home is simply not possible. You cannot fly a plane, practice a ground assault or drive a ship from home. The second is cultural: so much of the military’s approach to mission success is based on unit cohesion and camaraderie, which is difficult to achieve remotely. The third is technological: for work that requires a security clearance, the military has not invested in the capability and capacity necessary to enable service members working from home. That technology does exist, however; in the future I hope we are able to take advantage of it. 

Despite these challenges, the military has made some practical trade-offs in responding to COVID-19. Trainings have been suspended at the macro and micro levels: for example, no exercises are being conducted among nations and no physical fitness testing is being conducted for individuals. When work can be done remotely, people are finding a way to get it done; I just finished conducting my annual Marine Corps Reserve training by spending a week on Zoom. But there have also been some problems. DoD put a 30-day “pause in place” on military moves, but that pause ended in June. DoD then began pursuing a phased reopening approach, allowing movement to and from 41% of all bases as of August 5 (though this does not account for host nations’ willingness to receive Americans on overseas military bases).

“I fear that politicization of the pandemic may be impacting decisions at the top…Ideally, dispassionate decisions would be made based on science and national security—decisions which would no doubt be difficult enough without politics.”

Domestically, outbreaks on military bases tend to be located in areas that are civilian hotspots as well. Overseas, some countries’ willingness to host American service members is being tested.    Currently, there is a small outbreak in Okinawa on two U.S. Marine Corps installations, and about 100 U.S. service members in South Korea have the virus.

I fear that politicization of the pandemic may be impacting decisions at the top. The Department of Defense is aware that its decisions will be perceived in the context of the greater politics around pandemic-related decisions and policies, despite the apolitical nature of the military. Ideally, dispassionate decisions would be made based on science and national security—decisions which would no doubt be difficult enough without politics.

Should pandemic preparedness be a strategic point of cooperation in our military alliances? Can NATO or other alliances be helpful in pandemic response? How should we think about an allied approach to pandemic preparedness?

Pandemic preparedness and response should absolutely be a strategic point of cooperation among allies and partners, but it is decidedly not the type of mission where the military should be in the lead. During the Ebola crisis, the United States used its moral authority to mobilize our own resources and those of our best partners and allies to respond in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The logic at the time was that a collaborative global response among responsible partners at the source would save lives in those countries, save us all from a global pandemic and prevent the need to fight the disease at home; and it worked. 

I had the great honor of serving on the White House Ebola Response Task Force, where my own (admittedly limited) role was related to coordinating the DoD response. We deployed thousands of Americans to Liberia to assist in the logistics mission, where their capability and capacity was needed. The role of DoD was strictly subordinated, however, to a much broader international coalition and diplomatic effort that DoD had no role in coordinating.

In the case of COVID-19, we lost the opportunity to respond with the same proactive posture very early on. Now our concerns are much more domestic than they are international. Although it appears that internal to Europe, NATO allied forces have been supporting each other with resources during these times, American forces have not been as involved with those efforts. The use of our resources (e.g., the U.S.N.S. Comfort and the U.S.N.S. Mercy) have been focused domestically.  

It is never too late to benefit from a collaborative approach. An allied response can certainly be helpful, and the militaries of all NATO member states have useful resources to contribute to the global pandemic response. The coordination, however, is not likely to come from NATO itself. The United Nations, for example, would have to take the lead and then request NATO’s support, which would represent a non-traditional use of forces but an interesting approach.

You’ve served as a judge advocate on active duty in the Marine Corps, as a civilian appointee in various policy roles in the Department of Defense, and now in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. How do you think about military leadership and the appropriateness of dissent in the context of the COVID-19 crisis?

Military officers are taught that mission accomplishment comes first, and troop welfare comes second only to mission accomplishment. The case of the U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt and Captain Crozier brought these issues to the forefront. The narrative in civilian mainstream news media (which, for the most part, exalted Captain Crozier as a hero) was not as resoundingly accepted within the military community. Although many (if not most) praised Captain Crozier and believed he did the right thing, the decision was more complicated from a military perspective.

In March, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Teddy Roosevelt was tasked with projecting U.S. naval power into the Pacific and a few cooperation exercises with allies in Asia. When 33 sailors tested positive for COVID-19, the ship docked in Guam and Captain Crozier requested to cancel or delay those missions by extending the ship’s stay in Guam and quarantining all sailors on land. “We are not at war,” he said, “and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.” His request was denied by his chain-of-command and was then leaked to the press. Ultimately, Captain Crozier was relieved of command and contracted COVID-19 himself. After two investigations the Navy debated but decided not to reinstate him.

“Pandemic preparedness and response should absolutely be a strategic point of cooperation among allies and partners, but it is decidedly not the type of mission where the military should be in the lead.”

Military officers do have an obligation to disobey unconstitutional orders. However, there is no contention here that his orders (including the refusal to grant his request) were unlawful or unconstitutional, though perhaps heartless and unwise. Military members die in exercises, training accidents and many other scenarios where non-wartime obligations of the military lead to greater risk-taking. When the decisions about risk have been made at a higher level of the chain of command, a commander may express dissent internally, but ultimately, he or she has to accept and execute the decision from above.

Although perhaps ultimately unsatisfying, the outcome here was not inappropriate (though reinstating him would not have been disastrous either). The leak (which most onlookers assume Captain Crozier approved) displayed blatant disregard for the chain-of-command. Captain Crozier made a decision to jeopardize his own career by putting his troops’ welfare before mission accomplishment. We can simultaneously applaud his decision while recognizing that it should be addressed with some censure in the military environment.

You lead an organization dedicated to advancing women leaders in national security. Much has been made of the fact that many of the states most successful in combatting the COVID pandemic are led by women. How do you think about this, and about your mission in this context?

There are countless studies showing the value that gender diversity brings to all organizations.  The Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS) was founded with the mission of improving gender diversity in national security leadership in order to improve our national security. 

As Nicholas Kristof notes in the piece you cited, individual women leaders have historically been good and terrible in roughly equal proportions as men. To me, what is most noteworthy about many of the countries cited in Kristof’s column (such as Finland, Norway, Iceland, New Zealand and Germany) is that they are also countries with laudable women’s power indexes overall. In other words, they don’t just have women in one leadership position—they have better gender representation in leadership positions throughout the government. Ultimately, LCWINS works to elevate more women to leadership positions, thereby improving the performance of our government. If lifting up women can help us avoid another catastrophic response to a pandemic, then that is yet another reason to go for it.

Novel Threats: National Security and the Coronavirus Pandemic
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