Military High Command and Media Induced Scapegoating

Navy Sailors on Ship

Scapegoat theory refers to the tendency to blame someone else for one’s own problems. Scapegoating serves as an opportunity to explain failure or misdeeds, while maintaining one’s positive self-image.

I found the situation about COVID-19 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the firing of its commander, Captain Brett Crozier, USNA ‘92, interesting on multiple levels. Apparently, the Navy’s upper echelon of command determined that the Captain communicated outside his chain of command, which may or may not justify career-killing action against him. Some opinions are that Captain Crozier did a fine job and took appropriate action complying with Naval regulations while maintaining the mission of the ship and simultaneously looking after the safety of his crew. Certainly, at minimum, he demonstrated character and professional leadership, in contrast to Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly who said that Captain Crozier was “too naïve or too stupid” to be in command of the aircraft carrier. Of the two, it is not all that hard to determine who was professional, and who was not.  Of equal interest to me is the sense of a historical pattern when the media gets involved in military matters. That pattern being the propensity of upper echelon rank to throw some of their best and brightest under the bus when the media is poised to exacerbate an incident. I think this common over the years, but in addition to Captain Crozier’s situation, two more examples readily come to mind.

The Navy’s Tailhook scandal in 1991 is a classic example of media-driven scapegoating. There is absolutely no doubt that some of the naval officers involved lacked character and were a disgrace to the uniform, but the point is that upper command determined that the behavior was not actionable until the media and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Barbara S. Pope doggedly pursued a through investigation. The result was the ending of over 300 naval careers. Jim Webb, Former Secretary of the Navy said, “When the Tailhook investigation began and certain political elements used the incident to bring discredit on naval aviation as a whole, and then on the Navy at large, one is entitled to ask … Who fought this? Who condemned it? When a whole generation of officers is asked to accept … the destruction of the careers of some of the finest aviators in the Navy based on hearsay, unsubstantiated allegations, in some cases after a full repudiation of anonymous charges that resemble the worst elements of McCarthyism … what admiral has had the courage to risk his own career by putting his stars on the table, and defending the integrity of the process and its people”. No doubt that many officers were guilty of bad behavior, but it is dispiriting when flag officers sacrifice innocent subordinates to protect their own careers. Where is the honor and integrity in that?

A third example of the best and the brightest being heroes one day and a media-driven target of convenience the next is the outcome of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam on March 16, 1968. The action there is indefensible, illegal, and morally deplorable. The soldiers on the ground investigated and charged with war crimes were primarily Captain Earnest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley, both in Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Brigade, Americal Division. Major General Samuel Koster, USMA ’42 was the commander of the Americal Division consisting of about fifteen thousand men. The general rule of ‘when in command, then command’ applied, meaning that a commander of a division was to handle the affairs of the division from within, though Koster’s superiors were made aware of the incident. Similar to the above examples, all was well until the media made My Lai the news of the day and kept making it the news of the day. To make a long story shorter, court-martialed, Captain Medina and Lieutenant Calley were essentially acquitted and went on about their business. 

In 1971, Major General Koster was the superintendent at West Point and was up for promotion to three stars: Lieutenant General. Charges against Koster were dropped; the Army determined that “he did not show any intentional abrogation of responsibilities” in dealing with the incident. None-the-less, Major General Koster was censored in writing, stripped of the Distinguished Service Cross, demoted to Brigadier General, and retired from service. Of those charged in the My Lai Massacre, only the divisional commander appears to have been chosen for punishment. I vividly remember that winter day when I was a plebe at West Point. Classes were canceled for the afternoon, and we marched as dime-sized snowflakes fell. In Brigade formation, we passed the superintendent’s house at eyes-right while Major General Koster and his wife stood on their porch, returning the salutes of the Corps. The silence was that of a heavy snow. The only sound was four thousand footsteps crunching in unison as we marched. Major General Koster’s last words to the Corps in the mess hall were, “Never let the bastards get you down.”