Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling is a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. He served for 37 years in the Army, including three years in combat, and retired as commanding general of US Army Europe and the 7th Army. He is the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his. View more opinion at CNN.
The legal and administrative case surrounding whether Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher will be allowed to retain his status as a SEAL took an interesting turn late Sunday, with the abrupt departure of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer from his position.
There are conflicting reports over the circumstances of Spencer’s departure. Spencer, in a letter submitted to the President, wrote that he acknowledged his “termination,” and that he could not in good conscience continue to serve when his views regarding ensuring discipline and standards in the Navy did not coincide with the President’s view on the same. This appears to be directed at President Trump’s approach toward Chief Eddie Gallagher.
According to other reports, however, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asked for Spencer’s resignation after “losing trust” and “confidence” in his Navy secretary upon discovering he had privately petitioned the White House to refrain from interfering in the board procedure that would determine if Gallagher could keep his SEAL Trident pin, in turn for a promise that the ruling would come out in favor of Gallagher.
No matter how the situation unfolded, it isn’t Spencer or Esper who’ll ultimately have to attend to the cleanup and consequences of the political deal-making over how to dispense discipline to Gallagher, who was convicted of posing for a photo with the corpse of an ISIS fighter but acquitted of other charges, which included shooting unarmed civilians and killing a captured teenage ISIS fighter with a knife. That task will be left to Rear Admiral Collin Green, who has “command authority” in this situation.
The military uses the term “command authority” to describe the power and responsibility allocated to those who are appointed to the critical position of “commander.” The mission, moral, ethical and legal responsibilities of command are often defined in great detail in the various service and joint doctrinal manuals, and each branch of the military takes great pains to describe proper civil-military relationships and the kind of authority that flows directly from the President through the secretary of defense and the secretariats of each service, directly to subordinate commanders.
There are reasons for this attention to detail. Few outside the military understand that military commanders, in addition to being responsible for accomplishing their assigned missions, are also tasked with ensuring the care, training and certification of each individual assigned to their organization, and the morale and welfare of the organization writ large. Importantly, commanders are granted authority to take administrative and legal actions, such as recommending a court martial, in order to assist them in accomplishing their tasks and upholding their service standards.
Balancing competing demands – accomplishing the mission, caring for soldiers, ensuring standards for the team, asserting legal or administration disciplinary action – is one of the toughest aspects of command responsibility.
During my 38-year military career, I served a total of 13 years in command positions, and much of the rest of the time on staffs or in school to prepare me for the next level of command responsibility that would come my way. Each command role I held – ranging from overseeing organizations as small as a 100-soldier tank company to ones as large as a 60,000-strong Field Army (US Army, Europe) – had different and complex missions, unique leadership tasks, an inherent requirement for training and certifying individuals and teams, and expanding legal support.
My years of experience taught me that there are no easy decisions, especially when it comes to disciplining soldiers. All commanders understand they can’t be “liked” by everyone when trying to build a unit culture that is effective in accomplishing the mission, but the welfare and morale of the entire command is always at the forefront.
Two-star Rear Admiral Collin Green, a Naval Academy graduate who has been serving in Special Operations since 1988, is the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, and leads 9,200 sailors across eight Navy SEAL teams, three special boat teams, and various support organizations. His command has the tough mission of “providing leadership, doctrinal guidance, resources and oversight” to an organization that is considered by many the best small-unit fighting force in the world. But that command has had some challenges as of late.
In August 2019, after conducting a command-wide review of the ethics and culture of an organization that had suffered myriad embarrassing incidents of illegal, immoral and unethical behavior – including Gallagher’s alleged offenses – RADM Green published an “all-hands” guidance that succinctly outlined what he would do to get that force back on track. He had the support and trust of his superiors in doing so, and many in the Navy knew Green had been placed in the command to do just that.
Green knows it is his duty to obey the lawful orders of his superiors, and that includes the President, who has called for Gallagher to retain his Trident pin, symbolizing membership in the SEALs. Green knows the President has the authority to pardon, and to issue legal orders, and that he has the responsibility to obey those orders.
But, he also knows there will be repercussions within the command, and within the Special Operations community, if someone who violated the standards and the culture of the military and his force is treated as “special.”
He also has to live with the consequences within his organization of the President’s orders. He will have to address this situation with other SEALs – some who will surely question this action – as he tries to reestablish the right culture in the force.
With President Trump intervening in both the legal case by reversing the demotion of Chief Gallagher and the administrative procedure of determining who continues to serve in the elite SEAL organization, RADM Green will have to address how others in his organization that might now believe they would be immune from the published standards and the command guidance that Green has put in place (there have been more than 150 other SEALs who have had their Trident pulled due to misconduct or disciplinary infractions since 2011).
And he will be the one who has to maintain the trust of the American people – and especially other members of the special operations community – that he is training and certifying SEALs appropriately.
As a first-year cadet at West Point, we were required to memorize Brevet Major William Worth’s “Battalion Orders,” a little known summary about “doing your duty” from an officer serving in the post-Civil War Army out West. These words were a reminder to all of us as to how best address soldiers subject to discipline issues within the ranks:
“An officer on duty knows no one. To be partial is to dishonor both himself and the object of his ill-advised favor. What will be thought of him who exacts of his friends that which disgraces him? Look at him who winks at and overlooks offenses in one, which he causes to be punished in another, and contrast him with the inflexible soldier who does his duty faithfully, notwithstanding it occasionally wars with his private feelings. The conduct of one will be venerated and emulated, the other detested as a satire upon soldiership and honor.”
I hope the Naval Academy also requires the midshipmen to memorize this writing, and I’m pretty sure RADM Green is familiar with these words. Given the recent turn of events in this case, I believe Collin Green understands this quote, but perhaps those occupying the civilian positions in government may want to take note.