No President in History Has Done So Much to Harm the Military. And Trump is Just Beginning.
The American military is an amazing institution. It’s ability to adapt, persevere, and win is nothing short of awesome. The people who are the armed forces and their families are among the best our nation has ever been privileged to have protecting us. If you watched the impeachment hearings last week, you got a taste of the ethos. The military and civil servants who testified made us all proud to be Americans.
But a military is always a force at risk. This is the body we have entrusted with unimaginable capacities for violence and destruction. Countries that fail to imbue their services with a deep sense of commitment to the rule of law, to good order and discipline, and to self-policing standards are on a collision course with history.
I remember taking my first command in the post-Vietnam era, thinking “I hope the Russians don’t call us out anytime soon. This Army has serious rebuilding to do before it answers the call to battle again.” Fortunately, we had the time and used it well. The Army, and to varying degrees other services, did rebuild, almost from the ground up. I was in awe of my peers, troops, and leaders as we built the envy of the world’s military.
Such a profile is always a delicate thing. Today it is – all of it – endangered by Donald Trump like it has never been endangered. The core of some of our most vital national treasures is in danger, from within our own government.
This Was Not Hard to See Coming
The signs of disrespect and flippancy were everywhere, from the beginning. Remember the big fundraiser for veterans’ groups during the campaign? Money was released only months later, as a direct result of investigative reporters who would not stop asking questions. Who knows how much was slid under the table? This whole affair was noted again in the judgement against the Trump organization just announced by the court this month.
Remember the constant early references to “my generals?” This term was always used to describe the brilliant generals who were called to serve (many of whom felt compelled to serve but knew this would likely not end well). The “my generals” remark was often accompanied by disparaging remarks about generals who had served their country under other administrations. Their value and patriotism were called into question.
Once Trump tired of “his” generals, they too were disparaged and disrespected. All of them. Apparently, no one is as brilliant as our version of the Dear Leader. And he has even said himself that he knows more about the issues and solutions than the generals. Sure he does!
In these times of great international tension and risk, we are steadily breaking records for Acting Service Secretaries and Acting other senior leaders. When one is finally appointed, it is most often someone from industry, with little relevant experience or evidence of being a leader-servant.
We still await Trump to make an extended visit to the troops in the field in a conflict zone. His little theater in Korea does not cut the mustard. Going into four years in office, we still wait. When he does address troops, he uses them as back drops and makes blatantly political speeches to them. I am confident no Commander in Chief has ever – ever- abused the privilege of command so blatantly.
Mike Pence followed the model this past week. It is a tradition for VIPs to visit troops on holidays and to join in the line, serving food to the troops, then joining them for a meal. What did Pence do? He had everyone line up as he made a grand entrance carrying a stuffed turkey like a trophy. Even the turkey must have been disgusted. This was followed by a political speech about how little is getting accomplished because of all the waste on impeachment. A full-bore political tirade to a captive audience of soldiers.
And let us not forget the wasteful deployment of troops to our Southern border to “stop the hordes of invaders.” A waste of time, people, and resources.
It Gets Much Worse
But all of that pales compared to Trump’s fondness for war criminals. He has pardoned two of them now, in the most callous and dangerous disregard for a hard won and invaluable military justice system. Not satisfied with that, he directed that the latest favorite of his have his rank restored and remain authorized to wear a coveted badge of honor – which he no longer deserves.
The Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of the Navy Seals did their best to resist this unimaginable tampering with the system that ensures standards out of the chaos and death inherent on the battlefield. My vain hope was that the other service secretaries would quietly let the White House know this cannot go on and they would resign collectively if it did. A genuine Secretary of Defense would have joined them and spoken for them. The damage being done is that serious.
It’s not really a question of authority. The President has very great latitude as Commander in Chief. This is to ensure flexibility and capacity in times of war or crisis. Presidents have used Commander in Chief authority boldly in the past, mostly for good, sometimes not. But no one has so grievously abused that authority as this man. No one has ever been so evil in effect and so uncaring of the damage he does.
We have no knowledge of what the other service secretaries are doing or have said to each other, but we do know the Secretary of Defense asked for the Navy Secretary’s resignation on Sunday. He got it, along with a resignation letter that should be nailed on the doors of the Pentagon. It goes against our military tradition, but many more senior leaders, in uniform and civilian, need to do the same. Speak out and refuse to be a partner to this any longer.
In an unimaginably short period of time, Trump has managed to convey to the world that we no longer have standards of military conduct, that war crimes are OK as long as our people do it, and that our senior leaders lack the courage to stand and say “not on my watch.” If this stands, the bad elements that inevitably are present within any armed force, will get the message – anything is OK, there is no accountability. Good people will be put at risk, and all they stand for will be tarnished. Getting that fixed would take generations.
Who Will Stand Up for America?
One can feebly hope that senior leaders will do the right thing in the coming days. That the House of Representatives will have public hearings. And that a new element of Abuse of Power will be added to the impeachment charges. The Senate? Their moral standards are in the shop for repairs. Even this is apparently not beyond the pale for Mitch and Friends.
I have seen this pattern before in other countries. It never ends well. I never dreamed we would let it happen to us. Everyone I know who is or were in defense is surely heartbroken and enraged.
There will be no forgiving those who did this and those who enabled them.
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