random thoughts on Trump and the military

I grew up in a very conservative area. I joined the Army after I graduated from college, thinking I would make it a career and that it was my duty as a citizen to serve rather than go on to graduate school. I served for 3 years, 7 months, including a year with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam (I signed up for three years but my contract got lost in Washington and wasn’t approved for almost 2/3 of a year). I left as a captain in 1972. I wasn’t a model soldier and the Army of that day had a very strong anti-intellectual bias (nothing as bad as the Marines were, though) so I knew it wasn’t for me.

My first company commander, later killed during his second tour in Vietnam, was a high school dropout from the Midwest who got a GED and went to OCS. His version of “Duty, Honor, Country” was “everyone wants the privilege of command; few want the burden of leadership.” The key to success as a leader, he taught me, is to downplay the former and embrace the latter. Trump’s insistence on public shows of deference and his desire for Stalin-esque military parades show he doesn’t have a clue.

Trump has pardoned a convicted war criminal against the wishes of the Navy, on the one hand, while destroying the career of a Navy captain who wanted to save his aircraft carrier crew from coronavirus deaths, on the other. The captain’s crime? …contradicting Trump’s false assertion that the virus was a hoax. The Seal? …I have a bias: my experience is that no one will testify against a fellow soldier in a combat zone, no matter what he has done. What I find telling is that he was actually convicted of the lesser offense and that the Navy contested the pardon.

Deploying US soldiers against other US citizens is a very fraught enterprise. I was with the 5th Mechanized Infantry at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. My unit, which spent the week at a nearby navy base, was chock full of Vietnam veterans. We had two main concerns: no one wanted to be killed by a demonstrator after having survived Vietnam; everyone feared the potential consequences of harming a civilian, even if ordered to do so. This is the last kind of operation anyone wants to be involved in. Trump clearly cares about none of this.

Even more troubling, the clear message I hear in the statements of senior military officials is that illegal orders must not be obeyed. Their clear fear is that in an act of political theater Trump will illegally command troops to assault civilians and that junior officers will do so (we’ve seen one instance in the “this is a bible” photo-op already). If form follows true, Trump will lie about what he did in any later investigation. This will have obvious negative consequences for the soldiers involved. But it will also have the larger negative consequence of eroding faith in commanders and in the belief that orders should be obeyed.

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