Sep 10, 2020

Trump’s stunning split with America’s military leaders ,

Trump's stunning split with America's military leaders Opinion by Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst Updated 10:41 PM ET, Tue September 8, 2020 Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN. (CNN) President Trump loves the pomp of the military. He went to a military-style boarding school in New York, he has always pined for a big Kremlin-style military parade in the streets of Washington DC and when he came into office he appointed retired and serving generals to key positions in his cabinet, to a greater degree than any other modern president. And yet he totally misses the whole point of what the military is about. A political firestorm has erupted over Jeffrey Goldberg's report in The Atlantic magazine, confirmed in part by CNN, that President Trump has denigrated fallen American service members as "suckers" and "losers." This also jibes with what I found during the three years I spent reporting my book, "Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos." While President Trump thrills to the ceremonial aspects of his role as commander in chief, he finds it very hard to empathize with or comprehend the ethic of self-sacrifice that is at the core of military service. I reported on a meeting in the Oval Office during the summer of 2017 as the debate about whether or not to expand the US military presence in Afghanistan was roiling the White House. Attending the meeting was Gen. John Kelly, Trump's then-homeland security chief, who had lost a son in Afghanistan, 29-year-old Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed by a landmine in 2010. In the meeting, Trump said in Kelly's presence that the young American soldiers who had died in Afghanistan had died for a worthless cause. Trump said, according to a source with knowledge of the meeting, "We got our boys who are over there being blown up every day for what? For nothing. Guys are dying for nothing. There's nothing worth dying for in that country." Did Trump not know that Kelly, who was one of his key cabinet members, had a son who died in Afghanistan? That seems out of the question since Trump had recently visited the grave of Robert Kelly in Arlington National Cemetery together with John Kelly on Memorial Day 2017. According to The Atlantic, Trump turned to John Kelly while at Arlington and said of the buried soldiers there, "I don't get it. What was in it for them?" The White House has, of course, issued denials about the contents of The Atlantic report. The lack of empathy for the sacrifice of others is evident in Trump's treatment of NATO allies. The only time that NATO has invoked Article 5, the collective right to self-defense, was after al Qaeda's attack on Trump's hometown of New York City on September 11, 2001. The subsequent war in Afghanistan was fought to a significant degree by NATO allies, who lost many hundreds of soldiers. As of 2018, the total number of dead soldiers in Afghanistan from the United Kingdom was 455; from Canada, it was 158, from France, 86 and from Germany, 54. Trump has rarely if ever mentioned these many hundreds of deaths by allied troops who died defending American interests. Instead he has repeatedly and publicly berated many NATO allies for not meeting a commitment that they will each spend at least 2% of their own GDP on defense spending by 2024. Trump falsely presents those NATO allies who haven't met that target as yet, like Germany, as "owing" the US hundreds of billions of dollars. Trump responded on Monday to criticism generated by the report in The Atlantic: "I'm not saying the military's in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren't because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy." In fact, as I found when I was reporting "Trump and his Generals," retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis repeatedly slow rolled presenting military options to Trump for attacking either Iran or North Korea when Mattis was running the Pentagon as defense secretary for the first two years of the Trump administration. And, of course, it is Trump himself who has pressed for large-scale increases in US military spending. Given how much that Trump surrounded himself with current and former general officers during the first half of his term, there is a surprising schism that has opened up between Trump and current and former leaders of the military. To a degree that seems unprecedented in American history, many former senior leaders of the military have publicly taken some kind of stand against the policies and leadership of the sitting commander in chief. And even currently serving generals and admirals, who cannot openly rebuke America's top elected official, have issued statements that implicitly distance themselves from Trump's actions and statements. New America, a research institution, has tracked public statements by current and former senior generals and admirals at or above the rank of three-star during the transition to the Trump administration and during its time in office. The institution found that 63 have made public statements critiquing Trump's approaches to civil rights issues, while 56 have made public statements that take issue with Trump's leadership in some manner. Sixteen have issued public statements that take issue with the Trump administration's foreign policy. Top active duty generals and admirals who can't directly criticize Trump came forward to say they stood against racism after protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, during which a far-right terrorist rammed a car into a crowd, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old anti-white-nationalism protester. Trump later observed that there were "very fine people, on both sides" at the protests in Charlottesville. Then-chief of staff of the army, Gen. Mark Milley, tweeted, "The Army doesn't tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It's against our Values and everything we've stood for since 1775." Presenting a united front, the service chiefs of the US Air Force, Marines, National Guard, and Navy all issued similar public statements condemning extremism and racism. After peaceful protesters were violently dispersed outside the White House in June following the death of George Floyd in police custody, all of the US service chiefs issued a public statement endorsing the rights for Americans to enjoy "freedom of speech and peaceful assembly." Trump, whose only extended exposure to the military before serving as commander in chief was attending his military-style boarding school, now finds himself in conflict with the military he claims to admire so much.