Archived Opinion

Trump overplays his hand with military

Trump overplays his hand with military

Under this commander-in-chief, war criminals are framed as heroes for political gains with his base while veterans who served with honor for decades are vilified. Of all of President Trump’s outrageous, disruptive behavior, it’s his un-military like actions toward our soldiers in uniform that roil me the most.

We are fast becoming a nation with little real-world knowledge of what it means to serve. It’s almost a generation since we’ve had the draft, and today’s military has fewer active-duty soldiers in relation to the nation’s population than at any time since the Civil War. 

I was raised by a father who was a Master Chief Petty Officer — the highest possible enlisted rank — who saw nothing out of the ordinary in snapping his fingers to get our attention, pointing to a clothing rack in whatever store we were in, and me and my brothers knowing that meant lining up against it while he and mom browsed the wares. I wouldn’t call it standing at attention, but it was something like that. He suspected, rightly, that we’d be doing something wrong and this was how he enforced discipline and made sure the shopping got done as quickly as possible. No questions asked.

I’m nearing 60 years old and have never served in the U.S. military. But I have an unending affinity born of my father’s service — 24 years — a host of family members who have served, and a youth spent growing up on military bases and then later in Fayetteville, where we lived just a stone’s throw to the country’s largest military complex. Nearly all the kids in my neighborhood had ties to Ft. Bragg or Pope Air Force Base.

That discipline my father expected of us is just one of the traits that makes our soldiers the most respected in the world. Other countries accept our troops not just because we are the best fighting force but because they know our troops have discipline, honor and integrity — and that if they screw up our military establishment will mete out its own very strong punishment.

This view of the military is still held by a great majority of Americans. A Pew survey from July showed that our military was second only to scientists as one of the most trusted groups in the nation. About 83 percent of people expressed confidence in the armed forces. That number was higher than for other revered institutions like public schools (80 percent) and local police officers (78 percent).

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But this presidency could change all of this. Instead of letting the chain of command handle discipline among the troops, he has stepped into at least three cases and over-ruled military courts and tribunals. Let’s look at the cases he’s gotten involved in.

Clint Lorance, an Army lieutenant, ordered his men to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men riding past on a motorcycle, killing two of them. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison for murder. Green Beret Maj. Matthew Golsteyn was facing murder charges after admitting that he had killed an unarmed detainee and burned the corpse while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. Trump pardoned both men.

Then there’s the case of Navy Seal Edward Gallagher. He was originally charged with murder — after being turned in by his own team members — but convicted of the war crime of taking a photo with a corpse. The Navy was to decide whether he would retire as a member of the elite Seal unit — again, a decision that would come from a tribunal made up of four other Seals of similar rank — when Trump Tweeted his intervention, reversing the conviction and allowing him to keep the Seal Trident. A couple of days later Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired, and so military personnel are left to wonder whether politics now rules the day instead of the tradition and discipline that has been instilled in them since their enlistment. Trump’s actions, according to almost all observers, were prompted by opinions voiced by commentators on the Fox News shows he is apparently obsessed with.

It’s not just these three interventions in criminal proceedings involving troops that have revealed Trump’s problem in dealing with the military. He came into office surrounding himself with soldiers, jokingly referring to “my generals” as he appointed many to important posts early in his presidency. They are all gone now, either victim to Trump’s capricious decision-making or a personal grudge: Gen. James Mattis (whom Trump referred to as the “world’s most overrated general” after he quit), Gen. Stan McChrystal, Admiral Bill McRaven, and now Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

Not to mention Army Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, a Ukraine expert and member of Trump’s National Security Council, a veteran who earned a Purple Heart while serving. After his testimony in the impeachment hearings, Trump referred to him as a “never Trumper” and said he may have more information to release about the colonel. No new information has been released, but Fox News hosts have called into question his ethics, his patriotism and even insinuated that he could be committing treason. 

As a young man, I rebelled against that discipline and honor code that was part and parcel of the military, that my father expected of me as a teen. I got the hell out of Fayetteville and had no plans to return. But as I grew up, held jobs in the real world, got married and raised a family, I learned to admire those who embody the values that are a necessary part of a moral, courageous and honorable military. It’s a mix of bravery and humility, restraint and aggression, but always honor and integrity.

Trump, a draft dodger who would not have made it out of boot camp let alone a tour of duty, embodies the opposite values: he’s undisciplined, dishonest, belittles those who disagree with him, and lacks integrity. I suspect — and pray — our military traditions will survive in spite of this president, but I’ve been wrong before.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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