On February 28, General Michael Hayden appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” Earlier in that month, Donald Trump advocated for reviving enhanced interrogation techniques and killing the families of terrorists. The former includes the now-frowned upon practice of waterboarding, which has been banned in the US. The latter is a war crime. Maher asked Hayden—a retired four-star general, former head of the National Security Agency and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency—about Trump’s campaign promises. Hayden was clear: they wouldn’t happen.
“God, no! Let me give you a punchline: If he were to order [the killing of family members] once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act,” said Hayden. “You are required not to follow an unlawful order.”
Not surprisingly, this was brought up in the March 3 Fox News GOP Debate not long after. The previous day, 122 Republican foreign policy leaders signed an open letter denouncing Trump, citing, among other things, Trump’s call for reviving torture. Hayden’s words were backed by experts. Finally, moderator Bret Baier posed the question:
“So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?”
“They won’t refuse.” said Trump
In just three words, Trump himself put what has been made very obvious by his campaign on full display. He disrespects the military to seem like a progressive and invokes its personnel to seem like a patriot. Trump is neither. Relative to his new-found colleagues, Trump doesn’t know a thing about the military’s culture or its ways.
Trump has repeatedly denounced veterans and families that he doesn’t like, seemingly as much as he claims to support them. He not only denounced but slandered Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of fallen soldier Humayun Khan, after their anti-Trump speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Trump’s response drew widespread criticism from members of his own party who claimed that Gold Star families—those that have lost a family member in military service—deserve a level of respect that Trump didn’t give. Trump’s repeated claim that Captain Khan wouldn’t have died during a Trump presidency is not only untrue but insults his sacrifice.
But Captain Khan wasn’t a first. One of Trump’s earliest controversies involved claiming that Senator John McCain, a hero of Khan’s, is not a war hero. Trump had previously called McCain a “dummy” in response to the Senator’s criticism of Trump’s anti-immigrant proposals. When asked about his comments during a presidential forum, Trump claimed McCain was not a war hero before adding sarcastically “he’s a war hero because he got captured.” Trump was referring to McCain’s service as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. McCain retired from the military due to permanent injuries sustained as a prisoner of war. His actions as a prisoner of war, credited with saving the lives of many imprisoned with him, earned him a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
Unlike Captain Khan, McCain is still alive as a reminder of his sacrifice. His grueling five-year capture left him with white hair and disabled, handicapped shoulders. Still others live to this day with an injury that no one else can see: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With regards to the military, PTSD is as old as war itself, but our current understanding of the disease has shed more light on the subject. When asked about his solution to PTSD and veteran suicides, Trump not only flopped, but demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of PTSD itself.
“[Military personnel] see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over and you’re strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can’t handle it,” said Trump.
Gaffe or not, Trump’s uninformed characterizing of PTSD, a mental illness, as the result of being unable to “handle it” is just as ignorant as telling people with depression to “cheer up; it’s all in your head.” Those with PTSD suffer without choice. Trump’s obsession with strength and “winners” and “losers” causes him to not only misunderstand one of the most basic aspects of mental illness, but simultaneously insult scores of veterans and civilians suffering from “invisible wounds.”
It should come as no surprise that Trump’s insults extend to those currently wearing a uniform, as well. Claiming at one moment that “two hundred generals and admirals” have endorsed him despite the fact that active duty personnel are not allowed to make partisan political statements, he also insists that he won’t listen to them.
This goes against a common defense of Trump—that he’d hire good advisors. He’s claimed that he knows more about ISIS than “reduced to rubble” senior officers. At the Commander-in-Chief Forum, he vowed to either fire or listen to different top officers if elected. This level of disrespect would not only be unprecedented but damaging. The military has long maintained a status of being separate from politics. It’s what has arguably prevented and will continue to prevent a military-led dictatorship in the United States. Senior military officials may be appointed by the president, but their terms often extend to the next president, even if the next president doesn’t like it.
But this gets into the other, more concerning side of the issue: Trump doesn’t understand how the military works. He isn’t even aware of its current state. As President Barack Obama so plainly put it in his recent State of the Union,
“The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close… Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin.”
His words would be even bolder if they weren’t backed up by high-tech jet fighters, 19 aircraft carriers and an ability to operate anywhere on the globe at a moment’s notice, a trait shared by no other military. While it’s true that our enemies are getting stronger, we’ve hardly reached the embarrassment levels that Trump is claiming. His regular rhetoric of big scary China seems to ignore the fact that their deeply flawed military is limited to, in crude terms, pissing off anyone that tries enter its space. He claims that we haven’t done well against the Islamic State, despite the fact that we have.
Trump criticizes his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for having an actual plan with regards to ISIS.
“You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do,” Trump said in the first presidential debate before appealing to General Douglas MacArthur.
Not only is the existence of Trump’s “secret” ISIS plan highly questionable, but the childish claim that his opponent is “telling the enemy everything” demonstrates that Trump doesn’t understand the difference between strategy and tactics. No amount of knowledge of ideas or goals (that is, strategy) in a war effort will benefit the enemy in any major way, let alone an undisciplined enemy like ISIS. Clinton’s website outlines goals that, at this point, should seem obvious: lead a coalition effort and resolve the Syrian Civil War diplomatically. At no point does Clinton speak of what she’d arm the Perhmerga with or when she’ll conduct air strikes (that is, tactics).
Perhaps it’s Trump’s attempt to distract from the obvious: he doesn’t know a thing about fighting wars. His ISIS strategy had been limited to, “I would bomb the shit out of them,” as he said at an Iowa rally last year. This method, known in defensive circles as strategic bombing, aims to incapacitate the enemy’s ability to wage war. Despite claims to the contrary, it has never won a war. Though Barack Obama’s war strategy has used strategic bombing extensively, he’s backed it up with other cooperative strategies like training allies, logistical support, military aid and special operations missions. Trump wants to ditch the latter four tactics and expect better results.
It’s all part of Trump’s brazenly stupid dream of a non-deployed American military that cooperates with no one. As stated above, the United States operates a global military force. It’s able to respond quickly to any threats against the U.S. or its allies, be it war or natural disaster. Trump rejects this long-employed source of American strength and foolishly suggests that we instead deploy, if needed, from American soil, claiming that it’s cheaper.
Trump’s obsessive application of basic (and often incorrect) economics to foreign policy makes his suggestions dangerous. Defending allies and preventing war is not a business transaction, it’s a moral obligation. We’ve never questioned the economic costs of defending allies—even though, contrary to what Trump says, allies do pay us—because the cooperative bulwark it creates is priceless. NATO exists to keep Russia in-check. South Korea and Japan are too strong for North Korea to reasonably fight. China’s territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam get nowhere because of the U.S. Naval presence. It’s not about money, but even if it was, the solutions would be the same: keep our friends safe because getting invaded is bad for business.
A Trump presidency would be the worst thing for the US military and American strength abroad. Period. Never has a major American political party put forward a candidate more ignorant and disrespectful of one of the United States’ most treasured and successful institutions. What’s baffling is that he polls so well among military personnel. A recent poll conducted by the Military Times and Syracuse University shows Donald Trump tied with Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, a man virtually unaware of anything going on outside of the country’s borders. The opinion differs greatly between commissioned and enlisted personnel—two very different demographics—with officers placing Clinton at second and Trump at third.
It’s clear that Trump’s war against truth has been effective. By hurling insults with no factual basis, failing to put forward concrete or informed ideas and disregarding the way things work or can work, he’s brought a grotesque, modern form of fascism to American politics. It’s that, or he’s just as stupid as many claim. Either way, the egotist and his toxic ideas have no business leading the “finest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Photo courtesy of NBC News.