Trump and the Military: Some observations

Recently, a journalist contacted me about a story he was writing about the President’s relationship with the military.  I thought I would share with you some of the input I gave him.

In making his inquiry the reporter reminded me of my 1992 essay, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” and was interested in my reflections given the rise of President Trump.  (Strangely, despite its age, the piece has been downloaded from the Duke Scholarship Repository over 7,400 times in the past few years and more on other sites prior to that.)  I’ve mentioned it in a couple of articles of late (here), and I discussed it in a speech at a Naval Academy conference last April.

Anyway, despite the title of my essay, I never believed – and do not believe now – that there is any chance of a military coup.  Literally “zero.”  It’s just not been in the culture or mindset of the armed forces.  It’s a nonstarter.  As I said in the original piece, the “coup” was “purely a literary device intended to dramatize my concern over certain contemporary developments affecting the armed forces, and [was] emphatically not a prediction.”  That remains true today.

There are, however, some parallels between when I wrote my essay 25 years ago and what we find today.  I foresaw Iran as being our chief opponent in the Middle East and that seems to be accurate now. The military’s popularity as an institution has persisted, as has the pressure to use it to solve all manner of problems, both at home and abroad.

The disappointment with the political system among the electorate I spoke about in the essay is certainly true today.  I did not, however, anticipate a President Trump.  In many ways, he’s the antithesis of the weak political leaders my essay suggested.  To be sure, in Trump we have an often disconcertingly unconventional leader, and one who has made plenty of missteps in his first month or so in office.  Even so, I really don’t know that the military will necessarily have a great deal of trouble adjusting to the new Administration.

Before explaining why I think that, please understand that it would be a serious mistake to jump to the conclusion that the military is composed of philosophical automatons or lacks a wide diversity of ideological and social views.  Moreover, it is as “fed up” with politics as is the rest of America.

That said, the military also has a keen understanding that national security transcends the vagaries of partisan politics and it stands ready to ‘do its duty’ in an apolitical way as the Constitution expects, and as the public wants and needs it to do.

You may be surprised, but based on my more than three decades of military service, the day-to-day life of most of those in the armed forces really doesn’t change with a new Administration as much as you might think.  More important than partisan ideologies is the quality of the civilians who are put in leadership positions in the Pentagon.

Picking Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense was a very wise move because of how revered he is within the military, as well as among many retirees. There is, however, a vulnerability for Trump as I would bet it would be very damaging to him if Mattis quits or is fired anytime soon. It remains to be seen how deferential Trump will be to Mattis, but my guesstimate is “a lot.”

And so far that seems to be the case.  For example, Trump deferred to Mattis’ views about keeping the torture ban. Furthermore, Defense One reports that all six high-level Pentagon appointments announced last week are “technocrats” who “have extensive service in government or…the defense industry,” and who were, the White House says, “personally recommended by Secretary Mattis to the President for nomination.”  I get the impression that Trump seeks out people he believes are the best, and won’t interfere with their decisions too much so long as the enterprise succeeds.

Additionally, I would also anticipate that Trump won’t be micromanaging operational details, and the military will appreciate that.  Too much micromanagement of military operations in the previous administration is one reason I believe a January 2017 Military Times poll showed that only 36% of the military had a favorable view of the job Obama did as commander-in-chief.

As to his leadership style, a Gallup poll early in February shows that a large majority of Americans view Trump as a strong leader who keeps his promises.  These are qualities that the military in particular respects.  Similarly, Trump’s low-key visit to Dover Air Force Base to honor the return of the remains of Navy SEAL Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens who was killed in the raid in Yemen, and his respectful tribute to Owens’ widow, Carryn Owens, during the State of the Union speech is the kind of thing that is noticed and appreciated by the military community.

The announcement that Trump intends to increase the military budget could be seen as further evidence that he is keeping his campaign promises.  It would be hard to find many people in uniform who feel the military is as large or as well-resourced as it needs to be for the responsibilities it has, to include defending a quarter of humanity.  Recently the Air Force Chief of Staff pointed out that his service was the smallest it had ever been, and the facts show its average airplane is 27 years old.

It is true that the unpredictable aspects of Trump’s personality are rightly worrying to a lot of people, but it could be that the military is less vulnerable to being distressed about it.  After all, the military expects to operate under conditions of uncertainty, and even trains to expect the unexpected.  This is not to say Trump’s temperament is laudable; nor that currently serving military agree with all of his actions; rather, it’s just to make the point that the military might be more adaptable to ambiguity than others in American society.

Again, I would caution against too quickly drawing pejorative conclusions about the impact of the President’s quirky personality on the military, and especially as to how it executes its assignments.  The armed forces are expert at compartmentalizing when it comes to carrying out a mission.  I recall being deployed for Desert Fox as Bill Clinton was being impeached.  Pretty much everyone I knew loathed the personal actions he had taken, but even though we were in the midst of a combat operation – real people at risk – Clinton’s situation had no impact on what we were doing.  The military worries less about inside-the-Beltway political machinations than perhaps some pundits imagine.

Paradoxically, in certain ways the 70 year-old Trump seems more attuned to young people and social media than are younger, conventional politicians.  This is of no small importance to the military since about two-thirds of the force is under 30.  When Trump says something cringe-worthy in a tweet, it’s possible many young people don’t always quite see it as “lying” as others might, simply because they themselves have sent out goofy tweets or made ill-thought postings.

In fact, they might even see it as a kind of authenticity in contrast to the manicured but too often duplicitous statements of other politicians.  Let’s not forget that in Obama’s last speech to a sizable military audience he told them that they had “the universal right to speak [their] minds and to protest against authority; to live in a society that’s open and free; that can criticize our president without retribution.”

Yet those words were hardly spoken when the Pentagon deemed as improperly “political” this rather benign statement by the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command at a Pearl Harbor commemoration ceremony: “You can bet that the men and women we honor today — and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago — never took a knee and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played.”  The Pentagon at first tweeted it out, then deleted it as being too political.  So much for the “right” of those in the military to “speak [their] minds” in the Obama Administration.

We’ll have to see how the Trump administration will deal with outspokenness in the ranks – and it could be harshly.  The President does not seem to take lightly public disagreements with him, and I don’t think he would exclude a military person from being on the receiving end of his expressions of displeasure.

At the same time, however, I wouldn’t expect Trump to give a speech like Obama’s that invites the troops to criticize “without retribution” (and then allow the Pentagon to chastise those that did).  I’d wager that Trump has a more traditional view of the role of the military in policy debates, which is to say that dissent is better expressed within the system as opposed to public venues.

Like so many others, military people may not like what Trump is saying at this or that point, but they may still appreciate it as a frank expression of what he is actually thinking.  In the military you have to deal with a lot of things you don’t necessarily like, but candor is still respected, even if it is not what you want to hear.  To be clear, what I am talking about is that Trump could be viewed as expressing what he really thinks, and that’s fundamentally different than whether or not he has his facts right, or whether one agrees with him.  It’s simply that the military may find candor in any politician refreshing.

Along these lines I’m also not so sure that media assessments that the President is lying about this or that will resonate all that decisively with those in uniform as maybe they should.  I would guess that confidence in media – which is low among the general public – is even lower in the military as it is not uncommon to see news reports about military matters that aren’t quite right.  (And sometimes the media acknowledges that.)

Moreover, a recent Gallup poll found that 36% of Americans believe that media has been too tough on Trump while only 28% say it hasn’t been tough enough.  My bet is that at least as many in the military – and likely quite a few more – would agree with the “too tough” conclusion.  One reason might be that most military people are young, and they are keenly aware that mistakes and errors can happen when you are new to a job.  At some point, however, missteps by Trump will not be easily forgiven or forgotten, especially if people start getting killed as a result.  And that point could be sooner rather than later.

I am also concerned about something that I raised in my essay 25 years ago, and that is politicization of the military.  In the election we saw the spectacle of both candidates engaging in an “arms race” of sorts to gather political endorsements from retired generals and admirals.  I very much disapprove of that, but I also think that the ethos against such overt partisanship may be fading.

Recently, we saw a group of retired generals and admirals banding together to sign a controversial letter opposing proposed cuts in foreign aid intended to help fund an increase in defense spending.  True, similar letters were sent during the Obama Administration but the current one seems to me to be more prone to politicization in our hyper-polarized political environment.  (See here.)

I do think the media sometimes misapprehends the degree to which the opinions of generals and admirals are reflective of military society writ large.  My sense is that there is something of a ‘Davos culture’ among military elites (with whom the media typically interfaces) in that their views don’t necessarily echo the broader culture of the force, to include retirees.  I also tend to doubt that opinions expressed by retirees are as influential with those still serving as many seem to suppose.

Nevertheless, technology may be generating a tectonic change by empowering expression across the military’s social strata.  Specifically, social media platforms are creating enormous opportunities for partisan and politicized speech throughout every level of the active duty ranks, and a growing number are taking advantage of it.

I doubt there is much that military institutions can do regarding this trend, other than to continue to preach about staying apolitical.   And, as mentioned above, the tolerance of the Trump administration for public criticism emanating from the ranks is likely to be low, so there could be unhappy consequences for individuals who engage in criticism perceived as partisan and political.  But the fact is that the technological genie is fully out of the bottle, so even draconian efforts to constrain a generation that grew up with social media capabilities that have global reach may ultimately prove fruitless., even for the  military.

Exactly where this will lead us is uncertain – we are in uncharted territory – but I am uneasy about it, irrespective of the administration that is in power at the moment.  I don’t want the military to become in fact or perception just another politicized interest group.  Why?  I’m convinced that the military tops the polls in public confidence much because it is seen as altruistic and above the political fray.  And politicization, real or perceived, could erode that standing with adverse consequences for recruiting and retaining those our national security needs to serve in uniform.

Still, to reiterate, even with the wild swings of today’s political environment, I don’t necessarily expect to see a crisis with Trump’s relationship with the military in the immediate future.  Despite some truly offensive statements that one might think would set the military against him, my guess is that most in uniform see him – on balance – as someone who genuinely respects and supports them.  For now, that seems good enough.  Could that change?  Of course.  We can’t forget that we are only weeks into a four-year term!

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