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With his New Year’s tweet attacking retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal — “fired like a dog by President Obama . . . a total bust. Known for big, dumb mouth” and, worst of all, “Hillary lover!” — Donald Trump is close to completing the alienation of the “Deck of Cards,” the military leaders who achieved the greatest successes of the post-9/11 Middle East wars. The list includes McChrystal, his retired Special Operation colleague Adm. William McRaven, former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis and his battle buddy, ex-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and ousted National Security Adviser and retired Army Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster. Even before his election, Trump denigrated “Failed” retired Marine Gen. John Allen. Wisely, the architects of the Iraq “surge,” Army Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno, have kept their heads below the parapet, although Petraeus has publicly said he would not serve in a Trump administration.
What is perhaps most remarkable about these very public spats is that the officers involved number among the most intelligent and educated of their generation in matters of civil-military relations. (Full disclosure: I contributed an essay to a book on the subject co-edited by Mattis, “Warriors and Citizens.”) That they have been drawn into these chaotic and nasty exchanges is yet another example of how toxic Trump is, and how difficult it is to avoid being debased by any interaction with the man.
The lemming-like loyalty with which Trump surrogates follow their leader threatens to turn what might otherwise be personal tempests into institutional civil-military climate change. Laura Ingraham and her internet organ, LifeZette, whined that the media only cared about McChrystal when he attacked Trump. The president’s echo chamber quickly expressed their delight in getting rid of Secretary Mattis. Once beloved as “Mad Dog” — a moniker the marine loathed — it turned out that the former defense secretary was little more than another Washington Swamp Creature, “repeat[ing],” complained Christopher Roach on the Trump-backing website American Greatness, “the globalist conventional wisdom out of the New York Times.” Of course, says Roach, “Trump is smarter than the generals.”
Because civil-military relations tend only to capture public attention when they near a crisis and when they are stoked by civilian political considerations — think of President Obama’s complaints about the military trying to “box him in” during the initial 2009 Afghanistan policy review — the slower erosion of norms happens out of sight. Trust in the military remains high; the most recent annual Gallup poll of American attitudes shows that 74 percent of us have a “great deal/quite a lot” of trust in the armed forces. Current servicemembers and veterans have been a core Trump constituency; an end-of-year Military Times poll pegs approval for the president at 56 percent. That said, the military journals found in an October poll that active-duty troops have less confidence — and slipping confidence — in Trump; his approval rating among current members is 43 percent, about the same as the public at large.
It’s hard to predict how the piling up of generals’ bodies outside the White House gates will affect these attitudes or civil-military norms more generally, but Trump’s ability to scorch the earth behind him, his need to have the final say or tweet, the loyalty of his base, and the fealty of the Trump-era Republican Party leadership do not bode well. Nor does the generals’ response to the unfamiliar feeling of being pulled off their pedestals; Adm. McRaven felt compelled to be the third man in to the Trump-McChrystal tussle, defending McChrystal — who had previously defended McRaven against attacks from Trump — on CNN as “one of the great generals of this generation and the finest officer I ever served with.”
We have too long taken the “professionalization” of the all-volunteer force for granted, but whether this ethos can withstand the extreme politicization and partisanship of the time is an increasingly pressing question. And the attitudes of younger servicemembers are opaque; while the storied leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan take increasingly public stands criticizing the self-absorbed commander-in-chief, SEAL chiefs took selfies with him and got autographs on the bills of their “Make America Great Again” hats. The military memory of the Middle East wars may be shifting from the fleeting victory of the Iraq surge toward Trump’s view that the United States has been played for “suckers.”
By filling his national security post with “my generals” and then doing his best to tarnish their reputations, Trump is opening a Pandora’s Box that will not be soon closed. Trump’s pick to be the next chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley — with more than a year still to go before current Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford retires (assuming both that Trump doesn’t ask for an early departure or Dunford doesn’t resign) — will be scrutinized for signs of politicization. Democratic members of Congress may well assume he’s either Trump’s man or will be spineless in the face of the president’s whims. Democrats also have recruited many veterans as candidates — a tactic that worked well in this fall’s midterms — and may see a chance to make the military part of its interest-group coalition; this is a party that sees politics in every aspect of human life.
Would the next Democratic president be any more likely than Trump to look for independence in the Pentagon? American politicians are increasingly convinced that the “best military advice” is that which comports with the political needs of the moment, while America’s generals may come to believe that partisanship is preferable to professionalism in the pursuit of stars on their shoulderboards. The waters of civil-military relations are becoming dangerously polluted and poisonous.
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