The Stain of Vietnam: Robert McNamara, Redemption Denied
When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, there was good cause to think that he would be popular with the armed forces. He was, for a start, a Republican, and the military leans heavily conservative. He had also run an ostentatiously pro-military campaign, promising to “rebuild the military, take care of vets and make the world respect the U.S. again!” There were, to be sure, some warning signs of trouble to come, such as when he attacked the war hero John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona (“I like people who weren’t captured”), and belittled the parents of a soldier who had died in combat after they dared to criticize him.
But initially, at least from the military’s perspective, the good seemed to far outweigh the bad. Trump pushed for higher defense spending; sent more U.S. forces and firepower to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria; and liberalized the military’s rules of engagement, giving commanders on the ground more freedom of maneuver. Even more eye-catching was his appointment of generals to senior civilian positions: the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis became the secretary of defense, the retired Marine general John Kelly became the secretary of homeland security and then the White House chief of staff, the retired army lieutenant general Michael Flynn became Trump’s national security adviser—and, when he flamed out after just 24 days, was replaced by the then active-duty army lieutenant general H. R. McMaster. Trump, for his part, reveled in the generals’ aura of manliness, hailing “Mad Dog” Mattis (a nickname Mattis hated) as “a true General’s General!”
Some critics worried that the overrepresentation of generals in the administration would impinge on civilian control of the military. But many others celebrated the appointment of these generals, hoping that their presence in the administration would provide the reality TV star turned president with much-needed “adult” supervision.
Things went wrong almost immediately. How that happened—how the promise of smooth civil-military relations devolved into acrimony, backbiting, and bewilderment—is documented in four new books. Two are journalistic accounts: Trump and His Generals, a fair and comprehensive overview of Trump’s foreign policy by the journalist and think tanker Peter Bergen, and A Very Stable Genius, a work of first-rate news coverage and valuable insight by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, reporters at The Washington Post (where I am a columnist). The other two books are memoirs. Holding the Line, by Guy Snodgrass, a retired U.S. Navy officer who served as Mattis’s Pentagon speechwriter, gives the impression of being hastily cobbled together and includes more interoffice politics than most readers will want to know. But it provides a few nuggets that have not been reported elsewhere—such as the claim that Trump told Mattis to “screw Amazon” on a major contract because he was so unhappy with The Washington Post (which is owned by Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos). The other memoir—Call Sign Chaos, by Mattis and Bing West—doesn’t deal with the controversies of the Trump administration at all. “I’m old fashioned: I don’t write about sitting Presidents,” Mattis explains. But the book does provide an expertly crafted account of Mattis’s career, which helps explain why the marriage between Trump and his generals was destined for divorce.
A key turning point in the relationship was a July 2017 briefing for Trump held in what’s known as “the Tank,” a secure Pentagon conference room used by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Accounts of the meeting are provided by Bergen (who begins his book with it), Snodgrass (who organized it and was present), and Rucker and Leonnig (who offer the juiciest details). Mattis had summoned the president and his senior advisers to explain why the U.S.-led system of security alliances and trade relationships still benefited the United States. It did not go well. All the accounts agree that Trump, who has a notoriously short attention span and a hair-trigger temper, openly fumed during Mattis’s presentation. According to Rucker and Leonnig, the president lashed out at U.S. allies, telling his generals, “We are owed money you haven’t been collecting!” Mattis interjected, “This is what keeps us safe,” but Trump predictably wasn’t buying it. “You’re all losers,” he spat. “You don’t know how to win anymore.” A few minutes later, the president—who had cited bone spurs to evade service in the Vietnam War—told a roomful of decorated generals, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
The generals, conditioned not to question the commander in chief’s authority, sat in stunned silence. It was left to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to speak up. “No, that’s just wrong,” he retorted. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.” After the meeting, standing with a few people he trusted, Tillerson called the president “a fucking moron.” When that comment was reported by NBC News a few months later, it sealed Tillerson’s fate.
Tillerson’s firing in the middle of March 2018 had an unintended consequence: it left the secretary of defense without backup. Until then, Tillerson and Mattis had formed a tag team to stop Trump’s more reckless impulses. They had succeeded in preventing the president from pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and from abandoning NATO’s mutual-defense provision. Mattis had also worked with Kelly to delay the implementation of Trump’s more provocative requests, Bergen writes, such as an order in early 2018 to evacuate American civilians from South Korea in preparation for a possible military strike on North Korea.
With Tillerson gone, it was only a matter of time before Mattis was out the door, too. Snodgrass writes that he found out as early as the summer of 2018 that Mattis was planning to serve only until the end of the year. The final break came in December, when Mattis objected to Trump’s initial decision to pull U.S. forces out of northern Syria. Kelly, who was close to Mattis after years of Marine Corps service together, left shortly after Mattis. McMaster had already been fired in March of that year after clashing with Trump, as well as with Mattis. (Bergen writes that Mattis “pointedly referred” to the national security adviser as “Lieutenant General McMaster” to make clear that he outranked him.)
The only high-ranking officer who has maintained consistent influence with Trump since the start of the administration is the retired general Jack Keane, a former army vice chief of staff who was instrumental in advocating the Iraq “surge” in 2006–7. Keane has never accepted an official appointment, however, preferring to provide informal advice. Bergen writes that at various points, Keane helped talk Trump out of his desire to pull troops out of northern Syria and Afghanistan—but not even Keane could ultimately stop Trump. Trump has since abandoned the Syrian Kurds by relocating U.S. troops to Syria’s tiny oil fields, and he has agreed to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2020 as part of a deal with the Taliban.
Although Call Sign Chaos does not detail Mattis’s tenure at the Defense Department, it reveals why he and the other generals so often clashed with Trump. Mattis writes that from an early age, the Marine Corps instilled in him the fundamentals of leadership, which he sums up as “the three Cs”: competence (“Don’t dabble in your job; you must master it”), caring (“A marine knows when you are invested in his character, his dreams, and his development. Men like that don’t quit on you”), and conviction (“State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. . . . At the same time, leaven your professional passion with personal humility and compassion for your troops”). It is hard to imagine an ethos further removed from Trump’s relentless self-promotion, contempt for underlings, and disdain for expertise. The term “self-sacrifice” isn’t part of Trump’s vocabulary, and he views loyalty as a one-way street: he wants subordinates to be loyal to him—even at the cost of breaking the law—but he will be disloyal to them whenever it is advantageous to do so, often claiming to barely know them when they get in trouble.
The only thing more alien to Trump than Mattis’s military ethos is the former secretary of defense’s love of reading. Call Sign Chaos was largely finished before Mattis joined the administration, but it reads as if Mattis is covertly addressing the president when he writes, “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you. Any commander who claims he is ‘too busy to read’ is going to fill body bags with his troops as he learns the hard way.” Trump is, of course, notorious for not reading long briefing papers, much less books.
By contrast, all the generals who served at the top of the Trump administration were voracious readers, and it came as a shock to them to deal with a president so intellectually incurious and certain that he already knew everything—even though, Rucker and Leonnig report, Trump didn’t even know that India shares a 2,000-mile border with China. Trump became disenchanted by McMaster because the national security adviser was too professorial, trying to cram him with too much information. “Trump would ridicule McMaster,” Rucker and Leonnig write, “by describing the topic of the day and deploying a series of large, complex phrases to indicate how boring McMaster’s briefing was going to be.” They add that “the National Security Council staff were deeply disturbed by Trump’s treatment of their boss”—and rightfully so. Because many of those staffers were military officers, word spread through the tight-knit military community about how poorly Trump treated the decorated veteran of the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
The hostility between Trump and the generals has since broken into public view. After Mattis wrote a blistering resignation letter, Trump called him “the world’s most overrated general.” Kelly waited more than a year after his departure to publicly criticize Trump, and when he did, in February of this year, Trump attacked him on Twitter: “When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn’t do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being Chief of Staff just wasn’t for him.” That critique, of course, only raises the question of why Trump appointed Kelly—and so many other officials he now disparages—in the first place.
Beyond his very public break with his generals, Trump’s relationship with the military deteriorated owing to a series of decisions that did not sit well with the armed forces. My conversations with current and former officers indicated that they approved of Trump’s killing of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general who was responsible for hundreds of U.S. deaths in Iraq, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State (or ISIS). But many I talked to were furious when Trump decided last October to abandon Syrian Kurdish forces by moving U.S. military personnel who had long served as a buffer between the Kurds and hostile Turkish forces, despite the fact that the Kurds had fought alongside the United States to defeat ISIS and had lost 11,000 soldiers in the process. That decision, many felt, ran counter to the military’s commitment to comrades on the battlefield. Many in the U.S. military were unhappy that Trump restored the rank of the Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher—who was accused of war crimes in Iraq—and fired Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, an Iraq war veteran who had testified about Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine into helping his reelection campaign. Trump had Vindman and his twin brother, also a lieutenant colonel serving on the National Security Council staff, escorted from the White House grounds and then suggested that the military launch disciplinary proceedings against Vindman—something that the army refused to do. Kelly praised Vindman after his firing for doing “exactly what we teach them to do” by refusing to obey an “illegal order” and criticized Trump’s support of Gallagher as “exactly the wrong thing to do.” Officers such as Kelly know how hard it is to maintain discipline and good order when the commander in chief is signaling that war crimes are acceptable but telling the truth is not.
Many military personnel clearly still support Trump and approve of his swagger, but the president’s assaults on the military’s hallowed traditions of “duty, honor, country” have grated on many others. The Military Times’ surveys of military personnel reflect this disenchantment: when Trump was first elected, in November 2016, 46 percent of respondents had a positive view of him, and 37 percent had a negative one. By November 2019, a stark change had taken place: 42 percent positive, 50 percent negative. That same month, a number of generals unloaded on Trump, albeit from behind the cloak of anonymity, in an article in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden. Some have criticized the now departed generals for not speaking out more in public, but their reticence is understandable given that they have been taught from the start of their careers to steer clear of politics and that opposition to Trump could create a presidential backlash against colleagues still on active duty. At the same time, by not coming to Trump’s defense, the retired generals have made clear that they are no fans of the president.
The Trump presidency has been an education for both the commander in chief and the troops he leads. Trump, who knew little of government at first, learned about how much power he can wield. He doesn’t seem to have learned why previous presidents restrained themselves, by, for example, not telling the Justice Department whom to prosecute or what prison sentences to recommend. Trump has been emboldened because he feels that his controversial decisions—such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and killing Soleimani—have worked out better than naysayers predicted. He has become more obstinate and less willing to listen to advice the longer he has been in office.
Trump has become more obstinate and less willing to listen to advice the longer he has been in office.
The generals, for their part, learned that they could not simply proceed with business as usual. Trump dispelled that hope by surprising the Pentagon leadership with out-of-the-blue orders to stop military exercises with South Korea and to kick out transgender troops; the latter decision, Snodgrass writes, “created chaos in the Pentagon.” Mattis tried to humor Trump as much as he could but block him as much as possible. Snodgrass recalls Mattis saying that he’d “rather swallow acid” than hold Trump’s military parade in Washington and notes that Mattis alone among the cabinet refused to praise Trump on command. But even Mattis made compromises, such as sending the National Guard to the border in a pointless deployment designed to score political points for Trump. And although Mattis’s decision to avoid criticizing the serving president makes sense from his perspective as a retired general, he should realize that he was serving in a civilian capacity and that he owes the American people a full explanation before the 2020 election of whether Trump is fit to be president, based on his personal experience. Precisely because Mattis is such a well-known and well-respected figure, his judgment would carry weight, especially with Republican voters. His successor, Mark Esper, lacks Mattis’s public standing (and obvious allies at the top echelon of the government) and thus is more readily susceptible to political influence.
Trump has now surrounded himself with partisans, such as Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state, and Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser, who see themselves as the president’s enablers, not his restrainers. (O’Brien reportedly distributes printouts of Trump’s tweets to his staff to guide their decision-making and priorities.) The agencies they oversee have suffered lasting damage: at the National Security Council, O’Brien has cut staffing by a third, and at the State Department, morale plummeted after Pompeo refused to defend diplomats such as William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch against the criticism of the president and his political allies.
By contrast, the Department of Defense, because it is so much larger than any other government agency and so suffused with the military ethos, is more resistant to outside influence. But it is hardly immune. Witness, for example, Trump’s decision in February to fire John Rood, an undersecretary of defense who had clashed with the president by pushing to release aid to Ukraine and by opposing the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Trump’s attempts to bend the Defense Department to his will, employ it for political purposes, and purge it of all dissenting viewpoints will only accelerate if he wins another term. The generals who were hailed as the “axis of adults” are long gone, and their successors, military and civilian alike, have gotten the message about what happens to any official who dares to stand up to a mercurial and wrathful chief executive. The longer Trump stays in office, the harder it will be to safeguard the apolitical traditions of service to the nation, dedication to the rule of law, and loyalty to the Constitution, which are the hallmarks of the American armed forces.
If Trump loses in November, the process of repairing the damage can begin, but the past three years have shown how easily a power-hungry president can ride roughshod over norms in ways that harm the country’s institutions. Trump is surely not the last populist demagogue to win office. Going forward, Congress must impose greater limits on the president’s authority to prevent abuses such as political interference at the Department of Justice and troop deployments for political purposes. Congress is already taking action to limit the president’s war-making authority—for example, by repealing authorizations for the use of military force—although such legislation will not be enacted as long as Trump is in the White House and Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, is in control of the Senate. But limits on the president’s authority will always be hardest to enforce in the realm of national security, where there is good reason to give the commander in chief considerable discretion to defend the nation. Ultimately, the greatest safeguard against the misuse of the military is to inculcate a strong devotion to the rule of law among the officer corps so that future military leaders will fight back against illegal or unethical commands—as Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster have recently done in many (but not all) instances.