Shortly after the 2016 elections, I wrote a short piece in which I said that, of all the consequences of the election of Donald Trump, his assumption of the role commander in chief of the armed forces had the potential to be the most disastrous. I also outlined the measures that might be taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to ameliorate the damage that might be done by an unstable, unqualified, and amoral commander in chief.
Some of Trump’s statements during and after the campaign raised concerns that this ex-military school cadet might, like a maddened ex-corporal, find the temptations of military force too great to resist. Some of my fears about the future under Trump came true but, fortunately, the direst did not. Most of his tough, saber-rattling talk proved to be just that, tough talk.
After the dust had settled in the Capital building yesterday, the electoral votes were counted amid wrecked furniture and refuse, and Trump threw in the towel, I breathed the sigh of relief that I’d been holding for a long time. The American armed forces, an institution of which I was proud to be a member, and that I can even say I have loved, seemed to have emerged from this bad administration with its honor perhaps battered but intact. What’s the report card? The military was put in the position of complying with some very bad decisions. We deserted some allies in the field and broke ranks with others, sometimes it seemed preferring the company of dictatorships over democracies. Trump overturned the verdicts of courts martial and short-circuited others with scant justification, but again likely based on his own insecure need to play the tough guy. Luckily with limited success, he made efforts to press the military into a domestic role when groups he didn’t care for organized and marched. None of this was the military’s fault, exactly, but the honor of a military organization is partly in the hands of its commander. Even a decent article of good soldier can be turned into a thug if she is employed as one. The low point may have come when CJCS Gen. Miley walked down the street with Trump in what was obviously a political event. But Miley quickly recanted of this, and his statements on the Constitution, backed up by those of the members of the Joint Chiefs, have helped to hold at bay any fears or possibility that the armed forces would help Trump to stay in power or to punish his opposition.
How much demoralization of the armed forces has taken place under Trump it is difficult to say. Another characteristic of the Trump administration that may have had a trickle-down effect is his insistence on personal loyalty, on the individual over principles, or even law. His divisive views on race and gender have certainly robbed us of the service of valuable persons, and given comfort to attitudes and acts of intolerance, with an inevitable effect on comradeship and cohesion.
On a national level, Donald Trump has succeeded in radicalizing a large segment of the population. Some of these people are now serving in the military. The events in Washington on 6 January are a reminder of the lengths to which some radical extremists are willing to go. What ought the military to do about them? Surely, if any among the mob that stormed the Capitol were military members, they should be tried under the UCMJ. A host of charges might apply, not least one of conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline. The armed forces must be sure in its collective mind that the oath to the Constitutional oath is not negotiable. Those who hold views in favor of non-Constitutional or anti-Constitutional governance measures like mob rule, violence and threats of violence, subverting or undermining the voting or legislative process, these people cannot truthfully swear an oath to the Constitution, and without that oath they cannot serve. Those with truly radical, anti-government views should be purged from the ranks. This is neither vindictiveness nor foppery. History records the downfall of armies undone and nations brought low when numbers of soldiers and officers came to embrace an extreme ideology than ran counter to mission and combat effectiveness. The recent debacle at the Capitol has yet to give up its secrets, but for now it can stand as an example of what a failure of discipline and defense can look like, as if the Praetorian Guard invited the barbarians into Rome’s innermost sanctum.
The military must realize that the relief from command of Donald Trump is probably just the end of the beginning of a moral and political fight that will be with us for a long time, but in just a few days we will have what we have lacked for four years: a Commander in Chief who is a decent, capable person and patriot. He will need many things to govern effectively, but one of them is a highly principled and effective military force, and this force all members of the armed forces, with the support of the other citizenry, must pledge to provide.