- President Donald Trump loves military parades and quoting from the film “Patton,” but when it comes to actually treating military personnel and their families with respect, he’s got a mixed record.
- He’s insulted war heroes and their parents, lambasted generals as “dopes and babies,” and blithely dismissed the symptoms of soldiers with traumatic brain injuries.
- Trump also pardoned a convicted war criminal against the objections of the men and women he served with, who described him as “freaking evil.”
- The latest example of Trump forcing West Point cadets to come back so he could give a commencement address, despite the ongoing pandemic.
- Throughout his decades in public life, Trump has epitomized the idea of hollow, performative patriotism.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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President Donald Trump isn’t the first president to use the military as a prop, but it’s become clear that he’s the most brazenly cynical in doing so.
The latest example of Trump exploiting the military for his political benefit came on Saturday, when over 1,000 cadets were called back to the US Military Academy at West Point so that the president could deliver a commencement address.
Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, these cadets were called back to take part in a modified ceremony, including Trump’s overlong, self-promoting, and at times political speech.
The decision to force students back during a pandemic just to give a speech follows a similar pattern from Trump, follwoing his State of the Union earlier this year.
During that speech, Trump addressed Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Hake’s widow, Kelli, relaying heartbreaking words from a letter Hake wrote to his then 1-year-old son, Gage, while on deployment to Iraq in 2008.
Hake never made it home. He was killed by a roadside bomb.
Trump told Kelli and Gage: “Chris will live in our hearts forever. He is looking down on you now. Thank you.” That received thunderous applause from the chamber of a joint session of Congress.
The president then described giving the order to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who Trump said was responsible for the bomb that took Hake’s life.
Minutes later, Trump used another military family as a prop, this time pulling an Oprah-style stunt where he surprised Sgt. 1st Class Townsend Williams’ wife and children with the news that he was not only back from a deployment to Afghanistan — he was in the building and ready for an on-camera reunion.
Williams was one of the 14,000 US troops deployed to Afghanistan on Trump’s orders as the administration has struggled to find a negotiated exit amid an upsurge of violence.
To recap: Trump used a Gold Star family as a prop to boast about an assassination that he ordered, then followed it up by using another family in a made-for-TV stunt to extol the sacrifices made by “extraordinary military families.”
Nationally televised tributes to military families are lovely gestures, but by using what should have been a humble show of respect to a widow and her child to justify a military action he ordered, Trump explicitly politicized a soldier’s death.
Trump’s love for the military is fickle
Trump loves to bask in the reflected glory of veterans, but his tune changes as soon as military personnel don’t conveniently fit with his narrative.
Throughout his decades in public life, Trump has epitomized the idea of hollow, performative patriotism.
He’s had a lifelong love affair with military pageantry. Despite receiving five deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, Trump said he felt as if he truly was in the military because he attended an upstate New York military prep school. He’s repeatedly touted the idea of military parades. As an adult, he was known to swoon in the presence of high-ranking generals. He’s fond of quoting lines from the film “Patton.”
But then Trump ran for president and his view of the institution changed, especially when it clashed with his ideas.
On the campaign trail, then candidate Trump infamously refuted pollster Frank Luntz in 2015 for calling Sen. John McCain a “war hero.”
“He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
This was just the first time it became clear that Trump likes war heroes, unless they disagree with him.
In 2016 Trump lashed out at the parents of Army Capt. Humayun Khan — a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan who was killed in Iraq in 2004 — after Khan’s father, speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, gave a stirring denunciation of Trump’s call to bar immigrants from majority-Muslim countries.
Khan’s mother, who did not speak while standing onstage at the DNC, was “devoid of feeling the pain of a mother who has sacrificed her son,” Trump said.
And as reported in Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s new book, “A Very Stable Genius,” Trump in 2017 threw a fit at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs and other senior advisers, including then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis (a retired four-star Marine general), calling them “a bunch of dopes and babies” and declaring he “wouldn’t go to war with you people.”
What had they done to so offend Trump, who would normally fawn over such decorated veterans?
They were explaining things like the importance of the post-World War II international order as a security benefit for the US, and that it wasn’t the military’s job to act as the president’s collection agent to shake down NATO allies who the real-estate mogul Trump believed weren’t paying their “rent.”
Trump’s disrespect of the military is more than just words
As commander-in-chief, Trump sent as many as 6,000 troops to the US-Mexico border, where he hoped he could use the military to detain illegal immigration. (It can’t: That’s forbidden by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which prohibits the military from enforcing the law unless authorized by Congress or the Constitution.) But some of the troops who were deployed domestically were ordered to serve their country by painting portions of Trump’s border wall.
More recently, he restored the rank of Eddie Gallagher, a convicted war criminal whose fellow Navy SEALs described as “freaking evil,” “toxic,” and “perfectly OK with killing anybody that was moving.” Trump invited him to his Mar-a-Lago resort for a personal meeting, which Gallagher has used as a springboard for TV appearances and apparel sales.
Against the objections of top Pentagon officials, Trump issued full pardons to two Army officers convicted of murder.
After the killing of Soleimani last month and Iran’s retaliatory strike on an Iraqi base housing US military personnel, Trump said there were no US casualties. Two weeks later, the Defense Department said 34 troops had been diagnosed with concussions or brain trauma. Trump, normally one to luxuriate in the gory details of battle, downplayed their symptoms as “headaches” and “not very serious.”
So while Trump attempts to use the military to polish his political credentials, he does so only when it suits him. When it doesn’t, the president insults the dead, brushes off the wounded, uses the living as political pawns, and venerates the war criminal. It’s a perverse way of showing respect for the military.