The generals who serve Trump, why they do it, and at what cost

An interesting question was posed in the Washington Post today… “Is it still possible to honorably serve in the Trump administration?

The article was inspired in large part by a recent profile of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in the New Yorker, which included the following passage.

…When Mattis asked Michèle Flournoy, the former Undersecretary of Defense under Obama, to consider becoming his deputy, she was torn between her admiration for Mattis and her discomfort with the Trump Administration. “I lost a lot of sleep and felt sick to my stomach,” she told me. At Trump Tower, she was interviewed by a group of aides with no national-security experience. Among their first questions was “What would it take for you to resign?” Flournoy, alarmed, told Mattis that she couldn’t take the job.

Three months into the new Administration, the Pentagon is being run by a skeleton crew; career officers and civil servants are doing jobs that are supposed to be performed by political appointees. “It’s like going to work on a Sunday — there’s no one there,” the former defense official told me. “If my printer doesn’t work on Sunday, I’m screwed. That’s what the Pentagon’s like every day.”

Leon Panetta said that in normal times the Pentagon could probably carry on without a full complement of senior leaders — but, if there was a prolonged international incident, it would come under severe strain. “I’m worried about a crisis,” he said. “Whenever I had a crisis, I would gather my senior people together. If you recommend military action, you’ve got to think, What forces, what targets, what consequences? That requires a lot of thinking and a lot of smart people. Mattis is basically by himself”…

It’s a complicated question that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately… whether or not, if asked, I could bring myself to serve this administration. Thankfully, it’s a question that I’ll never have to answer in the real world. Many, like Mattis, however, are being put in that unenviable position, and, while part of me wonders why in the hell they’d concede to do such a thing, I respect them for it. As the author of the piece in the Washington Post concludes, we need people like Mattis in the administration to ensure that Trump’s “bad rhetoric” doesn’t find itself translated into “bad actions.” And, for this reason, the author and I agree, we should hope that more competent people come forward to sacrifice themselves for the good of the country.

Which brings me to yesterday’s Fresh Air segment with author and former Pentagon corresponded Tom Ricks on the generals serving under Trump, which goes into some depth about the generals serving under Trump, why they’re doing it, and the clear toll it’s taking on them. Here’s the audio, which I’d encourage you to listen to in it entirety, followed by a clip I thought you might find of interest.

GROSS: So we have several generals now in major positions of power in the Trump administration. The first general we had was Michael Flynn. He was forced out. But now there’s James Mattis, who’s secretary of defense’ H.R. McMaster, national security adviser who replaced General Flynn; and General John Kelly, who’s the head of homeland security.

One way of looking at this is to say this is pretty worrisome because – you know that old adage about if you go to see a surgeon, he’s going to recommend surgery because that’s what surgeons do? And it’s easy to think, if you have generals in charge of major portions of the government, they’re going to take us to war because that’s what generals do. They fight wars. You know these guys. So do you think that’s a logical conclusion to jump to?

RICKS: I do know these guys. And as you listed them, what struck me as I envisioned each is what a diverse group they are. General Flynn, I think, rose to levels above his level of competence, is a very naive man, not well-informed about the world despite being an intelligence officer. And I wasn’t surprised to see him flame out very quickly.

General Mattis is almost the opposite of General Flynn. Mattis, who’s now the secretary of defense, is one of the more thoughtful people I’ve ever met in uniform or out. And he is an example that goes against your surgeon’s analogy. Mattis has publicly advocated in the past for a bigger budget for the State Department. In fact, he said to Congress once, look, you can either increase the State Department’s budget, or you can buy more bullets for me because if you don’t increase your diplomacy, we’re going to have more fighting. I would rather have more diplomacy. Mattis is a very thoughtful man, and I think he’s handled the job very well.

McMaster is from a generation after Mattis. McMaster was a captain in the 1991 Gulf War and actually led a cavalry troop in one of the key battles in the ’91 war, which was very short but did have some battles, called the Battle of 73 Easting in which his unit attacked a much larger group of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles and trucks and utterly destroyed it in about 20 minutes of fighting. McMaster, again, years later, was a colonel in Iraq and did an extraordinarily good job in departing from this very clumsy, stalemated operation that the American military generally was enforcing and operating on in Iraq and instead took a new counterinsurgency approach that proved very successful and became the model for what General Petraeus tried to do a year later.

It’s been sad for me to watch McMaster in recent weeks because he’s a thoughtful man as well – more emotional, more big and physical than Mattis but an intellectual himself. He wrote a very good book, called “Dereliction Of Duty,” about the Vietnam War and the failures of American generals to tell the truth to American politicians, especially President Lyndon Johnson. And so it’s almost Shakespearean to see McMaster in the White House as the national security adviser faced with the same situation, in many ways, that the Vietnam generals had. And when it’s his job to get up and speak truth to power, instead he appears, in recent days, to have stood up and shielded the president from the truth and dissembled about the truth rather than insisting on the truth. And I think that…

GROSS: Specifically, what are you referring to?

RICKS: I’m referring to after The Washington Post ran a story about a week ago saying that President Trump had blown an intelligence source in front of the Russians by talking about very secret intelligence on ISIS and about a very new thin bomb they had developed that could be put inside a laptop. And he had talked about the actual city where this information came from. McMaster got up and called the story false. And then the following day…

GROSS: He called the story that Trump had said this is false?

RICKS: Yeah. And then the next day, he got up, and he kind of quibbled on that a little bit. He said, well, he actually confirmed the facts of the story, but then said the premise of the story was false. I’d gone through the same situation with McMaster where I’d written a story about McMaster in Iraq in 2006 that put his unit in a very good light and him in a very good light about the work they had done in taking a new approach in fighting the war.

But there was one paragraph in it he disliked. He didn’t dispute the truth of it. He just disliked it, and so he called me and yelled at me for two days over the phone in Iraq to complain about it. And I heard that exact same tone when he got up at the White House and called the story false. He actually never said what he thought the wrong facts were, but he basically was saying I don’t like that story.

GROSS: Well, you wrote a column about this, and what he didn’t like about the article you wrote is that you criticized his unit for what it did before he took it over. So you weren’t criticizing him at all, but I – sounded to me like he didn’t like the idea of you criticizing, you know, the military. He didn’t want to break rank with that.

RICKS: That’s exactly right. He specifically wanted to defend his unit, his regiment and protect the morale of troops who he thought might be demoralized by seeing the previous tour of duty that they had criticized. I…

GROSS: And you think that’s what he’s doing now is trying to kind of protect the president or protect the morale of the administration.

RICKS: Yes. And I think he failed to see that his job is not to protect the president. It’s to protect the nation. And what I fear General McMaster has done in recent weeks by coming out and seeking to protect the president is not his job. He shouldn’t protect the president. He should protect the nation. And I fear that through his recent actions, he has enabled President Trump to continue to operate in this very reckless, ignorant way. Now, I think what McMaster thinks he’s doing is the best he can do in that situation. What I fear he doesn’t see is he’s enabling it to become worse.

GROSS: So you’ve written that you don’t think that McMaster will dutifully defend President Trump for long. Why do you think that?

RICKS: It’s a crushing burden to be in political power in Washington these days, and you see people almost lose their souls. I think Sean Spicer, the president’s spokesman in recent weeks has been pushed almost to the edge of a nervous breakdown from his public appearance. And he’s kind of lost a big part of his soul, and I think that’s true of some other people. And H.R. McMaster is a man of great soul, of great feeling. I remember talking to him in Iraq, and his voice would grow thick. And when he was kind of angry a little bit, he’d rolled his shoulders as he talked to you, almost as if to loosen up those back muscles.

And watching H.R. McMaster, an officer I do admire, over the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve seen him come out and give up a slice of his soul a few times. And I wonder how many more times he can do that before he just says I am becoming part of the problem, not part of the solution here…

Again, I’d encourage you to listen to the entire interview, as it’s absolutely fascinating. Ricks not only talks at length about these generals serving under Trump, but he also does a nice job of tying in Churchill and Orwell, who are the subjects of his new book, The Fight For Freedom… a book which, by the way, ends with the following, very timely passage: “The fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it, and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter.”

When Gross asks Ricks to elaborate on this quote, he says the following. “That’s my conclusion – that this is the essence of Western society, and, at its best, how Western society operates,” Ricks says. “You can really reduce it to a formula. First of all, you need to have principles. You need to stand by those principles and remember them. Second, you need to look at reality, to observe facts, and not just have opinions, and to say, what are the facts of the matter? Third, you need to act upon those facts according to your principles.” That’s Western civilization in a nutshell, and that’s what’s we’re now watching disappear right before our very eyes.

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  1. Jean Henry
    Posted May 25, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    The Ricks interview is great. Ricks is great and worth reading always. I’m glad McMaster and Mattis are where they are, as they represent some check on Trump’s power to create global war and more mass destruction than is already taking place. I can see why, in their position, and with their military training, they would try to deal with what Trump asks of them as diplomatically as possible. I’m grateful McMaster is traveling with him abroad, if only to do some behind the scenes damage control. I understand these men will become war mongers and many who read here can only respond to talk of generals by speaking of American Imperialism and who they are for peace, against war. That’s cool. I am grateful that these men were willing to sacrifice their integrity to remain in place. Maybe, someday soon, like Comey, we’ll all be grateful for them as they help bring the bastard down.

    “If the man of power were to take a message of absolute honesty and absolute love seriously he would lose his power, or would divest himself of it.” — Reinhold Niebuhr (not the twitter account)

  2. Jean Henry
    Posted May 25, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    *”be called” not “become”

  3. anonymous
    Posted May 31, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    McMaster gave up another piece of his soul when he signed his name to the op-ed about Trump’s successful international trip.

  4. Meta
    Posted June 5, 2017 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Washington Post: “The people who are supposed to be constraining Trump clearly aren’t”

    Top advisers serve up the appearance of sanity without prompting him to act more sanely. In other words, they are enabling him.

    As I said before, literally to prevent nuclear war, Mattis should remain, but the other two in his national-security triumvirate have failed to constrain and guide the president when it mattered. Their leaving would be more beneficial than their staying at this point.

    Read more:

  5. Meta
    Posted June 6, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    There’s also this.

    New Republic: “Dear Trump Appointees: Quit Your Jobs or Lose Your Souls”

    Nearly all of these officials have cause to resign. The most senior members of Trump’s foreign policy team have long been at pains to reaffirm the importance of NATO, hoping to undo the damage Trump’s victory did after he campaigned hand in glove with Russia, against the Western alliance. Under their influence, Trump briefly softened his rhetorical assault on NATO. But in Europe two weeks ago, he upbraided U.S. allies in public and—to the surprise of national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—unilaterally stripped from his prepared remarks a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to the joint defense of all NATO signatories.

    Trump has undermined career staff and senior leadership at the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, by constantly compromising the legal work they do on behalf of his initiatives.

    Trump endangers the country with ad hoc policy and then makes liars and collaborators of the people who agreed to work for them. The Rosensteins and Mattises of the administration should be asking themselves whether they could do more good by resigning and blowing the whistle than they can by filling positions Trump can’t easily clog with loyalists.</i

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