As far as incursions into combat go, President Trump’s brief trip to Iraq last week is not likely to make any future leadership manuals. “What we had to go through, with the darkened plane, with all windows closed,” he said of his descent in a dimmed Air Force One to an airstrip at Al Asad Air Base. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
That’s actually pretty vanilla as these things go, a far cry from corkscrewing into Baghdad International to evade surface-to-air missiles, let alone crossing the Alps on a war elephant. But, after two years as commander in chief and a steady stream of complaints for not having done so, Mr. Trump did visit American troops stationed in a war zone.
It didn’t take long for many of the same people who criticized him for never making that presidential pilgrimage to express disdain for how he did it. His Iraq trip came in the wake of his announcement of a troop withdrawal from Syria, and coincided with a report in The New York Times on how his deferment for bone spurs during the Vietnam War might have come about. Cable news packed itself full with retired generals, foreign policy experts and seasoned journalists who’ve been to the proving grounds of war and found the president in contempt.
The visit was likened to a campaign rally. “Cadet Bone Spurs” trended on Twitter. Thinkers ranging from Noam Chomsky to Bill Kristol made cases for remaining in Syria in some capacity. Even on Fox News, the morning host Brian Kilmeade said, “Nobody thinks ISIS is defeated,” pushing back against Mr. Trump’s initial argument for withdrawal from Syria.
It’s true that the president brought a lot of this criticism upon himself. But there’s also something perverse about the fierce blowback he received. I’ve found myself wondering if he’s facing this tempest for another reason — because he dared suggest scaling back the reach of the American military-industrial complex.
Mr. Trump has a strange relationship with the military. He loves the parades, the star-spangled pomp and surrounding himself with generals’ stars. Until the generals speak, at least. For a prime example of this, see the letter of resignation from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis — and the way it sped up his departure.
The Iraq trip was a prime example of the superficiality of how this president sees the military. The seemingly staged images of Mr. Trump with kitted-up special operators in the Asad chow hall are both exploitative and goofy. And it seemed a bit convenient that so many “Make America Great Again” red hats happened to be at an air base in the middle of desolate Anbar Province.
Mr. Trump tends to recoil from the messy particulars, like understanding Purple Hearts aren’t something to congratulate soldiers for, or reading through complex foreign policy briefings. He channels a vague sense of gratitude for service members — one that neatly mirrors the vague gratitude of many Americans.
This president embodies our republic’s earnest yet shallow understanding of military service, all the while acting as a reminder of the limited mass appeal of service itself. Less than one percent of Americans wear the uniform these days. Bone spurs? In 2018, who actually cares, beyond those who had to go to Vietnam in the stead of kids like Donald Trump?
Our country has had ample opportunity to elect a Vietnam veteran as president. It has chosen not to, time and time again. It’s not a coincidence our three boomer presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Mr. Trump) all managed to avoid service in Vietnam. Nor is it coincidence that veterans like John McCain and John Kerry had their service records used against them on the presidential campaign trail. Even Al Gore, who spent a few months in Vietnam as an Army newspaper reporter, got closer to battle than the man who defeated him, Mr. Bush, who spent his service time stateside on Air National Guard bases.
In so many ways, Mr. Trump is not a cause of diminishing respect for the military, but a symptom of it. So it is with 21st-century America and war. “Thank you for your service,” but spare the details, please.
Last month, I attended a retirement ceremony at Fort Knox, Ky., for the platoon sergeant I served with in Iraq. A photograph of Mr. Trump glowering greets people at the visitors’ center there, next to the stern, cool-eyed image of (the soon departing) Secretary Mattis.
We celebrated that evening with my friend’s family over dinner and drinks, and talk gradually turned to the world. I asked my friend what changes he’d noticed over his 20-plus years of military service — how different presidents have shaped his career, his multiple combat deployments.
“It’s been the same for us for a long time,” he said. “Republicans in charge, Democrats in charge — hasn’t really mattered much, to be honest.”
A few years ago, the author and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes told me in an interview, “We’re not behaving like a republic,” and his words return to me a lot when I read war news. Something is broken in our system if the machineries of war endure all strategies and policy changes, if only for the sake of enduring. There are legitimate reasons, both related to national security and humanitarian interests, to remain in Syria, as one example — our Kurdish allies pre-eminent among them.
But when questions like “How long?” and “How many?” and “What’s the objective?” get swallowed up by a defense industry that essentially answers with, “We’ll handle it,” it’s no wonder that the American citizenry doesn’t engage with its military much beyond surprise homecomings at football games.
It’s also no wonder that nearly half of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has “mostly failed,” according to a recent Pew poll, despite Secretary Mattis and others continually making the case that staying there will help prevent another Sept. 11. It’s no wonder the American citizenry elected a president with an isolationist bent who reflexively distrusts elites and experts. And in Mr. Trump’s defense — not a line I thought I’d ever write — it’s many of those same elites and experts who got us mired in a war that now costs us $45 billion a year to begin with.
Should we remain in Afghanistan? Should we stay in Syria and Iraq? Both as a combat veteran and a citizen who tries to stay informed of his nation’s foreign policy, I can honestly answer only: I don’t know. I’m not privy to top-secret briefings, nor do I earn a living by making grand predictions on matters of war and peace.
I do know this, though: The way forward should involve more transparency, not less. Then citizens will be better able to hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions they have our military leaders execute. As it stands now, Americans seem to care so little or are so convinced of the necessity of permanent war that our military is still fighting overseas based on congressional authorization from 2001. That’s not good enough, not even close.
The American public has been conditioned to believe that foreign war is necessary, even vital, to maintaining our way of life. Forcing those in power to explain why — beyond easy, histrionic references to Sept. 11 — would go a long way toward moving beyond this forever war. In the meantime, our commander in chief continues to be both baffled by and obsessed with our men and women in uniform. It’s crass. It’s clownish. It’s unbecoming. In 2018, it’s also unquestionably American.
Matt Gallagher is an Army veteran of the Iraq war and author of the novel “Youngblood.”