Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

These generals are following orders — even as they lead America off a cliff

From left: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, President Trump, and Chief of Staff John Kelly during a briefing with senior military leaders in the White House on Oct. 5.
Andrew Harrer/POOL/EPA/Shutterstock
From left: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, President Trump, and Chief of Staff John Kelly during a briefing with senior military leaders in the White House on Oct. 5.

“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.”

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders spoke these words about White House Chief of Staff John Kelly last week, it represented a stunning and troubling turn in the nation’s civilian-military relations. Here was a White House spokesperson indignantly suggesting that a retired member of the American armed forces is above reproach. Sanders’ words were even more disturbing because they came on the heels of Kelly telling reporters the day before that he only wanted to answer questions from someone who was a Gold Star family member or knew one.

Both moments seemed to highlight the already evident hazards of a White House dominated by military officers and a president who fetishizes members of the armed forces. Ironically, however, the greater danger may come from a different direction — a refusal of members of the military placed in positions of great political power to question the commander-in-chief.

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Kelly’s unprecedented attack on Rep. Frederica Wilson last week was for many the final confirmation that Kelly is ideologically simpatico with Trump. After all, even before coming to the White House, Kelly was, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, one of Trump’s more loyal lieutenants — assiduously and cold-heartedly implementing Trump’s immigration crackdown.

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But there is perhaps another more troubling explanation for Kelly’s allegiance to Trump’s political and personal agenda: he’s simply being a loyal soldier who can’t subsume his military-bred inclination to salute and follow the orders of his commander-in-chief, even if he finds them deplorable.

Kelly is hardly alone. Back in January, retired four-star general and now Secretary of Defense James Mattis stood next to Trump as he signed an executive order banning Muslim immigration to the United States even though Mattis had once decried precisely the same anti-Muslim policies. Since coming to the National Security Council earlier this year, three-star general H.R. McMaster has seemingly forgotten all the lessons he wrote about in his famous book on the Vietnam War, “Dereliction of Duty,” about the need for military officials to speak truth to civilian leaders. Instead, McMaster has become a water carrier — and political operative — of the Trump White House.

Part of the problem here is that the culture of military service and the can-do, mission-oriented attitude of the US military have given Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis little preparation for dealing with a president as inept and as unqualified as Trump. “These men share an overriding conception of duty,” said Phillip Carter, senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security, “and an idea of how military officers should render their advice: they should do so behind closed doors, but if overruled, they salute and follow lawful orders. These guys are company men. They don’t reach high ranks by pushing back or publicly dissenting.”

For those who’ve spent their entire career fetishizing the chain of command (and rightly so), their overriding impulse is to see the mission through and serve their principal, even if that means taking positions they don’t necessarily share — or even consider dangerous — but that reflect the attitudes of their boss. Saying no to the commander-in-chief, based on personal disagreement, goes against decades of military training and culture.

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The challenge for someone like McMaster is even more pronounced as he is still an active duty officer.

Ironically, by viewing their responsibilities to Trump in duty-bound terms, Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis risk undermining the institution to which they’ve pledged their careers. For example, whatever Kelly’s true motivation for slandering a sitting congresswoman, the result is that many Americans will now view him as a political actor, inculcated in the worldview of Trump. That only further adds to the ongoing politicization of an officer corps that has long celebrated its apolitical nature. To be sure, Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis are not the root of this problem, but they are making the problem that much worse by openly becoming political actors.

For all the loose talk of how placing generals in positions of political power could produce a military coup, the opposite may be occurring. By enabling an incompetent and increasingly unstable president — and lending their military standing to policies and political attacks — they risk delegitimizing the military and turning it into just another political and partisan actor. Once billed as the so-called “adults in the room” who would hold in check Trump’s worst impulses, Kelly, McMaster, and Mattis have increasingly become part of the problem.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.