Trump is, to be sure, not the first president to enter office with little knowledge of the armed forces. The same could be said of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The difference is that they were diligent students who listened to their briefers, asked probing questions and vastly increased their knowledge as their presidencies progressed. Trump, by contrast, is invincibly ignorant because he prefers to get his military advice from Fox News blowhards rather than from the eminently qualified professionals who report to him.
Trump loves to use the military as a backdrop for photo ops, as he did last week in Afghanistan. He loves to revel in military accomplishments — as he did following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, even fantasizing about the Islamic State leader “whimpering and crying” in his final moments. He loves military parades — probably a carryover from his days as a high school student at the New York Military Academy. And he loves to posture as the defender of the troops. “I will always protect our great warfighters,” he tweets. “I’ve got your backs!”
Trump is so uneducated in all matters military that he does not even realize that he is insulting millions of troops who have served honorably and ethically when he pardons service members who have been accused of war crimes. Or when he tweets: “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”
Real-life American soldiers — as opposed to the cartoonish renditions that Trump may have seen in the Rambo movies or “American Sniper” — don’t see themselves as “killing machines.” They see themselves as skilled and ethical professionals dedicated to fighting in accordance with the laws of war. Elliot Ackerman, a former Marine who earned a Silver Star in Iraq, represented the thinking of many veterans when he wrote: “We’ve discovered a new way to defile the uniform. Today, we allow murderers to wear it while being lauded as heroes.”
This is only, of course, the latest in a long litany of insults Trump has delivered against the military he claims to love. He suggested that troops in Iraq stole the money they were supposed to be handing out: “I want to know who were the soldiers that had that job, because I think they’re living very well right now, whoever they may be.” He said John McCain wasn’t a “war hero” because he was a POW (“I like people who weren’t captured”), thereby denigrating the superhuman heroism displayed by McCain and other inmates of the Hanoi Hilton. (One wonders whether Trump thinks the prisoners were living in an actual hotel rather than a dank dungeon.)
He belittled the Gold Star parents of a Muslim soldier who died in Iraq. He compared the supposed “sacrifices” he had made in creating “thousands and thousands of jobs” to the actual sacrifices made by soldiers who go to war. (Donald Trump Jr. has written in a similarly callous manner that visiting Arlington National Cemetery made him think “about all the sacrifices we’d have to make to help my father succeed.”) Having avoided the draft through a dodgy claim of “bone spurs,” Donald Trump has deprecated the service of those who went to Vietnam in his place, calling it a “terrible war” and saying, “Nobody had ever heard of [Vietnam]. What are we doing? So many people are dying. What is happening over there?” He also once called avoiding sexually transmitted diseases “my personal Vietnam” and said it made him “feel like a great and very brave soldier.”
But while Trump radiates ignorance of, and contempt for, those in uniform, he is so conceited that he thinks he “would have been a good general,” and that he knows “more about ISIS than the generals do.” On another occasion, he boasted, “I know more about offense and defense than they [the generals] will ever understand, believe me. Believe me.”
I don’t believe him. But I do believe Steve Nolan, a retired Air Force major, who wrote in a letter to the editor of The Post that “we have, for the first time in U.S. history, someone in charge of the military who would be unfit to hold the lowest rank within the military.” As Nolan suggested, if Trump had been in uniform, he would have been discharged long ago for showing contempt for the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for undermining the chain of command and for making bigoted remarks (such as praising the white supremacists in Charlottesville). Because he is the commander in chief, however, Trump can continue damaging the armed forces as long as Congress, and the electorate, allow him to remain in office. He is the most anti-military president in modern history — and he doesn’t even know it.