There, in Section 60, a field where U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq now rest, Trump turned to the father of the fallen 29-year-old Marine and said: “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
That Trump even asks the question is precisely what is missing in his character. The answer, of course, is they served a cause greater than themselves — a concept this president cannot fathom. The law, truth, honor, faith, patriotism, charity, self-sacrifice: Is there any cause he has not subordinated to personal gain?
I went to Section 60 at Arlington on Friday morning, 19 years to the hour after terrorist-flown planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I’ve visited many times over those years, first for the funerals of the war dead and more recently to thank and remember again those who gave the last full measure of devotion.
Arlington Cemetery was almost empty on this muggy, mid-pandemic morning. A few “happy birthday” balloons, unmoored from a gravestone, rested in a mud puddle in Section 60, where there was only one other person, a white-haired woman who sat in the wet grass at her son’s grave.
She poured a shot of Crown Royal whisky, spilled it into the earth and stuck a miniature U.S. flag at the base of his headstone. She repeated the ritual at other graves, taking photos to send to other Gold Star parents. At 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane struck in 2001, she rose and saluted the rows of headstones.
She told me about picking her son up at high school on that day in 2001 and telling him: “Our country is under attack.” He enlisted in the Marines two years later and became an expert marksman and staff sergeant before he died in Afghanistan at age 25. She pulled a laminated photo of him in uniform with Afghan children, all smiles, taken two weeks before his death in 2011.
I asked her the question that so puzzles Trump: Why did he serve? The mom (she asked that I not use her name in an article about the “noise” of politics) looked at me as though I were slow.
“He loved this country,” she said. She told me through tears that he confided to her a premonition that he wouldn’t return from his fourth and final deployment: “He knew he was going to die, but he wanted to go anyway. He was very much a patriot.”
Patriotism and pride in the Marines: That’s what was “in it for him.”
Trump, according to the Atlantic piece, described fallen soldiers as “losers” and “suckers” and recoiled at the idea of seeing wounded veterans in a military parade.
Trump suspects Kelly was behind the article and has derided him as “unable to function,” and with “no temperament.” He also publicly attacked the military leadership as people who “want to do nothing but fight wars” to keep defense contractors in business. Bob Woodward’s new book has Trump saying to his trade adviser that “my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies.”
There have been many accounts of Trump’s disparagement of “loser” John McCain, his quarrels with Gold Star families, his reluctance to attend memorials or send condolences, his claim that he knows more than his generals, his belief that attending a military-themed high school gave him “more training militarily than a lot of the guys that go into the military,” his draft deferments for study and a bone spur, his boast that avoiding STDs was his “personal Vietnam,” his description of Pentagon leaders as “dopes” and “babies” and so on.
On Friday, Trump delivered a 9/11 anniversary speech in Shanksville, Pa., that contained very different words. He celebrated the “military heroes” who “laid down their lives,” vowed to “strive every single day to repay our immeasurable debt,” and resolved “to stand united as one American nation.”
If only he had governed that way. If only he hadn’t, at a political rally a mere 12 hours earlier, decried “these ridiculous, endless wars” in “ridiculous locations” and said “we’re fighting for sand and blood.”
Whatever one thinks of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dead in Section 60, and everywhere else they rest, didn’t die for “sand” in “ridiculous” wars. They served because they loved their country more than they cared about “what’s in it for them.”
Is it too much to ask that the president do the same?