Dear Generals and Admirals of the U.S. Armed Forces:
I have an important question for you, one I believe is shared by millions of other Americans and one that I suspect many of you have asked yourselves and perhaps even discussed with one another.
You find yourselves in a position not uncommon in history, but unique in the history of the United States. Your Commander in Chief, head of the civilian government, is an erratic, impulsive, angry man who has no grounding in any reality outside of his immediate need for instant gratification and praise. He is a laughing-stock to the other leaders of the world and an abhorrent presence to all but a shrinking group of fanatical supporters. His foreign policy is beyond erratic. He has alienated our allies and ramped up tensions in the world’s most dangerous regions. Worst of all, he is clearly indebted, financially and politically, to the head of the world’s other major nuclear power and has attempted to influence policy in that nation’s favor. He may be guilty of treason, if not with malevolent intent then out of a combination of ignorance and greed. He clearly has no idea what it means to be president in terms of the dignity of office, the use of advisory resources, avoiding conflict of interest, and grasp of objectives, procedures, and responsibility for the greater good. He is a sham.
As holders of the highest military ranks, you are the overseers of the principle of Force in America. You are well aware of the massive destructive power at your command. You are also, I imagine, aware of the great American tradition that the military should stand aside in matters of policy: “go tell the Spartans that here we lie, ever faithful to their commands.” War is a severe course of action, one that I believe our nation has entered into frivolously far too often in the past seventy years. But whatever your personal feelings about the wars we have fought – there have been diverse opinions among your colleagues and predecessors regarding the conduct and objectives of those wars – you have always engaged with those whom the political branch has decided to attack.
I will not insult you by insisting that you are all heroes – combat anoints its heroes selectively whatever the banner under which soldiers fight. Nor would I suggest that you are free of the failings that afflict all persons: forsaking judgment for career concerns; blindly following authority; or allowing ideology or impulse to override the counsel of reflection. Nor has the United States military, like any military in history, been immune to committing war’s casual atrocities.
I will also not insult you by thanking you for your service: this is the business you’ve chosen and among the pursuits of the world, many are of equal nobility. But although I abhor military solutions to problems, I recognize there are times it is justified. I also recognize that many of you adhere to a sense of duty, sacred duty when the lives of the soldiers under your command and those of the populations you are committed to protect, depend on you. War is about death and we must acknowledge, too, that in the heat of battle, a tremendous selflessness can take hold leading to deeds of self-sacrifice, truly noble, selfless deeds. And I believe that the gravity of those deeds performed by so many soldiers weighs upon you and imposes a sacred trust.
History is the cruelest mentor, raising specters of past failures, cataloging endless cruelties, mixing memory and terror, and reminding us that disaster can turn on the merest accident, the most oblivious act of stupidity, the most trivial oversights. And history shows us that your situation vis `a vis your commander in chief is not unique.
What is that situation?
It is the dilemma of professional leaders and strategists under the command of a weak, puerile, unstable ruler. History has its mad kings, its inbred royal imbeciles, its megalomaniacal dictators, self-absorbed leaders who plunge their nations into fruitless wars to exorcise their own personal demons. The United States has had its ineffective presidents and its disastrous military adventures. A couple of our presidents were mentally disabled by the end of their terms due to stroke or other severe illness. But until now we avoided the specter of a President who behaves like a spoiled, grossly overgrown six-year-old, governing by tantrum with no comprehension of the office he inhabits. Words fail me here. I have to believe, though, that thoughtful men and women like you are appalled at the spectacle that unfolds daily in the White House, or at Mar a Lago, or on Twitter.
Donald Trump is a dangerous man because he is driven by only one thing – the need to have his self-image continually inflated by others. If he is thwarted in this pathetic need, he throws a tantrum and upends his workplace. That worked when his real estate dealings – complete with numerous bankruptcies, illegal cash manipulations, investments by mobsters and Russian oligarchs and gangsters – meant his tantrums were confined to Trump Tower. But now it is the nation and the world that are thwarting him and he shows in all his erratic responses that if the nation and the world won’t support him, he thinks he can fire them, or set fire to them.
He may well be that unstable: “if they won’t give me what I want, I’ll tear the whole thing down around me”. He is entranced with military fantasies, that we can drop big bombs and solve problems of which he hasn’t the slightest understanding…
He is the mad king. And he is dangerous. So my question for you, the military leadership of our nation, is this:
If the puerile, petulant bully in the White House demands precipitate military action that you recognize as morally abhorrent, monumentally destructive, strategically nonsensical, and dangerous to the point of potentially triggering a third and final World War; if this clueless commander in chief whose Gettysburg Address would be limited to 140 characters threatens to unleash the nuclear option; if you clearly recognize that instead of enacting policy he is acting out his own petulance, will you have the courage to say “Enough! This command shall not pass!” Will you have the courage to save us from such a catastrophe? Or will you show yourselves to be small of spirit and avert your eyes from one another and your loved ones and tell yourselves a soldier’s lot is to carry out orders, whatever they might be, and that the burden of disaster isn’t on your shoulders, oh no, it’s on that angry, red-faced man at the head of the table in the War Room and the people who elected him?
If it comes to this, there will be no third choice and no second chance. Will you have the courage to accept where your real duty lies, and to whose commands you must remain ever faithful?