The US Military Is Trump’s Favorite Prop
President Trump sent troops to the border even though they’re prohibited by law from stopping immigrants. He still hasn’t visited U.S. troops in a combat zone.
Nearly four years ago, my colleague James Fallows wrote a cover story in The Atlantic labeling the United States a “chickenhawk nation.” Americans today “love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them,” he wrote. “The American military is exotic territory to most of the American public. As a comparison: A handful of Americans live on farms, but there are many more of them than serve in all branches of the military.”
If those trends were apparent at the start of 2015, they are visible in crisp, high-definition detail in the Trump era.
Nearly two years into his term as president, Donald Trump has yet to visit American troops in a combat zone, though the president is reportedly now considering a visit as public pressure intensifies. Trump’s vexed relationship with the military exemplifies and amplifies the vexed relationship that Fallows described: Trump never served, but he is more than happy to use the military as a tool—both to solve real problems, and as a political prop for bogus ones. He frequently speaks about the need to keep the military strong. But he is unwilling to actually visit soldiers who are in the field, and often takes shots at those who have served honorably. Trump is the perfect chickenhawk president for a chickenhawk nation.
While none of this is new, a trio of recent incidents brought the president’s indifference to the fore. First, while on a visit to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, Trump skipped a visit to a cemetery, citing bad weather that he said prevented his helicopter from flying. Back in the United States, he stayed home on Veterans Day, holding no public events and visiting neither Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac in Virginia, nor Walter Reed, the military medical center in Northwest D.C. The same week, he opted out of a visit to the 5,800 soldiers he’d dispatched to the U.S.-Mexico border, leaving Secretary of Defense James Mattis to lead the trip.
All of that came days after the conclusion of a midterm-election campaign in which he’d repeatedly urged voters to pick Republicans because (he said) they were more pro-military than Democrats. “Very shortly, we’re going to have the strongest military our country has ever had,” he bragged on the campaign trail. “I’ve done more for the vets than any president has done, certainly in many, many decades.”
Why hasn’t the president made the trip to visit troops in the field? As Adam K. Raymond noted in New York, there have been a series of explanations. First, he was “very busy” and didn’t think it was “overly necessary.” Aides said that visits would validate military missions in which Trump doesn’t believe. One White House official even told The Washington Post, “He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”
That is, of course, the problem with war zones: People tend to get killed. Fallows argued that understanding how real that risk is separates the United States of yesterday from the U.S. of today. For decades after World War II, most presidents had served in the military, many of them in combat. Even if they hadn’t, they had close friends and family members who had. And their awareness of the costs of military action, Fallows wrote, made them more judicious and careful about when to employ it.
The military experience seems far from Trump—as indeed it is from most Americans. While it’s difficult to say with certainty that no one close to Trump served in the military, neither of his brothers appears to have done so, nor did either of his two adult sons. Trump does seem to enjoy apparel embroidered with military insignia and his title of commander-in-chief.
After a troublesome childhood, Trump’s father decided to send him to military school, which he attended through high school. Trump has spoken fondly of the experience. “I always thought I was in the military,” he told a biographer. “I felt like I was in the military in a true sense. Because I dealt with the people.”
But Trump never did join the military. He went on to Fordham University and then the University of Pennsylvania, and then obtained repeated draft deferments from Vietnam due to reported bone spurs in his feet. In recent years, he has said he cannot recall which foot had spurs. Instead of serving overseas, he lived a playboy life in Manhattan, where he said he faced the great risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. “It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” he said later.
Trump was hardly alone in seeking to dodge the draft. Bill Clinton, for example, also sidestepped it, and George W. Bush snagged a spot in the Texas Air National Guard. Both men also sent American soldiers into combat and received criticism for their lack of service. The critique was especially heated for Bush, who launched a disastrous war of choice in Iraq that ended up costing thousands of American lives.
What sets Trump apart is that he is at once singularly obsessed with military might and willing to attack others for not sufficiently supporting the troops, yet also spectacularly uninterested in the service members themselves. He loves the troops, but he’d rather not think of them.
For example, neither Bush nor Clinton went so far out of their way to insult those who did serve. Trump has made a hobby of it. He infamously said that John McCain was not a war hero because he had been captured in Vietnam. He attacked Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq. This week, he mocked retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the team that killed Osama bin Laden, saying they should have caught the al-Qaeda boss faster. McRaven’s offense? He’d criticized Trump’s attacks on the press. (As my colleague Adam Serwer notes, Trump’s McRaven swipe garnered nowhere near the outrage that Saturday Night Live’s joke about Representative-elect Dan Crenshaw did. The expectations for Trump have been set.)
Even when Trump is not actively antagonizing veterans, he frequently seems to misstep. Consider his callous words to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed during a mission in Niger. They were followed by a public feud in which he accused her of lying. Then, to try to absolve himself, he attacked Barack Obama for being insufficiently effusive in sending condolences to the families of slain service members—which only served to reveal that Trump was rush-shipping condolence letters, trying to make reality out of a falsehood he’d told.
And this week, after the Post reported on how delays in payments under the GI Bill were imperiling veterans’ schooling, housing, and sustenance, the administration had the secretary of veterans affairs write a puffy USA Today op-ed claiming, “No president has done more in two years to strengthen our military and reform the Department of Veterans Affairs to better serve our nation’s heroes than President Donald Trump.”
These examples show how Trump is dazzled by the military in the abstract but tends to be indifferent or even hostile in the specific. Trump selected three retired generals for his Cabinet, after interviewing several more: John Kelly for secretary of homeland security (he’s since become White House chief of staff), Michael Flynn for national-security adviser, and James Mattis for secretary of defense. Each of these relationships has since soured, as Trump gets to know each man as more than just a list of medals. Flynn was sacked after lying to the FBI; he’s since pleaded guilty. Kelly was moved to the White House but reportedly has a poisonous relationship with Trump, whom he considers an idiot. Even Mattis has fallen out of favor. Trump was drawn to his nickname, “Mad Dog,” only to have Mattis quietly explain that he hated the moniker; Trump has more recently taken to calling him a Democrat.
The argument that visiting combat zones would validate wars Trump doesn’t support doesn’t hold up—Obama ran for president against the war in Iraq, but still visited the troops and still pushed hard for them to (mostly) leave. Insofar as Obama turned out not to be the anti-war president he campaigned to be, it wasn’t because he visited deployed soldiers or Marines.
Besides, Trump has been happy to launch military interventions. He has twice ordered missile launches against the Assad regime. He has ordered more troops to Afghanistan. And he has threatened to use U.S. troops in wars against North Korea and Venezuela, among others.
In fact, Trump has looked to the military to solve all of his problems. Stymied by a fractious legislative branch, a recalcitrant judiciary, and his own inability to work the levers of the executive branch, the president has asked service members to handle what he cannot do by other means, most notably replacing the border wall Congress won’t fund.
Trump has also eagerly employed the military as a prop. Since a 2017 trip to France, he has wanted a full military parade through Washington, which the Pentagon keeps finding ways to stall. This month produced an even more egregious example. As the election approached, Trump began focusing attention on a caravan of thousands of migrants slowly walking northward through Mexico toward the United States. Even though the migrants were hundreds and hundreds of miles away, Trump announced he was sending 5,800 soldiers to the southern border, and said he might send as many as 15,000. This even though federal law limits what active-duty soldiers can do, meaning they were serving as support staff to Customs and Border Patrol.
Yet on Monday, Politico broke the news that the troops are coming home, even though the caravan remains far away. In other words, Trump sent thousands of American soldiers to the border to sleep in sweltering tents, on taxpayers’ dime, with no real mission, and didn’t even keep them there until the caravan arrived. This is not the first time a president has used the troops for a political stunt, but once the election was past, Trump couldn’t even be bothered to try to pretend it was legitimate. It’s a farcical, lazy man’s version of the invasion of Grenada.
Whenever Trump makes his first visit, it shouldn’t erase the consistent indifference he’s shown so far. Thanksgiving would be an appropriate time, and past presidents have often made such a trip for the holiday. Trump, however, is scheduled to be at Mar-A-Lago in Florida. After all, it’s easier to appreciate the troops from afar—a perfect Turkey day celebration for a chickenhawk nation.