The Universal Notebook: DOD (Defense of the Donald)

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Given his almost daily assaults on decency and the truth, I have a hard time defending President Donald Trump for telling a Gold Star widow that her late husband “knew what he was signing up for” when he joined the military, but it’s true.

People who enlist in the military do not sign up to die, but they do willingly put themselves in harm’s way to protect this country. Staff Sgt. La David Johnson, the Green Beret whose death in Niger prompted Trump’s controversial condolences to his widow, volunteered for hazardous duty, as does anyone who qualifies for Special Forces status.

Trump’s call did not console the young widow, but then Trump has never been Mr. Sensitivity. His words were no doubt fed to him by White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly, which is why Kelly may have allowed himself to be dragged down into the muck and mire defending his boss – and, more to the point, himself.

“I just thought – the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield,” Kelly said, “I just thought that that might be sacred.”

You’d like to think so, but Kelly himself politicized Johnson’s death by disputing the widow’s account of Trump’s clumsy attempt at compassion. And no one is forcing Kelly to serve a man who has a history of insulting not only Gold Star families but also POWs and the military in general.

I would have thought the pissing contest Candidate Trump got into with the Gold Star Khan family would have been enough to demonstrate to any real patriot what kind of man Trump is. In the “Is nothing sacred?” department, Trump lowered the standards of decorum when he insulted the parents of Capt. Humayan Khan, who died in Iraq in 2004.

I seriously can’t imagine how any military person or veteran could support Donald Trump, a man who has shown nothing but disdain and disrespect for the military his entire life. He once said he felt as though he was a veteran because he went to a military prep school. He got multiple deferments for bone spurs. In an interview with shock-jock Howard Stern he compared sleeping with multiple women and risking STDs to serving in Vietnam. During the campaign he claimed he knew more about ISIS than the generals and insulted Sen. John McCain and all POWs by saying he preferred people who didn’t get captured.

Now Trump is up in the middle of the night provoking a North Korean madman with tweets and barbs, a strategy of running his mouth that may well get thousands of people – including U.S. military personnel – killed. Yes, our men and women in uniform know what they signed up for, but it was not to fight and die in a Twitter war.

Support Our Troops has become a meaningless cliche, like so much else in Trump America. If it means My Country Right or Wrong, or Don’t Criticize the President, then it’s worse than a cliche. It’s nationalist jingoism. As long as there are men and women willing to risk their lives to protect the American homeland, the best way to support them is to make damn sure incompetent politicians and feckless generals don’t send them into fights they cannot win.

But then, of course, what we learned from the Vietnam War was that modern wars are no longer winnable. We haven’t won one since World War II. The U.S. still has superior military might, but it now finds itself defenseless against stateless terrorists willing to die for some extremist cause. That’s why military power can only be used surgically or not at all.

What young Americans believe they are signing up for when they join the military is to defend freedom and keep America safe. How successful they can be at these noble causes depends on the wise use of U.S. military power. If they are told they are liberators only to discover upon being deployed that they are seen as invaders, they cannot accomplish anything useful.

The oath of enlistment that members of the armed services take pledges them to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Hard to know what it means to defend a document or even the principles enshrined there. The oath also pledges them to obey the orders of the president of the United States.

In the not-too-distant future, as investigations into collusion with the enemy and obstruction of justice wind up, the U.S. military may be faced for the first time in its history with a choice of whether to defend the Constitution or obey the president.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.