(Editor’s note: Readers also might be interested in an accompanying piece, also on Peter Bergen’s book, by Joshua Geltzer.)
National Security analyst Peter Bergen’s new book, “Trump and His Generals: The Cost of Chaos” recounts the story of President Donald Trump meeting with a group of Navy SEALS in early July 2017 as he was considering changes to U.S. strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan. Soliciting input from service members with numerous combat deployments could provide valuable insights, but the president’s lack of understanding of the U.S. military shines through in Bergen’s account. What also comes through in the book and some audiences’ reaction to the book is folly. That is, folly in how this president sows divisiveness between the military ranks and undercuts the military ethos for inclusive decision-making. And folly in how some commentators reinforced those divisions.
Gathering insights from the “enlisted guys”
While the July 2017 meeting with the SEALS had not been previously reported, it preceded a similar meeting with four service members that was reported around the same time. On July 18, Trump met at the White House with three Army enlisted soldiers and an Air Force major. The White House released photos of that meeting, and several news outlets reported on the meeting itself.
Of the meeting with the SEALS, Bergen makes this interesting disclosure: the president’s desire to meet with enlisted men only. Bergen quotes Trump saying, “I don’t want any generals in here. I don’t want any officers. I just want enlisted guys.” For the first meeting, that’s what he got, only enlisted sailors. Bergen reports that they were critical of the U.S. and NATO role in Afghanistan and of the Afghan government, which seemed to reinforce Trump’s inexperienced views on the situation. Bergen also observes that Trump, as a businessman, had similar interactions with non-management staff at his hotels, restaurants and golf courses. Unsaid, of course, is whether any of those interactions led Trump to trust lower-level staff rather than the senior managers who helped him run his businesses.
Degrading the military leaders
The day after the meeting with the second group of service members, the president met with his national security team at the White House. Bergen writes that Trump opened the meeting by referencing his meetings with the servicemen and saying they “know a lot more than you generals.” In his book, Bob Woodward reported that Trump told the generals at the meeting, “The soldiers on the ground could run things much better than you.” Bergen writes that the president went on to compare his session with enlisted service members to the value in asking waiters for advice on renovations of the high-end 21 Club. As Bergen explains, given the participants in the Situation Room meeting, “It would have been hard to come up with a more insulting analogy to use,” comparing renovations at an exclusive New York City restaurant with Afghanistan’s complex war where thousands of Americans had died.
Misinformed reactions to Bergen’s book
Reporting on this segment of Bergen’s book in some military-related outlets led to extensive commentary on Twitter, much of it championing the enlisted viewpoints. Coming shortly after the release of what the Washington Post has termed “The Afghanistan Papers,” some of the commentary also was highly critical of generals in particular and officers generally. While critics may rightfully take issue with some of the tactical and operational decisions made by senior military leaders at the Pentagon and in Afghanistan, much of the criticism fails to understand or appreciate the national security decision-making process, a view that afflicts the president as well.
Generals, or admirals, don’t make the decision to go to war or to end war. They don’t decide the national objectives (war aims) or what resources — people, equipment and funding — will be applied to accomplish those objectives. Uniformed military leaders, both officer and enlisted and at all levels, decide how to apportion the resources they’ve been provided by the National Command Authority. The president, as commander-in-chief, makes those decisions, normally with the advice and input from his “War Cabinet,” most of whom are civilians appointed by the president to their positions. Then, from four-star military officers down the chain of command to junior enlisted service members, they carry out the strategy set by the president and senior civilian leaders. This civilian control of the military is a long-standing and key feature of our democracy and the internal decision-making process of our government.
Under this system, the president is not required to seek the input of lower-ranking members of the military, but it can certainly be helpful to do so. It is fine for the president to seek the views of enlisted service members but they, just as certainly, aren’t the only ones whose “on the ground” perspectives might be valuable. It is shortsighted to exclude officers and generals from the discussions. Company and field grade officers with years of combat experience on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere also have invaluable insights to offer. They can meld tactical views with operational ones, and, in some cases, strategic perspectives. In addition, each of the generals named in the book has extensive, direct combat experience to inform their own views and decisions.
How the process works best
As an advisor to the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander, and other senior military leaders, I saw firsthand how those leaders regularly sought input from service members at all levels, as well as civilian employees. They did not exclude any specific ranks, but sought the widest expanse of views to inform their decision-making. No one in the military, regardless of rank, “knows more” than anyone else of different rank, but they all bring different, and valuable, perspectives based on their experiences.
In these meetings, however, the president perverted a normal information-gathering process regularly used in military organizations, and he did so to create divisiveness — an “us versus them” division between officers and enlisted, and even between “generals” and everyone else in uniform.
President Trump’s claims that the enlisted service members “know more” than the generals, that he knows more than the generals, and that he defeated the ISIS caliphate are absurd. Needless to say, he didn’t defeat the ISIS caliphate and he doesn’t know more than the generals. But his boasts again demonstrate how little the president understands the military he is charged by the Constitution to lead.
With fissures comes discontent
What’s remarkable at this point in time is that, as the president has turned to embrace enlisted service members over their leaders, those enlisted members have begun to sharply turn away from the president.
A recent poll by the Military Times shows a continuing increase in unfavorable views of the commander-in-chief by active-duty service members. “Trump’s 42 percent approval in the latest poll, conducted from Oct. 23 to Dec. 2, sets his lowest mark in the survey since being elected president. Some 50 percent of troops said they had an unfavorable view of him,” the Military Times reported. While some have questioned the methodology of the survey, the latest results provide a fair comparison to previous survey results, and the trend is downward.
What explains these trends? The same poll found that nearly 48 percent of the troops surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of Trump’s handling of military issues, compared to 44 percent who said he has handled military affairs well. “That marks a significant drop from the 2018 Military Times poll,” the outlet reported. A year ago, the ratio was: 20 percent unfavorable; 59 percent favorable.
The Military Times noted major decisions by Trump on military issues in the intervening period. What’s common among these decisions is that the president made them over the objections of military leaders in the Pentagon. The list includes the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the delay of military assistance to Ukraine, and pardons of service members accused or convicted of war crimes.
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Nearly three years into the “job,” we should expect a president to better understand the military system. Just as he should be president of all Americans, regardless of party affiliation or for whom an individual voted, President Trump needs to be an informed commander-in-chief of everyone in the military, regardless of rank or position.