Saturday, November 30, 2019

Musings on Trump's Corruption of Military and Political Legitimacy

  By Rudy Barnes,Jr.

When Donald Trump became president and commander-in-chief of America’s military, I was concerned that he would draw America into a war.  Now I’m concerned that Trump will corrupt the military ethic and undermine military legitimacy by meddling in military justice and administrative matters that should be the prerogatives of military commanders.

Military legitimacy has external and internal dimensions.  How we use military force is its external dimension, while maintaining an effective authoritarian military force within a libertarian democracy is its internal dimension.  The latter is a prodigious challenge for commanders who must provide good order and discipline through administrative actions and military justice.    

Military values and standards of military justice support the premise that might must be right to meet the standards of military legitimacy and mission success.  America has learned painful lessons in legitimacy in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where excessive force converted military victories into political defeat, refuting the Machiavellian principle that might makes right.

Trump’s derisive Tweet, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” sent a false and dangerous message.  The military only prosecutes those who violate the law in their use of lethal force. In both the military and law enforcement, the use of lethal force must be restrained to prevent collateral damage that undermines its legitimacy.    

Trump doesn’t understand that.  As a self-centered draft dodger, Trump knows nothing about the military ethic of selfless service and the duty to support and defend the Constitution.  Trump’s recent pardons and interventions in command prerogatives and military justice have threatened the integrity of military justice and undermined military legitimacy.

Military values are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage.  They are altruistic values grounded in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, including those of other races and religions.  That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of whom serve in the U.S. military.

When Trump recently learned that the Navy planned a peer-review board to consider the misconduct of Chief Eddie Gallagher that could revoke his SEAL qualifications, Trump tweeted: “The NAVY will NOT be taking away Warfightrer and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident pin.  This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!”

Gallagher is a renegade SEAL who was convicted of posing for a trophy picture with the corpse of an Iraqi fighter.  But he impressed Trump, who then intervened to prevent the review board from considering Galagher’s SEAL status. It showed Trump’s contempt for those in the command structure who were responsible for preserving the high standards of SEAL personnel.  

Trump’s insistence on unwavering loyalty to obey his personal desires goes beyond the military to all in the Executive Branch and to all Republicans in Congress.  In addition to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo know that Trump expects them to put their loyalty to him ahead of their loyalty to the rule of law and the Constitution; and so far they have met Trump’s expectations.
Trump’s Thanksgiving visit to American troops in Afghanistan should not disguise his corruption of America’s military and political legitimacy.  Trump seeks absolute control of the military and Executive branch to bolster his political power. The military must remain subject to the joint control of the President and Congress to preserve freedom and democracy.  Voters gave Trump his powers in 2016; if they value their freedom and democracy, they will revoke his powers in 2020.


On what Donald Trump doesn’t get about Eddie Gallagher and being “tough” former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said of Trump, "I don't think he really understands the definition of a war fighter.  A war fighter is a profession of arms, and a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to.” See 

Navy SEALs are primarily a direct action force focusing on quick and dirty raids.  The Army Special Forces have a direct action force (Delta), but Army SF is also tasked with extended special operations that include training and advisory missions that require language and cultural skills to build trust and confidence with their indigenous counterparts.  They must be more than competent warriors; they must be diplomat warriors to achieve mission success in sensitive and unforgiving cultural environments. For military legitimacy and professional leadership requirements in operations other than war, see chapter five of Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium (Frank Cass, 1996) posted in Resources at
On Esper demanding the resignation of Navy Secretary over SEAL case, see

On how Trump ordered the Pentagon to let convicted Navy SEAL keep his elite status, see

On Trump clearing three service members in War Crimes cases, see 

On how pardoning servicemembers under Article II powers can undermine the rule of law, see  

On loyalty and duty in politics, the military and religion, see  

Related Commentary on Military Legitimacy:
(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy
(11/1/15): A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism
(11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty
(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?
(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (see also #49, 11/1/15)
(9/3/16): The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace
(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad
(3/25/17): National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might must Be Right
(4/1/17): Human Rights, Freedom and National Security
(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion
(9/2/17): The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies  
(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy
(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy
(6/1/19): Musings on Military Legitimacy and Murder in Wartime
(10/19/19): Musings on the Meltdown of Military Legitimacy in the Middle East

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