Donald Trump, the petulant GOP front-runner and Twitter troll, never served in uniform except when he dressed up on parade at his military academy.
You might have thought avoiding military service, even in the reserves or National Guard, while the U.S. was at war, would have instilled in Trump a more modest regard for his own courage and patriotism and a deeper respect for the sacrifice of those who did. You would be wrong. The Donald doesn’t do modesty, and his shortcomings as a patriot don’t inform his self-awareness any more than his many business failures have.
By his own admission, the closest he came to combat was his sexual adventurism in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was claiming the lives of better men than him. It was his “personal Vietnam,” he told shock jock Howard Stern in 1997. “I felt like a great and very brave soldier.”
While Americans with little wealth and few family connections were dodging bullets, mortars and booby traps in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, our Sergeant York of well-appointed bedrooms was bravely jumping in harm’s way, armed only with the aphrodisiac of his daddy’s money.
From his brush with mortality in service to his libido he acquired the self-regard to find John McCain’s heroism wanting, and by implication the heroism of all POWs. What’s to admire about being shot down, imprisoned in solitary confinement and tortured? Losers.
The Trumpian hero never loses a thing, including his freedom. He only wins. “I like people who weren’t captured,” he explained. Including, one assumes, those who, like Trump, aren’t captured by a sense of honor or duty to their country.
His cluelessness about what a genuine love of country entails seems to have liberated Trump from other conventional scruples including a respect for the inherent dignity of human beings that is central to Judeo-Christian values.
Trump is also ignorant, it seems, about just what constitutes a war crime; what is and is not permissible in lawful warfare. Or worse, he vaguely knows and doesn’t care.
Trump’s ignorance is a distinctive kind, familiar to schoolyard bullies everywhere. It’s indifferently stupid and reflexively brutal, a dumbass cruelty exercised by people too emotionally incontinent to let reason govern passions, too selfish to develop a conscience, and too insecure to relate to others by means other than base instinct.
In the war against terrorists, he’s recommended deliberately killing their wives and children. He promises to waterboard captured prisoners and torture them even more severely though the practice of waterboarding was ended by executive action and outlawed by congressional legislation. He can’t reinstitute it without new legislation and without changes to war crime conventions.
Were he to order military and intelligence officers to employ torture, as he insists he would, they would resign rather than comply, as they would if he ordered them to take innocent lives on purpose. He would deserve to be impeached. He would belong in an international court of justice, on trial for his life, the fate met by enemies in World War II who authorized the torture of our prisoners.
Trump recently cited as an example of how to deal with captured Muslim insurgents an anecdote from America’s occupation of the Philippines in the beginning of the 20th century. Gen. John J. Pershing ordered 49 of 50 Muslim prisoners shot with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, defiling them under Islamic law, and ordered the survivor to report to his confederates what he had witnessed. After which, Trump assured his audience, “for 25 years there wasn’t a problem.”
The story is fiction. Pershing did nothing of the kind. He was a disciplined general officer, whose sense of honor remained intact through the trials of war, as did his loyalty to our country and values. See what I mean about dumbass cruelty? Trump’s never more ignorant then when he’s playing at being a tough guy.
Wars have brought out the worst as well as the best in Americans. We have struggled at great cost to uphold the values that distinguish us from our enemies. In every war, soldiers under enormous strain have committed atrocities. In some cases they had been ordered to. But those instances were aberrations, considered a national disgrace and are remembered that way. Except, I guess, by Donald Trump, the man who fought his war in the discos of New York and would have American soldiers commit atrocities as a matter of national policy.
Trump is not trying to make great America great. He’s trying to make us the worst we can be to satisfy his own vainglory. There’s no dealing with him, no trying to encourage him to behave like a grown-up, much less a statesman. If you can see him plainly and you love our country, you must vote against him. Even if that means electing Hillary Clinton.
Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.