The armed services of this country like to heckle each other about this and that. Usually, good natured ribbing about “superiority” of one branch over the other. Although, sometimes not quite so “good natured.” Depends on the amount of beer consumed.
But, there’s one foundational system that drives all and which makes each effective: the chain of command. It starts at the top and flows in a straight vertical line from Commander-in-Chief to Secretary of Defense to Joint Chiefs to the commanders of the various services and down from there. If you’re in the military, you quickly learn the drill and you religiously abide by it. Failure to do so is not an option.
At least that’s how its always been. Maybe now, not so much.
Donald Trump’s world, to him and only him, is one in which he can do anything - say anything - demand anything and do so without considering the resulting repercussions or bad effects. But, only in his world. The rest of us know - it ain’t so.
Trump’s dangerous words and disastrous touch have screwed up, crippled and damaged many parts of our Republic. His ignorance of how government works, his lies, his broken promises, his lack of understanding of America’s role in the world have created monumental problems. He’s trampled international relationships, turned his back on historic treaties, reduced our standing among nations and tried to create new alliances with our enemies.
Now, with the same deliberate ignorance, he may be creating dangerous problems within our military. And for that chain-of-command element that’s been the backbone of all successful militaries.
Historically, when the President issues orders to the Defense Department, there is a loud clicking of heels, a quick “Yes, Sir” and immediate action. Thanks to Trump’s failure to understand the system and the rules - and refusal to learn - we’re seeing possible ruptures.
I first noticed it when he ordered up that military parade in his honor. In the following weeks, some DOD and military voices were heard grumbling and rebelling. There was no heel clicking, no snappy “Yes, Sir,” and no action. The eventual response was the Pentagon putting a price tag on such an event that was so outrageous even Trump had to back down. Military resistance.
Now, more open resistance appearing in “the chain.” Trump ordered troops to our border with Mexico to turn back or arrest thousands of civilians - men, women and children - if they tied to cross that line. Shoot, if necessary.
A couple of days later, secure documents, created for Defense Department “eyes only,” were leaked to several news outlets. Much of the information contained was the usual organizational stuff dealing with troop movements. But, there were also portions - especially dealing with cost and subtle questioning of the use of trained military for such a purpose - that appeared critical of the venture. In effect, more resistance in the chain-of-command.
Some were willing to take up arms to follow that very questionable order. But, there seemed to be a sizeable contingent within DOD that didn’t want to; that believed it was not good use of money and manpower. Joint Chiefs finally agreed to send, but not to arrest, shoot, threaten or confront. Only to support U.S. Border Patrol and other law enforcement. Quiet but direct resistance. Again.
And this. Former Defense Secretary Mattis went public to say “The military doesn’t do things for show.” Not entirely true. (See Navy Blue Angels, Army Golden Knights, USAF Thunderbirds, etc.) But, the fact he felt the need to say so after public anger and military document leaking, could indicate Trump’s order created some interior negative military feedback he felt the need to address.
Now, military works of fiction in books and movies might be good entertainment. It may be memorable for Commander Denzel Washington to challenge the shipboard authority of Captain Gene Hackman. Good fiction. But not in real life. Not appearances of reluctance by some in DOD to follow an order of the Commander-in Chief. Might not be a wise order but an order nonetheless.
It’s not my intent here to warn the generals and admirals are plotting a government coup. But, when cracks of resistance appear within the chain-of-command - no matter the order - it’s worrisome.
Trump has proven himself incapable of exercising proper presidential authority because he doesn’t know how. He’s repeatedly proven himself unable to sustain relationships with his own staff, his appointees and even Congress. He’s made unwise decisions, taken inappropriate - and sometimes illegal - actions. He’s threatened, bullied and lied so much that polling shows less than half of us believe or trust him.
With such evidence on the table, it’s no wonder signs of discontent and reluctance to follow his orders are beginning to appear publically in the Pentagon and elsewhere. After all, the Americans who make up the military are like the rest of us. They have their own opinions, too.
A rigid chain-of-command is the spine that holds the military upright and functional. Always has been. It would be wise for all of us to keep close watch on the Oval Office-Department of Defense relationship. Trump has been savaging other parts of our government. His ill-advised actions may be showing up there, too.