Just back from Rhode Island, where one of the delights was watching sailboats heel amid the winds on Narragansett Bay. It’s their keels that let them tilt so close to the waves without capsizing. It got me to thinking about how much the U.S. military is the keel on our ship of state.
Admiral Scott Swift (where do these four-star officers get these names, anyway?), chief of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, raised some eyebrows recently when he told an Australian audience that he would carry out an order from President Trump to attack China with nuclear weapons.
"The answer would be yes," Swift responded. “Every member of the U.S. military has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic, and to obey the officers and the president of the United States as the commander in chief appointed over us."
While a spokesman for the admiral denounced the question as “ridiculous,” it wasn’t. The host of Scott’s talk rightly told The New York Times that “it would have been a lot more controversial if he had said no, he would not obey the commander in chief.” Besides, civilians are always interested in the command and control of the nuclear weapons brandished in their name, especially when there’s geopolitical unease in the air.
Given such a hypothetical order, Scott would have had no choice other than to salute and carry it out, or put his stars on the table and resign. But for every admiral or general who might be ordered to carry out such a doomsday order, there are tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines keeping their eyes fixed on the mission, unfazed by what is going on in Washington.
Isn’t that reassuring?
In all my decades covering the U.S. military around the world, I found that the lowest-ranking troops were least concerned about the wisdom of what they were being tasked to do. At the senior levels—four-stars and civilian defense secretaries—you’d see finely-crafted U.S. policies ground into dust on geo-strategic millstones despite the leaders’ best efforts.
Civilian control is strung tightly into the rigging of the U.S. military. Its officers don’t get to pick which questionable wars to fight, which dubious weapons to buy, or which lame-brained personnel policies to carry out. True, they can influence those decisions, but, at the end of the day, they carry out decisions made by their civilian superiors. For example, there is a lengthy chain through which any presidential order to launch nuclear weapons would have to travel.
Sometimes, it’s what the military doesn’t do that counts. Take Trump’s recent tweet barring transgendered individuals from serving in uniform. The brass has basically done nothing to implement the commander-in-chief’s order, saying they’re awaiting further guidance from the White House. “In other words, the military told the commander in chief to go jump in a lake,” columnist Charles Krauthammer noted in the Washington Post. “In this case, the military offered resistance to mere whimsy. Next time, it could be resistance to unlawfulness.”
Military officers, especially once retired, have long served inside the U.S. government. They tend to be conservative, embracing civilian control, and work within the system, despite all its faults. Military officers like Curtis LeMay, the late Air Force chief of staff and George Wallace’s vice-presidential running mate, Alexander Haig, the late Army general who served as White House chief of staff, and Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who lasted only 24 days as Trump’s first national security adviser, have been the outliers. More common are those like ex-Army general and secretary of state Colin Powell, retired Marine general John Kelly, newly tapped as Trump’s chief of staff, and Jim Mattis, also a retired Marine four-star, now serving as the Pentagon’s civilian chief, who can disagree without being disagreeable, and whose common sense is leavened with a profound sense of responsibility.
They worry a lot about what could go wrong, even after they hang up their uniforms. “Mattis and Kelly also agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump's presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House, according to a person familiar with the discussions,” the Associated Press reported Aug. 1.
On the negative side, that ethos can wane as officers rise through the ranks and make decisions based on their desire for their next star. But it also can lead to self-grooming, as we have seen in recent weeks inside the Trump administration, where the White House has been expectorating hard-liners, from both inside the military and out as Trump seeks to right his listing vessel.
Hard as it may be to believe after Vietnam, or 16 years of war in Afghanistan, or three wars in Iraq over the past three decades, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has never quit because he disagreed with the country’s war-fighting strategy. General Ron Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, made news 20 years ago when he bailed out from his seat on the Joint Chiefs because of how his civilian boss treated an underling in uniform.
Part of this is because, as any young soldier will tell you, by the time you’re wearing three or four stars on your shoulder, you’re more of a politician than military officer. The policies you’re charged with carrying out were molded by you and your fellow senior officers. Quitting in midstream would be a disservice to them and all those under your command. But it is precisely because a senior officer’s sudden quitting could hurt the commander in chief that it can serve as a cudgel against a clueless commander-in-chief.
The U.S. government has grappled with this issue before. No, there hasn’t been any talk of a coup. Rather, there have been murky machinations designed to explore quietly moving the president’s hand from the levers of power.
"I had seen enough so that I was not going to run risks with the future of the United States,” President Nixon’s defense secretary, James Schlesinger, purportedly told an unnamed acquaintance in 1974, according to a 1983 accounting by reporter Seymour Hersh. It came as the Watergate crisis went from a simmer to a full boil. “There are a lot of parliamentary governments that have been overthrown with much less at stake.”
Schlesinger allegedly reached out to Air Force General George Brown, new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to make sure Brown knew that he and his fellow chiefs had to come to Schlesinger before carrying out any military orders that came directly from the White House. “Don't take any emergency-type action without consulting me,” Schlesinger supposedly told Brown.
Shortly after Schlesinger gave Brown his marching orders, the four-star officer shared news of “the strangest conversation with the Secretary of Defense.” All the chiefs, according to Hersh’s account, were disturbed by Schlesinger’s warning. “We sat around looking at our fingernails; we didn't want to look at each other. It was a complete shock to us. I don't think any of us ever considered taking any action. We didn't know whether to be affronted or flattered at the thought,” an unnamed member of the Joint Chiefs told Hersh. Another chief said the defense chief must have been "thinking of something out of Seven Days in May." The consensus, if there were any, was that Schlesinger was becoming “unglued.” If the story is anywhere near accurate, it shows the military acting as a flywheel on possible suspect White House actions.
That’s reassuring today, when three of Trump’s closest advisers—Mattis, Kelly and his chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, are retired or still-serving four-star Marine generals. They have bonds Trump can’t imagine; Dunford informed Kelly of the death of Kelly’s son, Robert, a Marine lieutenant, in Afghanistan in 2010. Not to put too fine a point on it, they serve as a firebreak against any dubious military moves Trump might contemplate.
Among them, they have more than a century wearing their nation’s uniform. They stand at the pinnacle of a pyramid, atop the shoulders of 1.4 million men and women on active duty, most of them young and far from both the front lines and the headlines. For good or for ill, they are all part of the 1% among us who has chosen to fight for their nation since 9/11.
So don’t fret too much about the hoopla surrounding Trump’s hands on the levers of national security. Even amid rough waters and gale-force winds, the nation’s troops, largely unseen beneath the waves, remain a force for stability and survival.