Marine reinforcements fly towards an area somewhere near Kandahar December 10, 2001. The Marines have pushed closer to Kandahar to continue their mission of interdicting lines of escape. REUTERS/POOL//Earnie Grafton, The San Diego Union-Tribune DPW/WS
Why Trump’s top retired military brass endorsement may alienate the rank-and-file

The Trump campaign is using the wrong Band-Aid to stanch the bleeding from reported exodus of military support.

The recent media firestorm around President Trump for disparaging comments he allegedly made about American war dead have called into question his grip on support from the military, and has forced him to pull his reelection campaign back into familiar red meat territory when it comes to war and national security.

That is not good for those of us who have previously supported Trump’s countermanding of Republican orthodoxy. Indeed, he won the presidency in part by blasting his opponents about the “failed” war in Iraq and he promised to bring troops home from endless wars overseas,  a promise  others were laughed off the stage for even suggesting in the past.

But the military — still the most trusted institution among the American people — was always a stronghold of support for the president. If Democrats were planning a “swift boat” attack on Trump or even to seed the question of whether the military is behind their president, continually highlighting Trump’s alleged comments about U.S. war dead might actually do some damage. Recent polling has indicated that this critical component in Trump’s base has already been going soft. 

So it is no surprise really, that on Monday Trump’s campaign released a letter signed by over 230 retired generals and admirals supporting the  president’s policies and condemning Joe Biden. Their sentiments echoed the president’s greater talking points on the trail: “With the Democratic Party welcoming to socialists and Marxists, our historic way of life is at stake.” The letter continues:

The Democrats’ opposition to border security, their pledge to return to the disastrous Iran nuclear deal, their antagonism towards the police and planned cuts to military spending will leave the United States more vulnerable to foreign enemies. President Trump’s resolute stands have deterred our enemies from aggression against us and our allies. The proposed defense cuts by the Democrats will, in our professional judgment, create a potentially perilous situation for the United States during a time of great external and internal threats to our Nation. For these reasons, we support Donald Trump’s re-election.

Criticism of the letter was swift, with Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute, essentially calling the assemblage of military leaders in a message to reporters a nothing burger. “They are retired officers, many of whom left active duty decades ago,” he said. “Their views retain about as much salience as silent film actors bemoaning the discovery of sound. Accusing Democrats of being Marxists gives away the game. Comedy worthy of Charlie Chaplin!”

Moreover, what the campaigns — on both sides, every cycle — seem to miss is that these letters and endorsements do nothing to move the needle. As one retired senior officer told Responsible Statecraft, they are “non-events.” 

The campaigns also don’t seem to understand that the brass aren’t really that popular these days. Sure, Americans love their military as an institution and what it represents: strength, fidelity, honor, and patriotism, and yes, an apolitical, civic commitment to the national defense. But Americans aren’t cotton-headed when it comes to the failures of the wars over the last 20 years, the politicization, scandal, and corruption at the top of the pyramid.

Veterans like Bacevich have been sounding the alarm about the top-heavy military, especially about how men and women with ideas,  critical thinking, and true leadership skills are largely passed over for yes-men and brown nosers already corrupted by the system. The revolving door in and out of the war profit making world is just one awful symptom of this. The American people aren’t clueless.

But the Trump campaign seems to be. If campaign staffers had been doing some real digging, they might find out that much of the softness in military support for the president is coming from younger service members and veterans who may otherwise appreciate Trump’s style and his conservative positions on domestic issues. Many of these same service members may even consider themselves Republican, but they are tired of multiple deployments,  pouring resources into boondoggles instead of training and support, and a corrupt system that favors incoherent military strategies and entanglements overseas. 

“I would be careful of making too much of this,” said Iraq/Afghanistan veteran and anti-war activist Danny Sjursen said recently referring to the media narrative that the military community was turning against Trump because of his alleged comments about the war dead.

“I think there is more dissent now, it’s more anti-war and anti-forever war dissent now than anytime since the 1970s and the tail end of the Vietnam War,” he said, pointing to recent polling that shows strong majorities for bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.“But many of the folks who responded that way… are still pro-Trump. They are more on the libertarian wing so they are still somewhat supportive of Trump, or still consider themselves vaguely Republican.” Sjursen added that much of the recent anti-Trump attacks are “among hawkish intellectuals or national security state revolving door generals rather than the rank and file.”

“We should be careful about making large assertions like the media are currently doing, that the military, the soldiers, those who are doing the fighting, are turning against Trump, I just don’t see that yet,” Sjursen said, warning that the key here is their growing distrust of the war policies and strategies and that is a strong charge against both sides. “To the extent they are beginning to be more anti-intervention or tired and skeptical of these wars, I’m happy that’s more like a systemic critique, and that would apply to  Biden and his campaign too.”

So it’s clear that the boilerplate argument that Trump is the preferred candidate because he is going to go after Marxists and bad guys and kill terrorists wherever they are might be catnip for the media and the top level of the military industrial complex, but don’t assume that it is going to work for the rank and file, or their families, who have become increasingly disillusioned about the wars. Messaging is everything, and while the “over 200 military leaders pen a letter” may not matter at all, it may be undercutting some of Trump’s core support among a community of voters who are otherwise on his side.

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