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The military occupies a strange position in American society today—as my colleague James Fallows summed it up several years ago, “We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them.” Polls show great popular respect for the service branches, even as most of the citizenry remains distant from the military. Add to that the fact that no president since George H. W. Bush, who left office in 1993, has served overseas; George W. Bush famously served in the Texas Air National Guard, while Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Trump, and Biden didn’t serve at all. Perhaps as a result, presidents have been wary of getting crosswise with the military establishment on policy issues, lest they be seen as callow, anti-military, or chickenhawks. This has empowered generals even as it has often had negative consequences for rank-and-file members of the military, who are at the whims of a disengaged, deferential political leadership.
“Legislators and even presidents recognize the sizable risks and limited payoffs of taking on the career military,” Fallows noted. “When recent presidents have relieved officers of command, they have usually done so over allegations of sexual or financial misconduct, or other issues of personal discipline.”
Such a situation does not lend itself to military accountability. In Afghanistan, the federal government knew for years that the U.S. was losing, but political leaders of both parties, civilian and military figures, and elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officers alike insisted otherwise. Military figures and advocates wrung their hands over Obama’s detachment from the military, but he still often deferred to the generals. Obama managed to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq, with some difficulty and over military objections, but he failed to end the war in Afghanistan as he promised. He was even buffaloed into a “surge” of troops to the country in 2009.
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This was the context in which Trump won the 2016 election and promptly began appointing generals to top positions, including Michael Flynn as national security adviser, James Mattis as secretary of defense, and John Kelly as secretary of homeland security. Several other former top officers discussed roles with Trump. The selections raised concerns, especially among Trump critics who worried that he was trying to seize undemocratic power and use the military to back him up. Civilian control of the military is so sacrosanct that it is written into law; a recently retired member of the armed forces cannot serve as secretary of defense without a waiver from Congress, and Mattis required one.
Despite these concerns, Trump had an unusually frosty relationship with both of his retired generals and the military leadership, even as he described himself as a pro-military president. Flynn was fired within a month of the inauguration in a Russia-related scandal. Kelly was promoted to White House chief of staff, and was happy to work with Trump where they agreed ideologically, but ultimately ended up deeply estranged from the president, who he thought was an unstable nut. Kelly left at the end of 2018, followed closely by Mattis. Mattis, too, had decided that Trump was dangerous, and according to the journalist Bob Woodward, he sometimes just refused to obey orders from Trump, including a demand for a strike against Syria’s president. But Mattis eventually resigned when Trump insisted on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a decision with which the defense secretary, and most generals, vehemently disagreed. The brass also hated Trump’s claim that he’d withdraw troops from Afghanistan.