James Fallows: The tragedy of the American military
While none of this is new, a trio of recent incidents brought the president’s indifference to the fore. First, while on a visit to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, Trump skipped a visit to a cemetery, citing bad weather he said prevented his helicopter from flying. Back in the United States, he stayed home on Veterans Day, holding no public events and visiting neither Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac in Virginia, nor Walter Reed, the military medical center in Northwest D.C. The same week, he opted out of a visit to the 5,800 soldiers he’d dispatched to the U.S.-Mexico border, leaving Secretary of Defense James Mattis to lead the trip.
All of that came days after the conclusion of a midterm-election campaign in which he’d repeatedly urged voters to pick Republicans because (he said) they were more pro-military than Democrats. “Very shortly, we’re going to have the strongest military our country has ever had,” he bragged on the campaign trail. “I’ve done more for the vets than any president has done, certainly in many, many decades.”
Why hasn’t the president made the trip to visit troops in the field? As Adam K. Raymond noted in New York, there have been a series of explanations. First, he was “very busy” and didn’t think it was “overly necessary.” Aides said visits would validate military missions in which Trump doesn’t believe. One White House official even told The Washington Post, “He’s afraid of those situations. He’s afraid people want to kill him.”
That is, of course, the problem with war zones: People tend to get killed. Fallows argued that understanding how real that risk is separates the United States of yesterday from the U.S. of today. For decades after World War II, most presidents had served in the military, many of them in combat. Even if they hadn’t, they had close friends and family members who had. And their awareness of the costs of military action, Fallows wrote, made them more judicious and careful about when to employ it.
The military experience seems far from Trump—as indeed it is from most Americans. While it’s difficult to say with certainty that no one close to Trump served in the military, neither of his brothers appears to have done so, nor did either of his two adult sons. Trump does seem to enjoy apparel embroidered with military insignia and his title of commander in chief.
After a troublesome childhood, Trump’s father decided to send him to military school, which he attended through high school. Trump has spoken fondly of the experience. “I always thought I was in the military,” he told a biographer. “I felt like I was in the military in a true sense. Because I dealt with the people.”
But Trump never did join the military. He went on to Fordham University and then the University of Pennsylvania, and then obtained repeated draft deferments from Vietnam due to reported bone spurs in his feet. In recent years, he has said he cannot recall which foot had spurs. Instead of serving overseas, he lived a playboy life in Manhattan, where he said he faced the great risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. “It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” he later said.