Opinion

Donald Trump is playing with revolutionary fire

Firing a Navy captain for protecting his crew is something tyrants do

The American military is suffering from the novel coronavirus pandemic. At time of writing over 1,600 Department of Defense staff have tested positive, including a major outbreak on the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, where over 100 sailors out of a crew of over 4,000 have been infected. The lack of proper quarantine facilities onboard prompted the ship's Captain Brett Crozier to plead for help in a letter to his superiors which was later obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle. "Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors," he wrote.

The Roosevelt was eventually docked in Guam and evacuated. But Crozier has now been relieved of his command. Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said Crozier showed "extremely poor judgment" in creating a "firestorm." Translation: He embarrassed President Trump, who has installed toadies like Modly in a number of senior military leadership positions.

As Crozier departed the Roosevelt, the remaining crew sent him off to wild cheers. "One of the greatest captains you ever had … the man for the people," said one sailor. Such a sight ought to freeze the blood of any American politician. Historically, treating the armed forces with gratuitous contempt runs a serious risk of mutinies or revolution. He surely does not know it, but Trump is playing with fire.

In his history of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wrote that the state's grip on the armed forces was one deciding factor in any potential revolution. "Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory." The ground for revolt in 1917 was only laid because disgruntled soldiers disgusted by Tsar Nicholas II's appalling performance in the First World War turned against the regime. That followed an example set in the quasi-revolution of 1905, when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin famously mutinied after their captain murdered a sailor for complaining about being fed rancid meat.

It is of course exceedingly difficult to imagine American sailors and soldiers turning against the Trump administration. But extreme crises can sometimes change attitudes very, very quickly. There's a reason why in previous crises, like the standoff over the debt ceiling in 2013, the government always took care to make sure the military paychecks kept flowing. But Trump's titanic narcissism and ignorance make this danger impossible for him to grasp.

On the contrary, Trump has made it abundantly clear that the only qualification that matters for top military personnel is personal loyalty to him. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper fired Undersecretary for Policy John Rood because he was involved with the aid to Ukraine that got Trump impeached. As of early March, over "a third of all Senate-confirmed civilian positions at the Department of Defense are now vacant or filled by temporary officials," Politico reports, in part because "a 29-year-old Trump loyalist ... is now trying to exert more control over the Pentagon’s nominating process." Trump is a man so petty that his administration ordered the USS John McCain hidden behind a tarp during a Trump visit to Japan because the president previously feuded with the ship's namesake, and they did not want to trigger a temper tantrum.

Trump's treatment of Captain Crozier also makes a jarring contrast with what he did for Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was turned in by his own fellow troops for allegedly murdering civilians and a captured prisoner in cold blood. Trump interfered in his prosecution and reversed his demotion. The message is clear: Commit war crimes and Fox News will get the president to turn you into a right-wing celebrity grifter, but try to save your troops from a disease pandemic and your career is toast.

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic comes after two decades of ceaseless imperialist warmongering, at a cost of perhaps $6.4 trillion and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops killed, maimed, or psychologically injured, for no benefit whatsoever. America invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 2001; nearly 20 years later that country is in worse shape than it was when we started. America invaded Iraq on false pretenses and turned it into a dystopian nightmare hell. Fifty-eight percent of veterans say the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting; 64 percent say the same thing about the war in Iraq.

American soldiers generally come from the middle of the income distribution, with the poorest and especially the richest neighborhoods underrepresented. The military is also considerably more diverse than the general population (except for the Marines, the smallest of the service branches). It is surely unlikely that dipping morale among the troops could suddenly curdle into boiling, insurrectionary rage, but it's not impossible. American soldiers have been pointlessly shoveled into a meat grinder for two decades, and now their officers have to sacrifice themselves to get Trump to protect them from a viral pandemic?

Make no mistake, segments of the military in open conflict with the president would be a terrifying development. Full-blown military revolts often end with some strongman general installing himself as dictator. America is hopefully still a long ways from that, but with Donald Trump as the commander-in-chief, with the lockstep backing of almost the entire Republican Party, and with potentially hundreds of thousands of Americans dying in the pandemic, would you really rule it out?

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