Donald Trump's fake anti-war posturing

The president only talks a big heterodox game about war

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

President Trump kicked off another mini-scandal over the weekend when he insulted America's top generals. Following a report in The Atlantic that Trump had called soldiers who died in the First World War "losers" and "suckers," he lashed out at the military brass: The "top people in the Pentagon probably aren't [in love with me] because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy," he told reporters.

It was one of those classic Trump comments that happened to contain a large grain of truth while being profoundly misleading about his actual commitments and beliefs. He has criticized the American war machine many times, but as president he has kept the so-called war on terror going, and even expanded it in some ways. His anti-war pose is a complete fraud.

To start with, Trump is basically correct that the top ranks of the U.S. military are swarming with lobbyists. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper used to work for Raytheon, while prior Secretary James Mattis had worked for General Dynamics. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan spent 30 years at Boeing, and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy used to work for Lockheed Martin, etc. There really is a military-industrial complex, and it is an important part of the "D.C. Blob" that is ceaselessly agitating for more confrontations around the world.

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However, Trump appointed every one of those people himself, and a lot more besides who have worked at private defense contractors. This is because Trump does not actually care at all about corrupt contractors or seriously rolling back the last 20 years of pointless war. He seems to have a moderate aversion to starting new full-blown ground invasions, and has occasionally withdrawn a few troops here and there — but he also likes drone assassinations, which have sharply increased under his administration, both in tempo and in the rate of civilian casualties.

What Trump really cares about is when people criticize him, especially in the media — like the article in The Atlantic — or when people don't praise him as much as he thinks he deserves, which is basically every minute of every day. That leads to another bit of background: a recent Military Times poll showing Trump's approval rating among active-duty U.S. soldiers underwater by 50-38, and even more underwater among officers, by 59-35. That is very likely another reason Trump is lashing out at the Pentagon brass.

It's somewhat mysterious why this has happened. Probably part of the explanation is that the military is fairly diverse, and Trump is very unpopular outside of his base demographic groups — particularly college-educated people of any race, which almost all officers are. Probably another part is that some parts of the top brass are indeed against Trump's minor troop withdrawals — taking some out of Syria was why Mattis resigned. Many troops are also surely infuriated at how Trump has botched the response to coronavirus outbreaks among their own ranks, particularly in how a Navy captain was relieved of his command for speaking up about a galloping outbreak on his aircraft carrier.

But another part is probably that broader military opinion has also soured somewhat on imperialist wars. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from way back in 2013 found active-duty troops saying the war in Iraq was "not worth it" by a 50-44 margin (though they said the one in Afghanistan was worth it by 53-41). Seven years later, even Blob pustules find it all but impossible to argue with a straight face that the occupation of Iraq or Afghanistan did anyone any good, America definitely included. We spent trillions of dollars, got thousands of U.S. soldiers and untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians killed, all in the service of turning a chunk of the Earth's surface into a smoking wasteland. In a 2019 Pew poll of military veterans, 64 percent said Iraq invasion was not worth it, and 58 percent said the same about the one of Afghanistan.

In short, there is good reason to think a critical mass even of the military is ready for at least some rollback of imperialism, and thus one reason they dislike Trump is that he is continuing to get them killed and maimed for no reason whatsoever. America is still in brushfire conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen, and special forces have been deployed to dozens and dozens of countries. Recently the Mail and Guardian reported that U.S. commandos were deployed in 22 countries in Africa alone. At a guess, it's probably extra obnoxious that Trump occasionally poses as some critic of the military-industrial complex, while in practice doing almost nothing to confront or reform a comically corrupt defense procurement system.

So let us not pretend that Trump is in any way a serious critic of American empire. In this as in many areas, he occasionally talks a big heterodox game while being ultimately a bog-standard Republican.

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