President Trump has transitioned from a “fact free” campaign to an “alternative fact” presidency. Hardly a day goes by when the fact checkers aren’t all a twitter. When it comes to holding him accountable, the military is in a unique position to do so. It not only is respected by the American public but, notwithstanding his derisive comments about the military during his campaign, by President Trump. Senior military officers such as recently appointed National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster and retired General James Mattis, are perhaps best capable of speaking truth to power.
Many of President Trump’s prevarications are gratuitous; for example the size of his inauguration crowd and his Electoral College victory. They merely undermine his personal credibility. Some, however, can undermine processes and institutions that are critical to a functioning democracy; the false assertion of “3-5 million illegal votes;” “the media is the enemy of the American people;” a judge of Hispanic decent can’t be objective. Lies by previous presidents have cost thousands of lives; for example – weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam. It is likely that President Trump will be confronted with a decision that will put lives in harm’s way, and where the truth conflicts with his world view or popularity. That’s when the moral courage of those who know the true facts will be tested.
LTG McMaster wrote Dereliction of Duty 20 years ago about the Vietnam War and those leaders, particularly senior military officers, who shirked their duty by failing to tell the President hard truths and resigning rather than carry out a policy they knew was flawed. Dereliction of Duty is on the Marine Corps required reading list for officers. Taking a page out of LTG McMaster’s book and contrary to the commander-in-chief’s comments, retired Marine General – now Secretary of Defense -- James Mattis has spoken out against torture as an effective intelligence gathering tool; in strong support of NATO as an essential element of US national security; and against the recklessness of suggesting that the U.S. should “take the Iraqi oil.”
As military officers are aware, speaking truth to power can come at a risk – even when they turn out to be right. Army Chief of Staff Gen Eric Shinseki was essentially fired for correctly testifying that an invasion and sustainment force in Iraq would be far higher than the Bush Administration was forecasting at the time. Secretary of Defense Mattis has set an example perfectly consistent with a military officer’s duty to speak the truth and do what’s right even when the person they disagree with is the president. Other senior officers likely will face similar tests under President Trump. If they are true to their code of conduct, they will adhere to the oath they took to the U.S. Constitution as young lieutenants and ensigns over fealty the commander-in-chief – and we will all be the safer for it.
Thomas J. Umberg is a retired Army Colonel who served three overseas tours, including Afghanistan, and is now a partner at the Umberg/Zipser LLP in Irvine, California.
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