Earlier this week Donald Trump, commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, tweeted that his impeachment “will cause a Civil War” from which the country might never recover. Picking up on remarks made by an evangelical pastor on Fox News, Trump did not just say his removal would lead to a huge electoral defeat for the Democrats, or even mass demonstrations. He said “civil war”. Americans taking up arms against other Americans in his name.
“Civil War 2” started trending on Twitter. So, for a time, did #CivilWarSignup.
In the modern era, real civil wars have been the great affliction of Third World countries—conflicts that split nations and societies along political, ethnic or religious fault lines. They are very often accompanied by martial law and resolved by military intervention. Is this what the president has in mind? Where would the U.S. military stand in such a situation? A view from the inside indicates the armed forces are as divided as the rest of the country—and divided is a dangerous place for the U.S. military to find itself.
After spending 19 years in Washington with intelligence jobs in Congress, at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (focusing on counterterrorism and counterintelligence), I had the opportunity to join the commander’s Red Team at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
Within a few years, however, CENTCOM’s senior leadership told us Red Team’s “alternative analysis” was “confusing” the commander. (Truth was, they really didn’t want any competing analysis contradicting what the traditional intelligence analysts were selling.) I was told I would now be an Intelligence Planner. Intelligence Planners provide critical intelligence support to military operations. (CENTCOM has responsibility for most of the Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS.) I remained at CENTCOM for 12 years.
Our republic rests on the important constitutional principle of civilian control of a non-politicized military. But the constant drumbeat of right-wing conspiracy theories and hateful political rhetoric has found its way into a sizable portion of the U.S. military’s rank and file. Not too long ago, the majority of those serving in the military would have identified themselves as Reagan Republicans. But just as that brand of Republicanism has been replaced by Trumpism among civilian Republicans, so too has it seeped into the armed forces, and by these standards, even Ronald Reagan would be viewed as a socialist.
Recent polling shows that among military veterans, approval ratings for Trump are higher than among the civilian population. In my experience, the support for Donald Trump among a large segment of the U.S. military is downright cult-like.
None of this makes sense. Trump is everything the U.S. military should despise: a draft dodger, adulterer, flabby, lazy, unread, a tabloid joke for decades, and TV reality show star. During the 2016 campaign, Trump sought to brandish his non-existent national security chops by insulting Barack Obama’s generals. “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. The generals have been reduced to rubble. They have been reduced to a point where it’s embarrassing for our country.” He hinted that as president, he would fire them. “They’d probably be different generals,” he said at NBC’s pre-election Commander-in-Chief Forum.
The man with a decades-long public record of immoral and unethical behavior, who had never served in uniform or undertook any public service to his country, tweeted juvenile insults about retired four-star generals like Colin Powell, John Allen, Stanley McChrystal, Michael Hayden and Martin Dempsey. Several of these decorated, battle-hardened generals, were life-long Republicans who had devoted their lives to serving their country. Yet they believed so strongly that Trump was a national security danger they took the extraordinary step of breaking with military tradition to criticize him publicly.
In normal times, this would have dealt a severe blow to any campaign and made a serious dent in support among the military. But the attacks by the generals, and Trump’s willingness to return fire, only endeared him to the rank and file more.
These generals knew Hillary Clinton personally for years. They had worked with Hillary Clinton as both a senator and as secretary of state and had admired her seriousness and intellect. Once Trump had secured the Republican nomination, their panic led to a less-than-transparent attempt to help her candidacy by criticizing Trump’s sophomoric approach to national security. It backfired supremely, and only strengthened Trump’s support among the troops.
And then there was the case of Michael Flynn. After a long military career, Flynn’s anger and bitterness led him to hitch his star to Donald Trump. It would be his undoing. A retired three-star general, Flynn was found guilty of lying to the FBI and is awaiting sentencing. His leading the chant of “Lock her up” at the Republican National Convention should have evoked disgust for anyone who ever served in uniform. It did not.
This reputational carnage of highly decorated American generals associated with Trump continued as H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, and James Mattis all tried to bring coherence to Trump’s policies. Instead they were subjected to his tantrums and humiliation, and ultimately left the administration. Never had access to decades of military and national security experience been so squandered and abused by an American president.
Despite all this, the devotion to Trump from a large segment of the military was unwavering. Hearing military personnel, including Vietnam veterans, parrot Trump’s attacks against John McCain, who spent five agonizing years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, was shocking and unsettling. It was the rank and file, not the generals, Trump was courting with his calls for military parades.
From Michael Flynn, the rogue retired general closest to him, Trump learned just how deep the military’s disdain was for Democrats—and for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama specifically. Trump learned from Flynn that there were grievances and resentments within the military establishment to be exploited. Highly intelligent active duty and retired military officers with outstanding service records (not “deplorables”) could be heard at CENTCOM repeating far-right-wing conspiracy theories like: “Hillary murdered a lot of people” and “Obama is a Kenyan Black Muslim,” “The FBI and the CIA are corrupt,” “The media is fake news.” Trump’s attacks and abuse of their former bosses, and even of a Gold Star family, didn’t seem to impact their opinion of him.
Once Trump was elected, they wholeheartedly bought into his claims that the “deep state” and the “fake news media” were now plotting a coup against him. Some would call themselves “nationalists,” not having the basic understanding of the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” (The political divide also cut across racial lines. African-Americans serving in the military had a deep admiration and affection for the first black commander in chief, not shared by their white counterparts. One Army major, an Iraq War veteran, gave voice to many others in the military, telling me, “The military hates Obama.”)
CENTCOM’s environment, and especially that of the Joint Intelligence Center (JIC) which houses all the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts, felt political the moment you walked through its doors. Televisions in the lobby, the reception areas, in private office spaces, and even in the employee and visitor’s cafe—were tuned to FOX News. It was Orwellian in its pervasiveness. People at their desks were streaming FOX News while reading Drudge and Breitbart. (By 2018, more of the common areas began showing sports or weather channels to get away from the politics, which had made some uncomfortable.)
It was the doggedness with which Trump went after Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that made him their hero. The FBI couldn’t be trusted any longer after letting “Crooked Hillary” off the hook, so anything the FBI and CIA revealed about Russian interference in the 2016 election automatically lacked any credibility. None of it was believed.
This was especially alarming coming from intelligence analysts who were parroting Trump’s insults of the former Intelligence Community chiefs who had sounded the alarms regarding the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians. A very senior NSA liaison intelligence officer said he had proof the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s emails was “an inside job” and not really WikiLeaks and the Russians. It was hard to understand why these military intelligence experts felt compelled to denigrate so vigorously the assessments of the rest of the intelligence community, specifically when it came to Trump—nor the ferocity with which they personally defended him.
In their private time many watched internet trolls. “Did you see this! Hillary has Parkinson’s disease!” Were our military intelligence analysts a victim of the same Russian influence campaign that affected so much of the civilian population? Like a scene from The Manchurian Candidate, if you criticized Trump, they answered with “Hillary” did this, or “Obama” did that. It was almost as if they’d been programmed.
The parroting of Trump took other disturbing turns. One also began to hear in casual conversation analysts at CENTCOM making disparaging remarks against the Western coalition partners—the Canadians, Brits, French, Germans—and against NATO in general, as “deadbeats.” Officers back from visits to Gulf States boasted how mutual the relief was in the region that Obama was gone, Hillary had lost, and there was “a new sheriff in town.”
The Arab Gulf states couldn’t believe their luck—especially the Saudis. No one would bother them anymore about human rights. They would get the military assistance they wanted unconditionally, and, if they played their cards right, they could even get Trump to attack Iran.
The Israelis were downright joyful over Trump’s election. Even during the media outrage over the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi hands, one analyst argued, “He wasn’t even an American citizen,” parroting what he had just heard Trump say over FOX News—as if that should have made a difference when chopping up a journalist.
On an operational level, the (not totally without merit) criticism of Obama was that he had been the appeaser whose pullout from Iraq created ISIS, as did his last-minute refusal to go after Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But nothing stuck in the craw of the analysts and planners at CENTCOM more than the Iranian nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It was this deal they believed prevented the U.S. from giving Iran the long-overdue bloody nose it deserved.
While the civilian national security establishment believed the JCPOA had pulled Iran back from the brink of nuclear weapons breakout capability that would lead to a regional nuclear arms race, the military saw it as inexcusable capitulation to the primary supporter of militancy and terrorism in the region. Most of the active duty and retired military officers at CENTCOM had served in Iraq at some point where, according to the Pentagon, Iranian backed Shi’a militia had killed 600 American soldiers. They had not forgotten or forgiven.
During the Cold War, intelligence analysts had spent their entire careers planning for a war with the Soviet Union that, fortunately, never came. Many at CENTCOM had spent their careers doing the same regarding Iran. Military Planners understood there weren’t any good military options when it came to war with Iran. But the nuclear deal had given Iran over $100 billion in hard cash. This amounted to a windfall that the Iranian regime would use not to improve the lives of its people, but to increase funding to Shi’a militias and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) who were now operating in close proximity to American soldiers in the fight against ISIS. (Time has proven this argument to be mostly accurate. But it is also true that the JCPOA provided protection to American troops from Shi’a militia and IRGC forces fighting in proximity to U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS.) CENTCOM viewed Trump’s willingness to pull the U.S. out of the deal unilaterally as nothing short of heroic.
The gulf between the civilian world and the military has been growing since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—wars that have touched more American families than at any time since Vietnam. Vietnam created a huge cultural divide in the U.S. that Richard Nixon successfully exploited, earning him one of the largest electoral victories in American history. But something more sinister may be afoot as we approach the 2020 election. Trump has done what Nixon ultimately could not do. He has, so far, avoided real accountability to Congress. He has successfully blurred the lines between lies and truth in the minds of the American public. He has undermined the institutions that have kept the U.S. safe since World War ll.
The extent of the visceral hatred much of the military feels for Democrats, the “deep state” and the “fake news media” is a new phenomenon. The belief that there is indeed a coup being orchestrated against President Trump is a weapon Trump has in his arsenal, depending how far down the road to authoritarianism he decides to go. But Trump would need to deeply fracture the military first, and that is something to watch for. Most members of the armed forces are honorable, patriotic Americans who would never take part in such a scheme, despite their support for Trump. But a significant portion just might.