America before the war on terror seems a quaint memory now. A decade-plus of perpetual conflict has distorted so much. But it’s worth remembering, or at least trying to: It wasn’t always like this.
The 9/11 generation of military officers came of age during these wars without end. Some of the young lieutenants and captains who were at Tora Bora in 2001 or Fallujah in 2004 are now majors and lieutenant colonels in charge of battalions or staffs. Others are part of the national security apparatus trying to learn from the lessons of the recent past rather than repeating them. Still others are leading civilian lives that have nothing to do with war or military culture. Wherever they are now, the formative experiences of going to war for the 21st century Pearl Harbor only for it to warp into something else entirely lingers within them—us. It’s all gone haywire in only 15 years, and this group of Americans was at the forefront for it all.
The president who started the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left office a long time ago. And now, so has another president who promised to end those wars. Now comes President Donald Trump, who has promised he “will be so good at the military, your head will spin.”
So there’s that. Not much in the way of a lucid plan, but what’s new? Potential pay increases aside, no one has more to lose from impetuous decisions made by our new president than our service members. Cautious though they are, they’re battle-tested, and used to being jerked around by American politics.
Days after the election in November, I gave a speech at an event at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. After, I chatted with an ROTC cadet unsure about commissioning as an officer into a military with Trump as commander in chief. The cadet believed in service to country. But—like most of us, the cadet hadn’t anticipated this, and had other options.
How to respond? As a citizen, I believe we need thoughtful, skeptical young officers from places like George Washington in the military now more than ever. But that’s so easy to say. My generation went through a similar decision-making process with the Iraq invasion in 2003, though a lot has happened since, and the world certainly feels more volatile than it was then, at least from the vantage point of American empire. I told the cadet that service means rising above politics, it means commitment to a cause and purpose bigger than oneself, and that the commissioning oath was to the Constitution, not to any one individual. Et cetera.
If that cadet had been my child, the conversation probably would’ve gone a different direction.
This is a strange moment for anyone who decided in the smoky aftermath of 9/11 to devote their life to American national security and foreign policy, whether a champion of the incoming Lord of the Heel Spur or a furious, bewildered skeptic. Just as we now have an entire crop of American young people who know nothing but their country bombing other places on television screens, we now have a military officer corps that has been in and out of combat for the entirety of their careers.
The Forever War, indeed.
Historically, the officer corps skews more conservative than the military at large—with a veneer of trying to follow the nonpartisan example set by Washington and Sherman and Marshall. DON’T SCREW UP LIKE ROME goes the subtext of the timeless lesson. Retired General Martin Dempsey, former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has taken up this mantle in the new era. “When the title or uniform is used for partisan purposes, it can erode the trust relationship,” he said in 2012. And during the crazed 2016 presidential campaign, it was Dempsey who reproached retired generals like Mike Flynn and John Allen for speaking with such political fervor at the respective party conventions.
But these are loud, fractious times, and military personnel read Twitter and Reddit, too. Taking the temperature of their politics can confound, though. Military veterans as a whole voted for Trump at about a 2-to-1 rate, though that comes with the obvious caveat that wider demographics shaped that ratio, such as 70 percent of vets being over the age of 50. Officers currently in uniform preferred Hillary Clinton, according to a series of Military Times polls leading up to the November election. This countered both their traditional voting preferences and that of their enlisted brethren, who overwhelmingly supported Trump in the Military Times polls.
In the age of Trump, anything is possible. Even military officers preferring a Clinton for president.
“Wary.” That’s the word an Army major named James uses to describe the atmosphere in his engineer battalion right now. “A lot of soldiers are excited, mostly because they detested… Hillary so much.” But he also draws a correlation between excitement for Trump with deployment inexperience. “Senior enlisted and mid-level and senior officers? There’s a lot more ‘WTF, Over.’ We’ve been doing this too long for this much unknown.”
That unknown. Inasmuch as Trumpland has articulated a coherent foreign policy, keeping clear of more protracted conflicts involving ground forces has been it. Which almost certainly means a continued reliance on special operations and drone strikes. Which means continuing at least some of the Obama administration’s “light footprint” approach, though it’ll certainly be packaged otherwise.
That acceptance of the everlasting nature of war in 2017 was one of three recurring ideas expressed by current military officers time and time again in interviews. The other two were a deep trust in, and respect for, Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, and a pronounced fear of going on the record and being identified, even more than normal. Service members tend to be skittish with the media, especially officers, but this was something else altogether.
“Sorry, man,” went one declined interview. “Brave new world. Not about to see if the incoming COC monitors my lowly level.”
One active Marine junior officer wasn’t as cautious. He was very eager to tell me he’s an avid Trump supporter. “Everyone I know in my unit is too,” he said, adding that he’d have voted “for Bin Laden before [Hillary]. And al Qaeda tried to kill me. Twice.”
The Marine junior officer then asked if I’d heard about Hillary belonging to a Satanist cult. I’m sure he’s good and effective at his job, but as I tried to push back on the conspiracy theory, I couldn’t help but think of a veteran friend’s quip anytime a citizen tells him they support the troops. “That’s way too encompassing. Me, I support, like, 90 percent of the troops.”
Our military—any professional military, for that matter—is always going to attract a certain type of rigid thinker drawn to authoritarianism; what one of my officer basic course instructors liked to call “Goose Steppers” after the German parade drill. Truth be told, sometimes you want a Goose Stepper or two next to you in the proverbial foxhole. But Goose Steppers making strategic and operational military decisions should turn the stomach of any American, whatever their politics of choice. That’s a concern always, especially in an era of an all-volunteer force fighting perpetual conflict for a republic.
“Business as usual,” an Air Force officer attached to a SOCOM (Special Operations Command) unit wrote me in an email. “At least until told otherwise.” And then? “You got to be flexible for this life. Then we flex to the next thing.”
There’s hard-earned wisdom in those words, and, perhaps, a cynical sort of fatalism. The exchange made me think of the ROTC cadet at George Washington, and conversations I’ve had with other cadets at various universities in recent years. These cadets will be lieutenants and ensigns soon enough, leading soldiers and sailors in our collective name. In some ways, they remind of my own ROTC days in the early aughts—brash, idealistic, and so much younger than they think they are. In other ways, though, they’re well ahead of the curve. We became military officers thinking we’d end something. This next generation seems to hold no such delusions.
“What’s there to end?” one asked me rhetorically at my alma mater Wake Forest last spring. “Someone needs to go. Send me.”
Our young people are still willing, somehow. That’s incredible, and inspiring. We’ve all failed them, though, if they’re asking “What’s there to end?” at age 21.