Salute and Serve
Nervous Pentagon Wonders if It Can Slow Down Commander in Chief Trump
Every troop swears to follow the orders of the president. But what if those orders constitute a war crime? Some at the Pentagon say they could stonewall or refuse—but will they?
Even as in some parts of the Pentagon the shock of Tuesday’s election was setting in, there already was talk about how the military’s legal and constitutional duties could serve as a check and balance against some of President-elect Donald Trump’s potentially troubling national-security policies.
To become a member of the U.S. military, every troop must take an oath to follow the orders of the president, regardless of that service member’s political affiliation or personal opinions.
“We have to salute and serve for this country,” one officer told The Daily Beast. “We can’t do that if we are seen as political.”
On Wednesday at the Pentagon, commanders privately said, if there was ever a reason to be grateful for its apolitical military, it was now. An apolitical military does not swear an oath to a person but an office and a Constitution.
That separation allows commanders advising President Trump to refuse to follow orders that call for committing war crimes, like his proposal to kill the families of suspected terrorists. In March, Trump said he would force the military to commit war crimes.
If President Trump proposes an idea the military uniformly considers legal but dangerous, commanders have a knack for stonewalling to buy time in hopes for crisis to pass, much as the military did in 1970 when President Nixon wanted to launch strikes in the Middle East.
There is just one question: Will they? Will the U.S. military be so bold? Will the generals stand up to their commander in chief? In recent history, like the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq, the military has been less than forceful about standing up to civilians.
On Wednesday, nobody could say for sure.
Instead, Tuesday’s election was something to be discussed only with trusted colleagues. After all, if the military is supposed to be apolitical, election-related talk becomes touchy on the most innocuous of days. And this time, there was a patina of suspicion among troops and civilian employees of the Pentagon, as though colleagues were suddenly unsure of the political leanings of those around them.
There was no way to distract oneself with draft plans based on Trump’s military proposals, officials said, since he proposed both sides of most issues throughout the campaign. He said he wanted to add as many as 70,000 troops to the Army but said the U.S. should stop nation-building. He slammed NATO but also said he would work with it. His posture toward Russia seems to counter his promise to put America’s interests first and project a strong, forceful American policy.
Just two days ago, he called those U.S. forces leading the offensive to rid the Iraqi city of Mosul of the self-proclaimed Islamic State a “group of losers.”
“Let’s be honest. We have no idea what he is going to do. Maybe he was just saying that stuff for the election,” one Army colonel suggested.
To avoid political pitfalls, troops answered election-related questions by repeating the relevant part of their oath—with one newly added caveat.
“I will obey the orders of the president of the United States. I will obey the orders of the president of the United States. I will obey the orders of the president of the United States—unless ordered to do something illegal.”
To be sure, much as Washington does not reflect the rest of the country, the Pentagon does not mirror the rest of military. There were Trump supporters at the building, quiety jubilant. They said they trusted Trump more and that they wanted marked change in Washington.
Polls of the U.S. military leading up to Tuesday’s election offered a variety of results. A September NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election poll found Trump led among active-duty service members and veterans by 19 percentage points, 55 to 36 percent. The same survey found that active-duty service members and veterans were more confident in Trump as commander in chief than the general public. They were less confident about Hillary Clinton as the head of the armed forces than non-military surveyed.
There also appeared to be a divide between officers and enlisted troops. A September Military Times poll found that 28 percent of officers favored Clinton, compared to 14 percent of enlisted troops. The numbers were in reverse for Trump. According to the survey, 26 percent of officers supported the eventual 2016 presidential winner compared to 40 percent of enlisted troops.
The Military Times survey of 2,200 troops concluded that Trump beat Clinton easily overall among troops, 38 to 16 percent. Trump’s biggest challenger among the military, the poll found, was not Clinton but Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who earned 37 percent support overall of those surveyed.
The tone of the campaign language hung over the building in the hours after the only survey that ultimately mattered, the one conducted on Election Day. Will the man who referred to grabbing women “by the pussy” support the military’s effort to integrate women in combat units, now less than a year old?
Will a man who has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin protect U.S. allies that also are Putin’s foes, like Ukraine?
For months, the Pentagon has been prepping for the election. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has sent no fewer than six messages urging commanders to remain apolitical. But the messages could not predict the nation’s reaction.
“Importantly, as an institution, the American people cannot be looking at us as a special-interest group or a partisan organization,” Dunford told reporters in August.