Republican presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed to build up the U.S. military if elected president.
But it is not clear he will have the experienced commanders within the ranks to do it.
In the halls of the Pentagon, there is a different plan afoot for the Trump presidency. Here, officers are privately contemplating what they would do should Trump become their commander-in-chief. And more often than not, they proclaim they will leave.
“By 2016 I will have my 20 years in and can get out of here,” one military official said, referring to the amount of time a service member needs to collect retirement pay.
Spend enough time with a service member, and the topic of Trump comes up, always unsolicited. It is far less political than it sounds. Trump’s attack plans for the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS—his call to ban Muslims from the United States, his suggestions that cutting off the flow of information through the Internet can protect the homeland—many said, are an affront to the values they vowed to die to defend.
Each one of them took an oath to defend the Constitution, which protects freedom of speech and gives Congress, not just one person, the power to send the nation to war. They also swear to “obey the orders of the president of the United States.”
In other words: The plans of the next president are personal to them.
Some said repeatedly hearing Trump and the other GOP candidates spelling out a plan that is only a more brazen—and perhaps reckless—version of the current strategy was not reassuring. They noted that for all the talk of supporting the troops, Congress has yet to pass an updated Authorization of the Use of the Military Force, which would in effect mark a congressional buy-in to the war effort. That some of the candidates have said they support a new AUMF, but have yet to pass one, was only moderately reassuring, they said.
This Daily Beast correspondent has heard such sentiments from at least a dozen commanders in the past few months. Such conversations can also be heard at common areas—in cafeteria lines and around lunch tables.
There are fears of being asked to carry out futile war plans that would bring instability. Almost all of today’s commanders are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They all know someone who died in combat; indeed, they may have sent someone on a mission that ended with death. And because of that they bring a unique vantage point to lessons learned, from the frontlines where the cruelty of warfare is impossible to miss. Those who send them, meanwhile, sit thousands of miles away and learn what is happening through the filter of distance.
The U.S. military still is rebuilding after a decade of repeated deployments and overworn equipment. And the prospect of endless quasi-war thousands of miles away—even if it’s fought mostly by drones and elite special operations forces—is not tenable, they argue. These commanders are too focused on recovering from the last war to hear politicans talk about the prospect of a future one.
And so in the course of conversation, plots of a different kind emerge—contingencies in case Trump really is elected to the White House.
“This is not the country I joined to defend.”
“I am turning in my papers.”
“I’m moving to a farm.”
The words broadly echoed what flag officers have said in the past about the reality show star: “Personally, I hope no one will be called upon to serve under a President T… I can’t bring myself to type the words,” retired Rear Admiral John Hutson, who once served as the Navy’s top lawyer, told The Daily Beast in July.
To be sure, those views are not uniform. Commanders deployed outside the Pentagon said they hear enlisted troops enthusiastically support Trump. Some describe enlisted service members fighting with family or other soldiers in defense of the real talk from the real estate mogul. But the Pentagon is an unusual military posting, one where it is easier to spot a general than a corporal. And if the divide between the enlisted and officers is true, the former—the base of Trump’s military support—are not a well-represented population within the headquarters of the United States military.
Regardless, such fervor about political matters is a jarring thing to hear at first from those in uniform; they serve in a part of government that urges service members to drop any sense of identity or partisan politics. It is unusual to see someone in uniform even say whether they are Republican or Democrat, and if they do, often it is whispered like a secret; the final case of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” if you will.
Soldiers will spend years with a comrade and never know his political leanings. Some generals refuse to vote, a signal that they will obey whoever is commander-in-chief.
But in the course of the 2016 campaign it is clear that the nation’s political polarization has seeped into the military, particularly after Wednesday’s debate, which focused on national security.
None of the candidates’ proposals appeared to gain traction at the building Wednesday.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced that he wanted a bombing campaign on places like Raqqa, Syria—ISIS’s capital—that was both indiscriminate—he used the term “carpet bombing”—and ultra-precise.
“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops. You use air power directed—and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists,” Cruz said.
“Did you hear what Cruz said? How the hell do we do prick point carpet bombing?” asked one service member Wednesday to a colleague.
“Like we can just level a city,” responded another.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said he would shoot down Russian jets flying in a no-fly zone that would be in place over Syria under his presidency.
“I remember the no-fly zone over Iraq [during the 1990s]. That was so expensive,” one Air Force officer responded about the proposal.
Neurosurgeon Ben Carson suggested that flattening ISIS-controlled cities would be “merciful,” even if it killed civilians as it would eliminate the threat.
“How does brain surgery prepare you to be president?” one Marine asked.
And Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said “we need to destroy ISIS in the caliphate” by investing in the military, but didn’t spell out how that would happen.
Still another soldier said, “Good luck with that.”