War Stories

The Problem With Trump and the Troops

The president loves the military’s pomp and power. But service and sacrifice make him uncomfortable.

Donald and Melania Trump visit Marines.
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump listen to Marines while visiting Marine Barracks on Thursday in D.C.
Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images

What is it with Trump and the troops?

His skipping out of the memorial for the American soldiers buried outside Paris on the centenary of World War I’s armistice, his no-show at Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day, his failure to visit a single American war zone after almost two years in office—all reflect something strangely aloof about this president’s view of his most basic rituals and obligations as the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces. But what are the roots of this strangeness?

A recent story in the New York Times cited an unnamed source suggesting that Trump hasn’t greeted the troops in battle because he doesn’t support the wars they’re fighting and thinks a visit would lend their mission legitimacy. But this makes no sense for at least two reasons. First, though Trump initially wanted to get out of the war in Afghanistan, he ultimately decided early this year to increase the number of troops there. Second, President Obama campaigned on withdrawing troops from Iraq—and did so, on schedule—but nonetheless paid them a visit less than three months into his first term. Similarly, Dwight Eisenhower ran in 1952 on a promise to end the war in Korea but visited the troops after winning the election as a prelude to withdrawal.

Some see Trump’s laxity as another instance of his narcissism: if an event, trip, commitment, or policy can’t be seen as all about him, he’s not interested. And if he’s the object of criticism, he swings back, often wildly, regardless of the critic.

This explains his rant this week against retired Adm. William McRaven, the former commander of U.S. special operations forces and architect of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, as a “Hillary Clinton fan” and “Obama backer” and, ipso facto, unworthy of respect. McRaven had criticized Trump for attacking the media and, before then, for revoking former CIA Director John Brennan’s security clearance. But this trait doesn’t explain his failure to visit troops, who would treat any president with respect and cheers, or to stand solemnly at a military cemetery, where he could wrap himself in past glories without protest.

Others wonder if he might be afraid to put himself in what might be harm’s way. Possibly, but security around a president in a war zone is massively tight; the chances of getting shot or blown up are probably lower than at many other sites where he might travel.

I think the real cause of his failure here runs deeper: It lies in a discomfort with the whole idea of service or sacrifice.

On an everyday level, he regards those who give something of themselves as chumps. Note his pride in evading taxes (“That makes me smart,” he bragged during one of the 2016 debates), his skirting of promises to make charitable donations and even his obligations to pay vendors in his various failed business projects.

But in extraordinary matters, specifically when people give their service and make sacrifices on his orders, as the men and women of the armed forces do routinely, his discomfort intensifies to nausea—he can’t face the connection to death and tragedy.

One time, early in his presidency, Trump made the journey to Dover Air Base to see a fallen warrior returned in his casket and to mourn with his family. In this case, the soldier was William “Ryan” Owens, who’d died in an ambush in Yemen, during the first military operation that Trump approved as president. Trump was rattled by the ceremony (by all accounts, they are always grimly overpowering affairs) and, according to Bob Woodward’s Fear, let it be known he would never come to Dover again. Subsequently, he blamed Owens’ death on the generals who’d planned the mission, ignoring the fact that he’d approved it.

Trump says he’s done more for the troops than any president “in many, many years”—a claim he might believe, since he’s never studied the past. He tosses around references to “my military” and “my generals,” and arguably, he has a claim to the possessive, since he is their commander in chief. But such talk would seem less arrogant and pretentious if he displayed the slightest interest in what they do and how they are.

No president so devoted to the troops would have sent 5,200 of them to the Mexican border for the sole purpose of shoring up his party’s candidates for the midterms, a motive all too clearly confirmed when he stopped hyping the Central American migrant caravan as an “invasion” the day after and, a week hence, announced the mission would be ending, even as the migrants drew near.

Trump adores the pomp and circumstance of war’s vestiges. He craves a military parade and was crushed when the Pentagon told him the price tag for the parade he wanted to throw in downtown Washington would be too high even for his taste. He’d said the idea was to honor the troops, few of whom wanted it (they’re too busy for pageantry these days), though its real purpose—as was clear to the officers who’d rolled their eyes at the request—would have been to lavish garlands on himself as he stood on the dais, beaming, like the commissars on May Day in Red Square, as he inspected their ranks.

He knows nothing of war’s realities and, clearly, has no desire for enlightenment. Even a peripheral exposure might highlight his responsibility for what happens on the battlefields as well as the aftermath, and that would be unacceptable to a man who seems to treat his presidency as a big show judged by ratings, not consequences.