For most of the 21st century, American presidents have been busy proving that the U.S. military cannot bring peace and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan. But that does not stop the current president from believing it can bring peace and stability to American cities.
On Monday, Donald Trump made it clear that his tiny quota of patience was running out. “If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” he warned, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” He has in mind going beyond the traditional use of the National Guard in favor of active-duty troops.
He got a loud amen on the op-ed page of The New York Times from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who urged the deployment of troops in “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” Cotton had previously said he would like the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division (motto: “Death from Above”) to move in and show “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”
Conservative writer and Iraq war veteran David French noted that Cotton, a former Army Ranger who saw combat in Afghanistan and graduated from Harvard Law School, knows the term “no quarter” means that enemy combatants who try to surrender shall be “summarily executed.” French, also a Harvard Law graduate, noted that “such an order is banned by international law and would, if carried out, be murder under American law.”
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Trump and Cotton are eager to see American soldiers occupy American cities and shoot American citizens for breaking windows or stealing sneakers. Cotton referred to the troublemakers as “antifa terrorists,” which suggests they deserve particularly harsh treatment.
Trump has an infatuation with displays of military might that is particularly odd coming from someone who dodged the Vietnam draft. That obsession was creepy enough when he was gleefully referring to his first defense secretary by his nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis (which Mattis disliked) or gushing over World War II Gen. George Patton (“one of the roughest guys”).
Even worse was Trump’s plan to roll tanks through the nation’s capital to celebrate last year’s Fourth of July. When that proved unfeasible because of the damage that streets would incur from 60-ton vehicles,^ Trump settled for parking them at the Lincoln Memorial.
His fondness for military equipment is not encumbered by knowledge. He celebrated the arrival of “brand-new Sherman tanks” in Washington, though Sherman tanks haven’t been used since 1957.
The president who revels in commanding the armed forces has no particular respect for uniformed military leaders. He said in 2015, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.” At a 2017 meeting at the Pentagon, he told a group of senior officers: “I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
After former defense secretary James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, criticized Trump’s handling of recent protests, the president called him “the world’s most overrated general.” Trump, who has as much experience in the military as Ariana Grande, extols his martial aptitude. “I think I would’ve been a good general,” he said last year. In fairness, he would probably be no worse a general than he is a president.
Trump is always trying to co-opt the American military’s power and competence He never tires of exploiting the public’s high regard for those in uniform to serve his political needs.
But the past two decades have proven the limits of what military force can accomplish. Our invasion of Iraq empowered people who Cotton might describe as “insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died in the subsequent turmoil. Nearly 19 years after we arrived in Afghanistan, the government controls less than a third of the country’s districts.
The U.S. military is very good at killing people, clearing enemies out of their territory and pulverizing infrastructure. But those skills are ill-suited to the task of dealing with Americans who are protesting or even rioting in their own communities
Doing that job with appropriate restraint is beyond the capacity of some police officers, despite their extensive training. To ask it of men and women whose basic mission is killing enemies is to invite mass bloodshed on our streets — and to risk destroying public trust in the military.
Trump and Cotton say they want to restore peace to our cities. But they act like they’re itching for war.