As the effort to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan continues to unfold, public support for the military as an institution has remained high, as has appreciation for service members themselves.
After 18 years of war, Americans have grown used to thinking separately about soldiers and their missions. But what would happen if President Donald Trump started a new war?
The prospect seemed real as recently as January, in a week of brinkmanship with Iran that followed the killing of an Iranian general.
It was not the tactical aspects of a confrontation that are worrisome. Instead, as a military law scholar and military lawyer, I was troubled by the question of how the men and women tasked with doing the fighting would be viewed by their fellow Americans.
Many Americans would likely view a Trumpian war as a misguided effort. It’s too optimistic to assume service members would be immune from the emotions generated by their commander-in-chief. In fact, a scenario where the troops become political targets is becoming more likely.
Trump has tied the military into partisan politics in a new way, one that has transformed the military’s public image. He has made similar efforts in the Department of Justice and the federal judiciary, but making the armed forces a political tool may be the most significant.
He has attacked political opponents during speeches to the troops, humiliated top Pentagon thinkers and strategists, and pardoned rogue operators accused of war crimes. Most recently, he had impeachment witness Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman escorted out of the White House.
The language Trump uses is most notable. His frequent use of the phrase “my generals” irks strait-laced military types, prompting former Defense Secretary William Cohen to retort: “It is not his military. These are not his generals.”
This sort of behavior is meant to convey the idea service members work for him personally, as subordinates of their commander-in-chief. By projecting a sense of ownership over service members, Trump has ushered them into the political arena.
The framers worried that if the public became disconnected from the military members who defended them, the president would be inclined to exert partisan control over the troops.
Politicization of the military, they said, would destabilize the new democracy. James Madison observed “a standing army is one of the greatest mischief that can possibly happen.” When led by an “overgrown Executive,” Madison added, a standing army becomes a grave threat to liberty.
The framers sought to guard against presidential mischief-making by giving Congress the ability to declare war and control the military budget. But perhaps the most vital check on outsized presidential control, they said, would be the citizen-soldier.
Instead of a large standing army, the framers embraced a system in which merchants, teachers and lawyers alike would serve part-time in state militias.
As members of the militias, civilians from all social strata would, in effect, have their own power to decide when to wage war. Reflecting on the framers’ theory, Gen. George Marshall, agreed in 1951: “There must not be a large standing army subject to the behest of a group of schemers. The citizen-soldier is the guarantee against such a misuse of power.”
Over the years, the U.S. has rejected the framers’ guidance. The notion that “every citizen should be a soldier” is now a quaint idea from a bygone era.
Service members and everyday Americans have become virtual strangers.
The disconnection is most striking at the top echelons of society. Neither Trump nor more than 80 percent of congressional members have served in the military.
As the president continues to merge the military into his political agenda, it’s clear the checks and balances the framers built into the Constitution to prevent presidential domination of the armed forces aren’t working. A president can merely veto any attempt to restrain his war-making ability, as Trump has done before.
The framers’ fail-safe is gone, too. The civic norm of universal service has given way to an isolated, and insular, all-volunteer force. That leaves conditions ripe for those who serve in those wars to be blamed for the conflict as much as the politicians who might actually start it.
It’s certainly much easier to revile strangers in a professional, all-volunteer army than to rain disapproval on cousins, neighbors and co-workers in a citizen militia.