‘In the Tank’ for the Brass, WaPo Casts Trump as the Dunce
The slavish press continues to promote the interests of Pentagon power. Sadly, history is not on the Donald's side.
On January 17, The Washington Post ran an excerpt from a new book, A Very Stable Genius: Donald Trump’s Testing of America. Co-authors Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, both Post reporters, describe a July 2017 meeting of President Trump and his top national security and economic advisers in “The Tank,” a sanctum within the Pentagon.
According to the co-authors, the advisers—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and National Economic Council Chairman Gary Cohn—convened the meeting to teach Trump some lessons. The goal was to hold a “tailored tutorial…to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.”
We might observe the planted assumption here—the assumption that the current system is so good that it must preserved as is. Thus the advisers’ challenge was to get Trump, that poor student, to see the genius of the status quo.
We can further observe that it’s perfectly understandable that a bureaucracy would feel that it is doing everything right; it’s the natural instinct of bureaucrats to defend their standard operating procedure. And yet as we shall see, journalists—those presumed questioners of orthodoxy—are happy to work with entrenched power to vindicate current arrangements.
In other words, the Deep State and the Fourth Estate are joined together, at least for the purpose of attacking Trump. In the Post’s framing, Trump’s advisers are unfailingly wise and patient, while Trump is unfailingly dumb and petulant.
The journalists, benefiting from extraordinary access to the thinking of the top Trump advisers—as well as others in the room, including uniformed officers—report that they “believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more dangerous impulses.” Meanwhile, Trump’s reaction to the briefing is described variously as “coarse and cavalier,” “rage,” “tirade,” and “venom.”
The Post concludes ruefully: “The plan by Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn to train the president to appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.” Indeed, Trump is painted as stunningly hostile to his advisers’ ministrations: “Rather than getting him to appreciate America’s traditional role and alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts.”
So that’s the problem with Trump, revealed to readers: he doesn’t appreciate dutiful experts and their carefully presented internationalism. Ooh! Trump is so busted!
The Post‘s excerpt is 4,500 words long and provides plentiful fodder for Trump-phobes, who are no doubt happy to believe its every word.
Yet for what it’s worth, another of the participants, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had a softer take. Dunford later told a reporter about Trump in the meeting, “He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders.” The Post reporters dismiss Dunford’s characterization as “misleading,” and since none of the rest of us were there, we might never know for sure what was actually said—unless, of course, the Pentagon recorded the session.
Yet even as the Post reporters question Dunford’s veracity, what’s striking, still, is that the excerpt displays such such reverence toward the brass and the overall national security apparatus—an attitude that might seem at odds with presumed journalistic irreverence.
Indeed, the excerpt displays distinct admiration for the current missions of the military—a stance that might seem contrary to observable reality. For instance, we read that the briefers tried to explain to Trump “how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells, nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Korea Peninsula, and Syria.”
From the preceding list of military engagements—which many observers deem dubious, counter-productive, or at least obsolete—we might single out one, Afghanistan. Yet here, in regard to the American mission in that forlorn country, the Post co-authors heap their most scornful scorn on Trump, who’s quoted as saying that Afghanistan is a “loser war.” We are then informed that upon hearing those words, those in the room—many of whom were Afghan veterans—were “sickened.”
We can each have our own opinions as to Trump’s vocabulary, yet we might all conclude that the situation in Afghanistan is, at the very least, distressing.
After all, it was just on December 9 that the same Washington Post published documents unearthed from the depths of the Pentagon, the so-called “Afghanistan Papers.” The Post headline atop that scoop was blunt: “At War with the Truth: U.S. officials constantly said they were making progress. They were not, and they knew it.” Some might find that disjunction about the truth distressing—and maybe even sickening.
Indeed, just two days before it ran the Trump-in-the-Tank story, the Postquoted the inspector general for Afghanistan, John Sopko, telling Congress, “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue…mendacity and hubris.” If so, are the more than 2,200 American deaths in Afghanistan even more…sickening?
Yet in that book excerpt in the Post, the co-authors choose to make the diplomats and generals who defend the Afghan war look like the good guys, while Trump, of course, is the bad guy. So how, exactly, does that work?
One obvious point is that the mainstream media loathes Trump more than it loathes war, so it is happy to enlist everyone and anyone—even hawkish generals—as hammers against the Orange Man.
As of now, it’s hard to know exactly who is driving this stout defense of the Afghan quagmire. Is it the generals and the military Deep State? Or is it civilian think-tankers and pundits—those who have been so noisy and effective in their war advocacy over these past two decades? It might, in fact, be a long time before we reach a satisfactory apportionment of responsibility for our many military misadventures.
Yet in the meantime, for perspective, we might think back to another military muddle, World War I. That war, which claimed nine million lives in combat, is commonly regarded as the nadir of generalship; obtuse commanders failed to understand that new technological developments—including the machine gun, rapid-fire artillery, and barbed wire—had made familiar infantry advances suicidally ineffective. Yet the generals, serene in their secure headquarters, didn’t seem to care. In the chill words of Winston Churchill, they were “content to fight machine-gun battles with the breasts of gallant young men.”
More valuable perspective on military thinking during the Great War comes from a key figure in the British government in those years, David Lloyd George; the Welshman, sometimes known as the “Welsh Wizard,” held top ministerial posts throughout the conflict, including the prime ministership after 1916.
Coming to Number 10 Downing Street in the middle of the fighting as the head of a precarious coalition government, Lloyd George found, to his dismay, that he had no leverage with the military, which was engorged, of course, by the magnitude of the mobilization—as well as further aggrandized by the patriotic halo circling King and Country. So even the skeptical prime minister found himself rolled by overconfident generals.
Thus the war dragged on, with one bloody frustration came after another. In the more than four years of fighting, British combat deaths numbered nearly one million; in addition, its colonies and territories lost another almost quarter-million dead. Indeed, Britain and its even more bloodied ally, France, were confronting a prospect no better than a stalemate until the Americans went Over There and overwhelmed the Kaiser.
A decade and a half later, beginning in 1933, Lloyd George finally found his voice. In six volumes of memoir, writing in a tone of erudite fury—greatly aided by helpers, including the eminent military historian B.H. Liddell Hart—George ripped into the generals who had bureaucratically bested him during the war years.
Today, were Trump a reader of history, he would no doubt savor George’s skewering of “epauletted egoism…impenetrable to the assault of ideas.” As George said of the Somme Offensive of July 1916—which was such a catastrophe that it collapsed the predecessor government and brought him into the premiership—it was “the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.”
Yet even in the wake of that debacle, Lloyd George sighed, the imperial general staff clung to “the same old strategy, the same platitudes in action.”
Still, there was one area in which the generals were freshly skilled: institutional self-preservation. “The merest breath of criticism on any military operation is far too often dismissed as an intrigue against the commander-in-chief [General Sir William Robertson].” And speaking of intrigue, as Lloyd George further noted, the military was remarkably skilled at cranking out self-serving propaganda.
Thus, the following year, 1917, the generals wanted more—more of the same. Despite Lloyd George’s objections, they pushed for a new offensive at Passchendaele. In the memoirist’s words, the generals would rather see “the million perish than that they as leaders should own—even to themselves—that they were blunderers.”
Lloyd George protested that the overall military situation had changed greatly in 1917, and not necessarily to the Allies’ benefit: the Italians were floundering, the Romanians had been defeated, Russia was in revolution, and the French army was in mutiny. In the meantime, though, the Americans were coming, so perhaps, George suggested, it was time for a pause to reassess the strategic situation—and wait for brawny Uncle Sam.
Yet the British general staff dismissed the prime minister’s caution, declaring blithely in response that there had been “no alteration in the fundamental facts that determined strategy.” An exasperated Lloyd George lamented: “Every time the altered circumstances were urged upon them, they treated them as irrelevancies. What mattered to them was that the French Generals had been given their chance and had missed it, and that the British Generals must not be robbed of theirs. They meant to have it and show the French how to use it.”
In the face of this phalanx of intellectual and institutional stubbornness, even mindlessness, the prime minister was helpless to stop the coming offensive: “Frankly on this subject the Government was so divided that it could not overrule the military experts.” For their part, the generals understood that their political opponents were weak: “They were fully aware of that division and took full advantage of circumstance to stick to their plan.” Lloyd George recalls the result: “We know what a ghastly fiasco it all turned out to be.”
Lloyd George’s memoir has been accused of being self-serving, and no doubt it was. Yet as one contemporary reviewer, Lawrence B. Packard, a professor at Amherst and himself a veteran of the war, wrote in the American Historical Review in April 1935, “In his major contentions refutation is difficult…Lloyd George turned out to be right and the generals wrong.”
It must have been small comfort to the British people—including the many widows and orphans of the Great War—that the former prime minister had gotten the last word on his beribboned nemeses. These generals, in fact, have been damned by history, and Lloyd George’s memoirs played no small part in that condemnation.
Yet a century later, we can still learn lessons about generals and their mindset, about how they have ways of manipulating politicians when it matters most—that is, when soldiers are fighting and dying. To be sure, politicians aren’t always right and generals aren’t always wrong—and in fact, civilian savants seem to have the worst track record of all—yet if we can gather enough historical data points, we might accumulate something akin to wisdom. Including the wisdom to stop piling failure upon failure.
His crude words aside, that’s a wisdom that Trump seems to possess more than his detractors in and around the Pentagon—or at The Washington Post.
Yet we should note, of course, that for all his bravado about ending “endless wars,” Trump has so far been unable to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan—or anywhere else, for that matter.
And if America remains so quagmired, then a century from now, historians will be recalling that, like David Lloyd George before him, Donald John Trump could see a bad plan going badly—and he couldn’t do anything to stop it.