Donald J. Trump pretended to be presidential and the graduating cadets pretended to listen. Such are the life and times of a nation led by a reality television star who’s currently at war with his own military. Presidents regularly deliver West Point commencement addresses, or – on off year rotations to the Naval or Air Force academies – send prominent proxies. Sometimes commanders-in-chief even take the opportunity to signal strategic policy shifts. I was in the audience in 2002, after all, when Ellen and Michelle’s new friend George W. Bush ("our values are the same") announced the military "preemption doctrine" that resulted in thousands of troop, and perhaps millions of foreign, deaths.
Trump’s vacuous speech this past Friday was not one of those performances. He mainly stuck to canned clichés, written by minions and read off a teleprompter. It was clear he’d been coached. His more politically savvy handlers understood – just as Trump’s remarks should be taken in – the messy context of the moment. In the wake of pandemic (the graduates seated a social-distanced-friendly six-feet apart) and protests, rising rank-and-file dissent, and public rebukes from nearly every notable retired flag officer, it’s clear the president and nation face a civil-military crisis.
Thus, like a previous – if more polished and likable – showman come president, Ronald Reagan, The Donald mostly treated the newly minted lieutenants to 30 minutes of nuance-free nostalgic yarn. Having been one of those perennially sardonic cadets, I couldn’t help but wonder how many inevitably scored big in a game we used to call platitudinal "buzz-word bingo." Overall, Trump played it safe, mainly avoided controversy, complexity or – God forbid – addressing the relevant elephant (systemic injustice) in the room (well, parade field).
Nonetheless, The Donald being Donald, he let slip a few Trumpisms. Naturally, the man can’t help himself. In fact, his lack of self-control and his insecurity-driven faux confidence often induce nearly refreshing honesty. I prefer my monsters visible rather than under beds or in closets. That said, more instructive and disturbing is what his speechwriters and protective lackeys wrote up.
In their cautious attempt to say nothing they actually imparted plenty – at least for informed listeners with a nose for history and policy. On offer – despite two reasonable calls for "ending endless wars" – was more of the same: aggressive interventionism, exploding inertial defense budgets (which Trump bragged about), a new two-front (Russia/China) Cold War to justify them, and an obtuse unwillingness to grapple with race and militarized policing.
Politely cloaked in cliché, the speech befit the "Lost Cause" of all those Confederate-titled military bases Trump flatly refuses to rename (the Pentagon was open to it). Here was an intransigent invocation of a clearly discredited, Republican-flavored, but bipartisan, national security status quo. That Trump spoke amidst a pandemic and protests exposing the foundational rot of such dogma only reflects his special brand of myopia.
In part, the speech’s nostalgic obstinance reflects the character and prejudices of the president. Its writers work for – and presumably needed approval – from the capo di tutti capi himself. More than that, the remarks register an administration – and perhaps Washington-wide – lack of imagination. Despite two decades of perennially waging it, war remains (by design) an abstraction for the chickenhawks running it. Race, militarized policing, and systemic social injustice? Well, this crew sees them as "lefty" issues unworthy of their "patriotic" time. As a result, in this extraordinary era of national crisis and potential pivot, President Trump conspicuously failed to name the wars America actually fights, how it now fights them, or the crystal clear symptoms of an empire come home to roost.
So, while I seriously considered a Mystery Science Theater-style in-line parody of Trump’s transcript, let us instead consider the speech by the illustrative numbers:
- Zero: Usage of the words: "Afghanistan," "Iraq," "Iran," "Syria," "Somalia," "Venezuela," "Yemen," "Pakistan," or, heck, the continent of "Africa." You know, the places the U.S. military actually fights – personally or by proxy – across the world today; the spots where countless thousands of foreigners (even children) are killed. In Trump’s tenure alone, ever-adulated American soldiers have died in six of these unuttered locales.
Perhaps the president’s follow-through-free rhetorical strategy for ending endless wars coheres to the Beetlejuice method: the conflicts aren’t real unless thrice-spoken (or in Trump’s case utter at all). Sardonic exasperation aside, there’s something obscene about ignoring the places these 1,107 graduates will soon kill and die in. Oh, and Trump didn’t once speak the words: "drone," "special forces," "cyber," "nuclear," "intelligence," or "sanctions" – how the military fights – or (one last minor matter) "Al Qaeda," or "9/11." It’s been awhile, but I vaguely remember those last two being important at the crusade’s outset.
One: Mention of China (the only "enemy" state named) – a reference to the US military’s ostensible role in "vanquishing" the "new virus that came to our shores from a distant land called China." Trump just couldn’t help himself; his consistency almost impressive. In a verbal version of the groundhog seeing his shadow, it’s a safe bet the president’s passive-aggressive China tic portends six more decades of (unnecessary) Cold War.
Three. Famous dead West Pointer generals Trump dedicated a full paragraph to. The first was US Grant; the other two slightly more problematic – if totally predictable – in this moment of mass protests and the president’s escalatory threats-by-tweet: George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. While both officers are venerated at the academy (with campus statues, for instance), and gained fame in World War II, they were also part and parcel to a rather dark, oft-forgotten chapter of American History – the 1932 veterans’ Bonus March.
Mac led the brutal suppression of that peaceful protest, ordering tanks, tear gas, cavalrymen, and bayonet-wielding infantry to clear the capitol. And, like our modern president, he peddled in slander and misinformation: claiming only ten percent were "actual" veterans (90+ percent were later confirmed to be), and that the marchers were "animated by the essence of revolution." Patton was an enthusiastic participant, instructing his soldiers that "If you must fire do a good job-a few casualties become martyrs, a large number an object lesson…When a mob starts to move…Use a bayonet to encourage its retreat. If running, a few good wounds in the buttocks." In the end, hundreds were injured, and a baby killed. That Trump invoked Patton and MacArthur during these times – both in his speech and a recent tweet lauding their toughness – raises a salient question. Does he not know this history (likely) or does he approve of the Bonus March suppression (quite possible)? I know it’s not strictly possible, but somehow I vote both!
Eight: References to the Second World War. These included conjuring the Rangers scaling Pointe Du Hoc on D-Day, the Normandy invasion itself, "thundering columns of Sherman tanks," the defense of Bastogne, "sinister Nazis," and a few nods to the war’s four-star general West Point grads. See, if the wars one has are too ethically and strategically ambiguous to name, why not repeatedly invoke the (world) war many wistfully want. That D-, VE-, and VJ-days have negligible relevance to contemporary conflicts is beside the point. Like Bush, Reagan, and others before him, Trump recognizes – and is particularly satisfied by – the handy heuristic of World War II "good versus evil" nostalgia. Consider it the go-to historical and policy manifestation of the old adage: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
Finally, we come back to Zero: uses of the words "Floyd," "racism," "murder," or "protest." Trump did, of course, mention the "rule of law," and proclaim that the US military is "not the policeman of the world." He conveniently omitted any similar disclaimer about policing America’s streets. The bottom line shouldn’t surprise anyone (considering the source): Donald Trump didn’t say a solitary word about the reasons for mass and vastly peaceful protests. Nor did he admit, describe, or offer solutions to systemic racial injustice, police militarization, or each’s link with imperial wars abroad.
And, lest one assume presidents traditionally speak only of war and foreign affairs at such events, recall that in 1991 President George H. W. Bush devoted much of his address to race, diversity, and military integration. Mind you, this was precisely three months after his triumphant Gulf War victory, and a year before the Los Angeles riots. Thus, Bush might’ve been expected to instead simply gloat. I wonder what the Donald would’ve done in his shoes…
In a particularly insensitive aside, Trump’s only real racial reference praised how "the Army was at the forefront of ending the terrible injustice of segregation." Presumably his speechwriters meant President Eisenhower’s 1957 deployment of the 101st Airborne to protect several black students integrating Little Rock High School. Yet Trump and his goons appear oblivious to an inconvenient reality: the president’s threat to apply military force in America’s streets represents the inverse of this false analogy. Frankly, a president who shamelessly quotes bygone segregationist police chiefs – "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" – has far more in common with Arkansas’ then intransigent Governor Orval Faubus (who forcibly blocked the students) than with Eisenhower.
Given these times and his character, Trump’s claims, callous analogies, and omissions should hardly shock anyone. He’s not a calm and unity sort of fellow – which would warrant only passing interest if he were still just a corrupt casino magnate and C-list reality star. Then again, the president’s persona wasn’t the only indecency on display at West Point. After all, Trump delivered his empathy- and content-free remarks less than a mile from [Robert E.] Lee Road (within Lee Housing Area), and only some 380 meters from Lee Barracks. At the military academy, and in the MAGA imagination, the Confederacy very much endures.
So there’s the speech; and here we are. Listen carefully for the proverbial airline landing announcement: Welcome to our "modern" American moment! The local time is 1957, or 1896, or 1861…take your pick, really. And look, much of this is unique to Trump, but a whole lot isn’t. On race, Trump says what perhaps 40 percent of people think. On war, he says what about 65 percent – and even more among veterans – think.
This last bit ruffles bipartisan elite feathers from time to time. Yet ultimately what Trump does – and mostly described at West Point – is deliver gifts to the defense industry and militarist security establishment. No doubt he’s had his antiwar moments – and even gotten my hopes up a time or two – but this speech personified his predictable side.
When last year The Donald sent Mike "Rapture-pining" Pence to address West Point in his stead, I wrote about the vice president’s "Pence Prophecy” of perpetual war (I never do tire of ribbing the eschatology enthusiasts atop this "secular" republic). Still, watching the president’s commencement delivery on even his tamest of days, it’s apparent that getting Trump to truly end most endless wars he laments, topple systemic militarism, address racial injustice, attempt unity, or exude a shred of empathy, would require magic more powerful than even the gay "conversion therapy" ole Mike Pence once championed.
But hey, there’s always next year. If reelected (or otherwise refusing to leave Pennsylvania Ave.), maybe The Donald will break tradition and send the treasury secretary to give it the old college try at West Point.
Spoiler alert: I’ll call that column "Mnuchin’s Miracle on the Hudson…"
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Mother Jones, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.
Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen