Donald Trump fundamentally misunderstands the American military. He sees it as an instrument of savage brutality, restrained only by political correctness. There is no honor. There is no law. If only the military were free to torture, murder, and blaspheme, then America would win its wars. By believing that American soldiers would follow those orders — or would want to follow those orders — he slanders the character of the American military.
For months, he has promised that he would order the military to commit war crimes, torturing militants and targeting their families for execution. He was just as emphatic in promising that those orders would be followed.
As Lieutenant General James Mattis put it in a 2005 memorandum to the United States Marine Corps, “Marines fight only enemy combatants.” It should go without saying that the same principle applies to soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Our men and women in uniform do not fight innocent civilians and they do not assault prisoners in their custody. Both the War Crimes Act of 1996 and the Uniform Code of Military Justice bind American soldiers to the laws of war, which prohibit such actions.
Wholly apart from the law — which, it should be pointed out, mandates the death penalty for the most egregious war crimes — this is a matter of honor. The desire to fight the enemy and protect the innocent is imprinted in the DNA of American service-members from Day One. It’s a matter of basic morality and of human decency intrinsic to the warrior ethos. When I was in Iraq, I knew men who would refuse to fire — even though, under the laws of war, they were free to engage the enemy — if it meant endangering children. Good soldiers have died rather than kill innocents at war.
Under fire, Trump backed down. The day after the Michigan debate, he issued a statement saying that he would not order the military to violate the “laws and treaties” governing armed conflict.
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Was the crisis averted? Hardly. On Saturday, in Florida, he once again told the mythical story about American general John J. Pershing suppressing a Muslim rebellion in the Philippines by dipping bullets in pig’s blood and executing 49 prisoners, leaving one to tell the story of the massacre. According to Trump, this brutal act suppressed Islamic violence for 25 years. Not only is this story false, historical accounts show that General Pershing was actually more humane than his predecessor, pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that was more in line with winning over the population than with suppressing it with atrocities.
Then, on Sunday, Trump moved back to the pro-torture position. After proclaiming on CBS’s Face the Nation that he would ask the military to “stay within the laws,” he added that he wanted to “increase the laws because the laws are not working, obviously.” In other words, he’s against torture and murder unless he can make it legal.
Trump slanders American warriors past and present. It’s as if he sees America’s fighting men and women as a band of suppressed savages, primed to slaughter but held back only by antiquated notions of morality — morality that he calls “political correctness.” While he claims to “love the vets,” he should get to know them, and when he does, he’ll learn that their honor and integrity preclude the savagery he cravenly implores.
There are vets — American heroes — who support Trump, but I know that those same heroes would emphatically reject the orders a President Trump so desperately wants to give. Trump, a man with no honor, is asking the American people to gift him control of their military, which lives and dies by its warrior ethos. We should say no, resoundingly. He would be a commander-in-chief unworthy of the men he would lead.
— David French is an attorney, a staff writer at National Review, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.