I’m going to have to disagree with a number of people I respect. It’s good, for this time, that American generals John Kelly, James Mattis, and H. R. McMaster are together working at the apex of American civilian government. It’s good, for this time, that these same men are operating as a check on the most erratic and ill-informed president in modern American history, and maybe ever.
Yes, there are serious men, such as former Bush-administration adviser Eliot Cohen and Naval War College professor Tom Nichols, who’ve made the case that Trump’s reliance on an unusual number of generals represents a dangerous break with precedent. These men know their craft, and their warnings resonate. Cohen fears a clash between Kelly’s “hard code” and the moral corruption of the Trump White House. Nichols raises alarms about the consequences of calling in generals to “save” the executive branch when future generals may well lack the qualities of Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster. (Indeed, Michael Flynn comes immediately to mind.)
National Review’s own Elliot Kaufman outlined the danger to public respect and trust for the military. The officer corps is one of America’s most respected institutions not just because of their valor on the battlefield but also because of their scrupulous nonpartisanship. Most Americans view the military as apolitical, and the instant that changes, support for our fighting men and women may well plunge.
No one should blithely dismiss these concerns, but the unique nature of this president, of the president’s civilian appointees, and of the specific generals themselves dictates that this is a risk worth taking — that the small chance of long-term harm is more than outweighed by the benefits of their steady hands on America’s most vital (and dangerous) instruments of government.
For the first time in living memory, the American people have good reason to believe that the president is not an emotionally stable man. His impulsive tweeting, his compulsive television-watching, and his ignorance of the basic rules of governance and the nuances of domestic and international policy mean that he is uniquely positioned to make extraordinarily consequential mistakes. In fact, the Associated Press has reported that Kelly and Mattis made the decision early in Trump’s term that one of them should remain in the country at all times. This is a chilling revelation. Is the president that unstable? Does he need that degree of careful monitoring?
Moreover, that same instability and ignorance are reflected in the poor quality of many of the civilians Trump has placed close to the Oval Office. When people ask for greater civilian control, they of course must realize that this “greater control” may well come from the likes of Steve Bannon or any number of grifters who clung to Trump during his ascent to power. Bannon is a person whose character, temperament, and wisdom should place him miles from the seat of power. Instead, he’s in the West Wing, where he takes shots at General McMaster, stirring up the vicious extremes of right-wing media to collect the political scalp of one of the most vital men in the American government.
Yes, Trump has nominated accomplished civilians to key posts, but many of them lack real influence. Rex Tillerson went from being one of the most successful business executives in the world to an administration afterthought. Reince Priebus came to the White House with a considerable political pedigree, and the place destroyed him. So the question presents itself. If not Kelly, then who? Given Trump’s track record of White House hires, are those the dice we’re willing to throw?
Finally, much hinges on the character of the generals themselves. Not all generals are worthy of this degree of public trust. Michael Flynn is one of the worst hires ever made by a young administration. David Petraeus undermined a sterling and heroic service record — including building the smashing military success of the Surge — by mishandling classified information while engaging in a tawdry affair with a fawning biographer. But the military’s reputation survived even those high-profile moral failures because enough Americans know enough officers to understand that honor is the rule, not the exception.
Of course this degree of military influence shouldn’t become the norm. But there are few things about this administration that should.
And that is certainly true in the case of Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster. Each has spent a lifetime establishing not just a record of physical courage under fire but also of moral courage under political pressure. Each has shown the ability to speak truth to power. That does not mean that they’ll handle the immense challenges and pressures of their new roles flawlessly, but it does mean that they are uniquely positioned to command the president’s respect and uniquely positioned to maintain public confidence.
Of course this degree of military influence shouldn’t become the norm. But there are few things about this administration that should. It is my hope that the vast majority of Americans are learning that lesson now. Indeed, it’s my hope that the president himself is learning lessons from his first six months — and seeing that our politics cannot and should not be so chaotic.
But until those lessons are learned — and unless and until our president changes his ways — the reality is simple when it comes to generals Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster. With all due apologies to A Few Good Men, we want them on that wall. We need them on that wall. For now, the comfort and stability they provide is worth the risk of a negative precedent. The needs of the present trump the concerns of the future. Trump’s generals must stay.