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White House

Not-So-Swift Smear

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis with Vietnam’s Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam October 17, 2018 ( Nguyen Huy Kham/Reuters)

I recently wrote about a number of retired high-ranking generals and admirals, none running for office or currently serving in the Trump administration, whose strident criticisms of the present elected president were setting an unfortunate precedent.

Many disagreed. There are certainly arguments to consider on both sides. But rarely have I read an attack that is wholly disingenuous, so poorly written as to be incoherent, and mostly adolescently ad hominem, of the sort leveled by one Jim Swift of the Bulwark.

Swift says I am a hypocrite (“hypocritical criticism wrapped in a history lesson”) for criticizing current strident political attacks on an elected president, given that I had not previously objected to Generals Mattis, Kelly, and Flynn serving in the Trump administration. (“So much for keeping the military out of politics.”)

But surely even Swift can see the difference between a retired general serving in a government and a general blasting a president while in retirement and not in government. Mattis, Kelly, and Flynn probably all have differing political views. They did not necessarily serve the Trump administration to advance their own or Trump’s political agendas; perhaps they aimed to serve the country if so asked.

I suggested that if retired generals do wish to criticize a sitting president, it would be wise for everyone involved to follow some minimal ethical guidelines. In response, Swift alleges that I have “just made them up.” What in the world does that incoherence possibly mean? Is he implying that a writer’s suggestions are not really his own creations, or is he claiming falsely that I misrepresented formal rules that exist somewhere?

Swift cannot critique my four suggestions, largely because he disingenuously implies that they are directed solely at General Mattis. In fact, most of the examples I cite as evidence involve other generals as well, as the title of my essay makes clear: “Not-So-Retiring Retired Military Leaders.” Swift also suggests that I cannot offer ethical advice because “Hanson himself has spent the last few years pretending that ethics don’t matter when it comes to this president, so that’s neither here nor there.” Translated, that means something like “Hanson explained why and how Trump would win the election, why he would not govern as alleged as a liberal, and why the Never Trump rump never quite understood how Trump’s agenda appealed to working classes and thus why it thereby rendered them not just wrong but inert and finally irrelevant.”

I have also offered criticisms of Trump — including for his being indiscreet and unfocused, for his tweeting, and for his profligate federal spending.

Sillier still, Swift cannot distinguish the fundamental difference between the position of Trump and that of the retired generals attacking him. The president is an elected political official; retired generals, who are not now serving in uniform and not currently in government, still retain both their titular and reserve rank, as well as some privileges and obligations associated with their rank. And therefore, according to the military’s own rules of conduct, they are subject to protocols of behavior, regardless of whether such rules are strictly enforced.

He says that I am unfair to suggest that Mattis should not have invoked a Nazi simile to emphasize his argument that Trump is divisive. Mattis noted that the “Nazi slogan for destroying us was ‘Divide and Conquer,’” and then he contended that “Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people.” But that juxtaposition is not “technically” a use of a Nazi simile, Swift claims, because it is a quotation.

What does that mean?

Swift does not understand that a quotation — or almost anything — can be used as a simile. And I did not write that “Mattis was “emulating the Nazis,” as Swift clumsily alleges. Instead, I wrote carefully: “And how exactly is an elected president emulating the divisiveness of the Nazis?” (Emphasis added.)

My obvious point was that Mattis was invoking a comparison of Nazi sloganeering that caused divisiveness to emphasize his own allegation that Trump has been divisive to an unprecedented degree. Swift ignores that I also mentioned one retired officer’s reference to Trump as “Mussolini” and another’s tweeting out a photo of the Birkenau death camp to smear the president.

In this regard, I concede that I do not expect any staffer from the Bulwark to be credible about Nazi allusions because their current writers have in the past employed so many Nazi allusions to smear others — as I can attest from being compared in the Bulwark to the Nazi apologists Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger.

In answer to my suggestion that retired generals should not “hint at any active resistance” and my highlighting, inter alia, Mattis’s statements to that effect, Swift asserts that “Mattis hints at no such thing.” So I will let the reader decide whether Mattis’s statement that “we can unite without him [Trump]” and “we must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution,” in fact, do constitute “a hint at any active resistance.” Again, Swift also ignores numerous other examples that I cited from other generals, such as Admiral McRaven’s suggestion that “it is time for a new person in the Oval Office — Republican, Democrat or independent — the sooner, the better.”

Swift mocks but cites no examples to refute my additional suggestion that generals’ criticisms “should rest on clear factual evidence, not emotive anger or partisan disagreement.” In fact, Mattis did not cite any specific examples of Trump’s supposedly unconstitutional acts to support his charge that Trump had made a “mockery” of the Constitution — perhaps because there are numerous examples of former presidents calling out federal troops to restore calm in the streets, and Trump in fact has not violated constitutional precepts.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell knew that history well enough when he carried out President George H. W. Bush’s order to send in the Marines to restore order in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King–related riots. And there were certainly questionable accusations made by General Mullen about the supposed use of tear gas by the United States Park Police. Does Swift now agree with Mattis’s assertion that the nationwide looting, violence, arson, injury, and death of recent days were the work of only “a small number of lawbreakers”? Even a single looted store experienced more than a “small number of lawbreakers,” and there were thousands of them ransacked nationwide.

Swift suggests I am wrong to object to retired officers coordinating their efforts of disparagement of a sitting president — and offers the bizarre defense of the physical difficulties of such communication:

It’s not hard to understand Hanson’s rationale for suggesting this rule. But how is it supposed to work in practice? Must a retired officer with serious concerns about a sitting president send an email to every other retired officer in his address book to make sure nobody else is thinking of going public with concerns around the same time?

In fact, the generals proved quite adept in overcoming such mythical obstacles when a dozen or more of them launched their attacks within 48 hours. Joe Biden gleefully emphasized just that coordinated criticism from four former chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff when he boasted:  “I was so damn proud. You have four [chairman of the joint] chiefs of staff coming out and ripping the skin off of Trump.”

Swift suggests that my criticisms are not the most odious compared with what others have leveled: “To Hanson’s credit, his remarks are not the dumbest or most odious thing that has been said about James Mattis’s recent public statement.”

In fact, they are not dumb or odious at all. I did not resort, as does Swift, to ad hominem attacks. I have met some of the officers in question and respect their service to the country, as I tried to make clear: “esteemed general James S. Mattis, former defense secretary in the Trump administration and a deservedly iconic figure,” “retired admiral William McRaven, an authentic American war hero and effective battlefield commander,” etc.

My objection is not that they are bad men or unpatriotic; they are good men and patriotic officers. But I suggested that, in their fury, they have allowed their own personal contempt of the president to affect their previous good judgment to the degree that they are not enhancing either their own stature or the status of retired generals and admirals in general. They are diminishing both — at a time when it was unnecessary to do so, had they just not undermined their criticism with superfluous hyperbole, melodramatic allusions to fascism, factual inaccuracies, and hints at non-electoral remedies.

Swift saved his most absurd charges until last by suggesting that I am a hypocrite for not criticizing General Flynn:

But it’s hard to take Hanson’s concerns seriously when you recall some of his silences over the last few years.

When retired Army general Michael Flynn — before he twice pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI — was one of President Trump’s most ardent defenders, where was Victor Davis Hanson?

When Gen. Flynn spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and led a chant of “LOCK HER UP!” — where was Victor Davis Hanson?

Where was I? As fair and right as the Bulwark was cowardly and characteristically wrong.

First, I did not criticize General Flynn, at a time when the Bulwark was hysterically and falsely alleging that Flynn was traitorous and in thrall to the Russians. I sensed, rightly as it turned out, that he had been set up by Obama-administration officials. That is, his conversations were improperly surveilled, his name unmasked from redacted transcripts and leaked to the press, and the FBI report of his interview post facto altered. In the words of a boasting James Comey, and elsewhere memorialized in an FBI memo, Flynn was easily ambushed by FBI agents who violated normal protocols in hoping to either trap him in inconsistencies or implicate him in violations of the Logan Act. His guilty pleas, the products of Robert Mueller’s efforts to leverage his son and drain Flynn’s financial resources, were withdrawn when suppressed exculpatory information emerged of FBI impropriety. The charges were dropped by current federal attorneys and will soon be adjudicated by appellate federal justices. So, yes, I certainly did not join the despicable groupthink chorus gloating over the entrapment of a retired, decorated officer.

Second, Swift, again seems incapable of logic and judgement. My argument in the essay was not directed against the dubious practice of retired generals joining political campaigns per se — although I cited with approval General Dempsey’s plea in 2016 that they should not. In the passage I quoted, Dempsey voiced warnings about generals loudly joining both the Trump and Clinton campaigns.

Americans probably had few objections when in 2016 General Allen politicked for candidate Clinton. But they did indeed, when, while not actively engaged in a campaign, he smeared not a candidate but the sitting president of the United States, in alleging that on June 1, 2020, Trump had essentially destroyed the United States as we know it. (“Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”)

Similarly, it is one thing when Flynn joins in a crowd chant as an adviser to the Trump campaign in opposition to a private-citizen candidate, but quite another if as a retired general in civilian life he attacks a sitting president, and does so with Nazi and Fascist allusions, nonfactual assertions, in concert with similarly minded generals and admirals, and wants him gone from office or bypassed, and the sooner, the better.

Although Generals Cartwright, Flynn, Mattis, McChrystal, and Petraeus were all relieved from their military or civilian positions by President Obama, and although the Obama administration certainly engaged in actions that could be termed anti-constitutional (from surveilling the communications of Associated Press journalists and weaponizing the IRS to harass political enemies, to removing missile defenses in Eastern Europe in exchange for moderating Russian behavior during Obama’s reelection bid in 2012, to unleashing the government’s intelligence hierarchy against an oppositional political campaign), I don’t remember any of the generals as retired private citizens suggesting that Obama was acting like a fascist; nor do I recall them urging Americans to unite without Obama or tweeting out photos of Nazi installations. I would like to think that they were mindful of the UCMJ rather than merely partisan.

The rest of the Swift rant is mostly puerile boilerplate: “Some say Marines never retire, but that’s not quite true. In the case of historians, though, maybe Hanson should consider it.”

Given the nature of the current funding sources of the Bulwark, and the poverty of writing found there, as Swift displays, it is just as likely that the Bulwark project and those associated with it will retire before I do.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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