03:13 - Source: CNN
Ousted Navy secretary calls out Trump in op-ed

Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the US Navy, was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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In a Washington Post opinion piece, Richard Spencer – the recently-fired Secretary of the Navy – describes in stunning detail the degree to which President Trump involved himself in the case of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL acquitted of murdering an ISIS captive but convicted of posing for a photo with the boy’s corpse.

John Kirby

It’s a troubling account of what Spencer calls “shocking and unprecedented interference” by the Commander-in-Chief. But that’s not the line that grabbed my attention. What set me to thinking was something he writes near the end: “We must now move on and learn from what has transpired.”

Spencer does not identify the “we,” nor does he really offer any lessons learned. He mentions the need to have faith in our “extensive screening procedures” and asks our allies to be patient with us. But there is little prescription for the civil-military malady he diagnoses.

I wonder if part of the problem is that “we” – as a nation – haven’t fully come to grips with the effects of fighting terrorists overseas for the last 20 years. I wonder if, perhaps, we have forgotten who we are in the process.

I believe it has become too easy for some people to believe the military is beyond reproach. And I’m not just talking about civilians who never served and may feel a little unqualified – perhaps even guilty – about harboring critical views of the military, or those who serve. I’m talking about a small number of veterans who seem to think they belong to a privileged class of citizenry. They do not.

The military works for the American people, not the other way around. Choosing to serve as a volunteer does not exempt one’s service, no matter how extraordinary, from scrutiny any more than it exempts the beneficiaries of that service – the American people – from aggressive oversight of the military. Veterans and servicemembers who think they are above that sort of thing forget that to serve is to be a servant, not a master.

I believe it has also become too easy to simplify and categorize military service. President Trump refers to troops as “killing machines.” He is not wholly wrong, of course. But he misses much of the larger purpose of a strong national defense, which is also to prevent war – to prevent killing – by providing for the sorts of conditions that deter our adversaries and bolster our allies. He forgets the other missions and the other men and women in the military, who, when deployed alongside his killers, help secure our interests overseas.

He forgets the US military can deliver bombs as well as babies, as one military strategist puts it, and equally with great effect.

Sadly, the task of speaking for what some call “real warfighters” has too often fallen to a cadre of conservative groups, right-wing politicians and cable TV hosts. They wrap themselves up in the flag and squawk about patriotism and try to convince people that war crimes are not, in fact, crimes but rather part of the mission.


What makes our military great is not the money Trump claims he has thrown at it, but the standards of conduct to which it adheres and the high bar for ethics to which it subscribes. We do not always reach that bar, to be sure, but in the struggle to do so we have earned a reputation for integrity, fairness and professionalism that is the envy of the world.

Trump thinks he’s bolstering the military by supporting Gallagher. He’s actually working against it.

That said, I believe it’s also become too easy for us to forget the toll these wars have taken on our people and their families, particularly the special forces. Some of the important missions we’ve conducted over the last 20 years – counter-insurgency, disaster relief, governance and training assistance – have waxed and waned depending on politics here at home and the security environment on the ground. That has not been the case with our counter-terrorism operations.

During my brief stint in Kabul back in 2012, I was stunned by the pace and intensity of operations conducted by special forces. They ventured out every night, and nearly every night they took fire. They raided safe houses, stormed into heavily-armed enemy compounds, captured or killed hundreds of terrorists, and utilized the intelligence they found to go out and do it all over again.

There has been no slack for these people.

Eddie Gallagher was on his eighth deployment when he got himself in trouble. Eight deployments. Don’t think for a minute that hasn’t affected him or his family. There’s absolutely no excuse for what he did. He committed a crime, and he deserves to pay for it. But it’s just as wrong for the president to ignore the serious transgression of his eighth deployment as it is for us to forget his service on the previous seven.

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    Special forces are special for a reason. And we’ve used the hell out of them. But they are still human beings. So are their families. And so are the rest of us.

    “Submersion in war does not necessarily qualify a man to be the master of the peace,” legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle once wrote. “All we can do is fumble and try once more – try out of the memory of our anguish – and be as tolerant with each other as we can.”

    We have all been submersed in war, even if we didn’t all feel it. We’ve been submersed in it for so long we may have forgotten what it was like to be at peace – with the world and with ourselves.

    I hope we fumble and try once more to remember. I hope we prove more tolerant – not of crimes – but of each other.