With the firing of Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, the Trump (in)security team may soon be forcing our top military commanders to reconsider their oldest and proudest tradition: civilian control.

Since the Ides of March, 1783, when George Washington faced down an officer’s mutiny at Newburgh, New York, the American military has proudly served at the pleasure and direction of elected civilian leaders. Smart presidents have often valued military input and expertise, but with the partial exception of Douglas MacArthur, no American officers have ever asserted the right to reject or overrule civilian commands — no matter how much they disagreed with them.

John Bolton, the new national security advisor — and a very frightening choice for the job, argues the author. Flickr: Gage Skidmore

The shift to an all-volunteer professional military after Vietnam has sparked a long-running debate, both in and out of the services, over potential threats to civilian control. But even the abuse of troops (stop loss, Guard deployments, serial tours) that resulted from civilian bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan has so far sparked no rebellion beyond scattered grumbling.

McMaster, for example, wrote a famous book indicting the Vietnam-era service chiefs for not speaking up about strategy, but it never crossed either his or their minds that they should have simply told Lyndon Johnson no.

Bolton: A Fellow Chicken Hawk

In the person of John Bolton, Trump’s newly appointed national security advisor, our president is now embracing a fellow chicken hawk and crackpot realist, a man whose stock-in-trade is reckless saber-rattling, who dismisses all efforts at diplomacy, compromise and collective action as weakness. In breathtaking defiance of decades of painful contrary evidence, Bolton still robotically believes that regime change is something the U.S. military can handily accomplish in North Korea and Iran — and that’s just for starters.

Not since Walt Rostow persuaded Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam would be an easy win has the White House welcomed a diplomat with more contempt for his own profession.

No one knows what the Trump/Bolton/Mike Pompeo team will do, but Trump has already drawn red lines in the sand which neither North Korea nor Iran can possibly accept. More worrisome, Trump is now pushing away those military advisors who could steer him toward practical policies and warn him against disastrous missteps.

As we have seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan, whenever the civilian leadership is ignorant, or gripped by fantasies, or unprepared for blowback, it is always our service personnel who pay the price and suffer the consequences.

Trump’s original security team was unbalanced, with too many experts on the use of force and too few experts on the arts of diplomacy. But Trump at least had the tested experience and common sense of Generals Jim Mattis, McMaster and (perhaps) John Kelly to dampen his zeal and curb his self-indulgence. Mattis and Kelly remain, but Kelly seems to have lost whatever leverage he had.

Trump has already drawn red lines in the sand which neither North Korea nor Iran can possibly accept.

Mattis still seems independent, but his job as defense secretary is primarily to carry out policy, not to formulate it. His input — if sought at all — will likely come at the end of the policy process. With Trump, moreover, the very idea that there is a “policy process” may be wishful thinking. For example, the president’s implacable hostility to the Iran Nuclear Deal seems based on little more that the fact that a black man negotiated it.

The question arises: If Trump’s new team demands a course of action which every responsible commander knows to be folly, either because it squanders our forces, or because it guarantees massive civilian casualties, or because it exposes us on other fronts — will any of them be able to step up and say, “Sorry, Mr. President, we can’t do this”?

There is no training for such a moment, and crossing a commander in chief like this would go against the oaths, traditions and honor of all of the services. But what if it’s the only way to save the troops, the nation’s honor, or even the nation itself? If you know you are the last line of defense, what should you do?

We all hope such a moment will never come. But if we are honest, we must admit that the increasingly erratic behavior of this president is making it more and more likely that one or more of our top commanders will indeed have to face this terrible choice, perhaps even in the not too distant future.

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