by Josh Manning
Josh Manning is a combat veteran and serves on the leadership team of Common Defense, a group of progressive veterans who want to affect political change. You can follow him on Twitter @joshuamanning23
Let us start with a quote from our Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump, a little over a month into his presidency and on the day he delivered a joint address to the two other pillars of the United States government. Trump’s comments to “Fox and Friends” related to a story covered on this blog and across America. The President of the United States, the commander of all of this nation’s military forces, had an opportunity to discuss an operation in Yemen that went horribly off the rails. This is what the commander of our military said:
- “Well, this was a mission that was started before I got here,” the president said on “Fox and Friends.” “This was something that was, you know, just they wanted to do. They came to see me they explained what they wanted to do, the generals, who are very respected.
- “My generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe, and they lost Ryan,” Trump added, saying that buck stops “before I got here.”
The day before he delivered this soliloquy on the failure of America’s servicemen and women he told another media outlet this, again relating to his first military operation as the Commander-in-Chief:
- “Win. We have to win. We have to start winning wars again,” Trump said. “I have to say, when I was young, in high school and college, everybody used to say that we never lost a war. ‘We never lost a war.’ You remember.
- “And now we never win a war,” Trump added. “We never win. And we don’t fight to win.”
I have spent the past two days trying to explain how deeply offensive I find the words of the President of the United States about our nation’s military forces, especially that “we don’t fight to win.” I am not a total hawk. I do not believe the military is a hammer that needs to hit every nail, screw, or whatever else is presented to it. But I do believe in the use of our forces as a scalpel and especially the use of those who are trained to do the elite work in a rapid and clean way that can affect real change. I have seen this up close and the success that can come if this used in the right way. These sorts of operations are the ones to which Trump referred.
Some have referred to what happened in Yemen as a “Benghazi”-like scandal for Trump’s administration. It is not. This is certainly a failure and a fiasco for what he envisions of the military. However, the true “Benghazi” lies in the future so let us not demean the loss of life of an American hero and the future loss of American lives over this incident. That said, Trump and his team should take lessons from this failed operation but I doubt they will. And for me, this hits close to the heart because even planning successful operations at this level of the military demands heavy introspection.
In the mid-2000s I had the honor of deploying to the Middle East in support of the same sort of operators who conducted that failed mission in Yemen. It took weeks of work on systems I had never used before to earn their trust but eventually I got there. Even so, it did not mean I got a free pass.
We planned an operation against a high-value target on the outskirts of a major city and I spent days ensuring we had the right area under watch. When it seemed like the right choice, I told the commanders this was the right time and place to go and others agreed that this was the moment to go.
Watching from above, the operators went to the neighborhood but I made a small mistake and the mission became bogged down. In coming broad daylight, these are not the sort of people you want to leave hanging in a major city surrounded by armed citizens. If you want to know what adrenaline and fear feels like, leave such a force out in the open while their commander gives you the evil eye.
These men appeared to be standing in water so I wanted to cut the tension over the radio by joking with them about standing in knee-deep Third World water. Except it was not tepid water. This was the day the locals flushed their sewage systems into the roads and our guys were knee deep in human excrement. So that created further urgency.
In the course of minutes that felt like hours I put them on the right target and the mission was an amazing success to everyone outside of the room where I sat. After the strike force wearily called in the markers of a win, we settled back and talked about what had gone wrong. But that did not even compare to what happened when the men from the operation crashed the operations center still reeking of human sewage and with a mission to come at me and others. We knew we had caused needless error and apologized to all of them. It never happened again and we were an award-winning group for the rest of the deployment.
I harkened back to this when I heard Trump speak because even in success these operators took hard lessons over what were very small mistakes. By all appearances, Trump ordered a dangerous operation in unknown territory but went about his day as an entitled wealthy man while these same sorts of operators worked to complete his orders. Rather than accept the ultimate responsibility for the errors on the ground or for ordering his first clandestine military operation with less thought than he should of, our Commander-in-Chief blamed the people on the ground. This is a gut punch to anyone who has been in line of duty.
To this day I blame myself for a small error that bogged down those who need to act quickly. That is how you advance their cause and how you meet with the greatness that is those who serve in such elite units. Trump and the team around him do not understand nor do I believe they will ever understand this. He will continue to put military forces, those highly-trained and experienced but also those who have spent a long time without training, in harm’s way and will blame them for his strategic mistakes. The military culture demands that leaders who have failed do so and face the consequences for their judgments. Trump will not do that and will demean our nation’s military forces to save face.
In the Army we called such people “Blue Falcons” (Google it). Normally I would hope a commander would learn lessons from his or her failures but we do not live in normal times. Trump will attempt to wrap himself in the American flag and military but please resist his attempts to do so. Many of us who know how things really work are disgusted at what his administration is doing to whitewash their corruption and incompetence. When American veterans and national security professionals start to send out red flags, you best pay attention. We do not like to expose ourselves unless it really sends a message.