In Bracing Terms, Trump Invokes War’s Human Toll to Defend His Policies

In Bracing Terms, Trump Invokes War’s Human Toll to Defend His Policies

WASHINGTON — It is the most solemn of rituals for American presidents: comforting the soldiers wounded under his command or the families of those who have died. For generations, presidents have typically discussed those encounters in the most delicate of tones.

“The hardest thing I have to do, by far, much harder than the witch hunt, is signing letters to parents of soldiers that have been killed,” President Trump said at the White House this month.

But in arguing that there must be an end to “endless wars” in Afghanistan and more recently in Syria, Mr. Trump has given graphic accounts of distraught widows and disfigured soldiers in terms rarely, if ever, heard from a president before.

Mr. Trump has particularly focused on describing the ceremony of transferring the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed overseas from the military cargo planes that have brought their remains home to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

In his telling, it is a gut-wrenching ordeal, a scene of anguish from the families of the fallen that bolsters his determination to bring American soldiers home from overseas conflicts. The public shares that desire, according to one recent survey, which found that 46 percent of Americans believe that military intervention makes the country less safe, while just 27 percent believe the opposite.

All recent presidents have struggled with the cost of war, and how to speak publicly about it, and to many of his supporters, Mr. Trump is talking in authentic and admirably frank terms about a reality many Americans and Washington policymakers never confront.

But Mr. Trump’s comments also offend some veterans and military experts. They say that solemn words about fallen heroes ring hollow from a president who received a Vietnam draft deferment and who has managed a dangerously chaotic foreign policy.

Others wince at the bluntness of Mr. Trump’s accounts.

“I think it’s disrespectful,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel turned author and historian whose son was killed while serving in Iraq in 2007. “Those are infinitely private and painful moments. And to have anyone presume to comment on that, I think is beyond reprehensible.”

“He’s politicizing casualties,” he said.

Mr. Trump has paid two visits to Dover Air Force Base, according to a White House spokesman, but it is unclear whether he has actually witnessed such scenes himself, or is repeating accounts he has heard from the military officers he has encountered there.

At a recent rally in Minnesota, the president referred to a widow jumping “on top of the flowers,” adding “I’ve seen this.” But the coffins unloaded at Dover, known as transfer cases, are not adorned with flowers.

Visiting Dover is a “a very tough experience,” he said at the rally, describing grieving families awaiting the return of their deceased sons or daughters with remarkable poise.

On his first visit, the president said, he told an unnamed colonel that the relatives he had met appeared to be “doing great.” The colonel warned that would change: “No sir, they’re not going to do great. You’ll see.”

Then, Mr. Trump said, “this big incredible machine flies in, this tremendous cargo plane,” a door opens and lowers a ramp, down which several soldiers carry a flag-draped coffin.

“And I see parents make sounds, that were just 20 minutes ago absolutely fine, make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before,” he said.

“Sometimes they’ll run to the coffin. They’ll break through military barriers,” he said on another occasion, and “run to the coffin and jump on top of the coffin. Crying mothers and wives. Crying desperately.”

Dan Caldwell, a senior adviser to Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that supports a noninterventionist American foreign policy, called Mr. Trump’s remarks “some of the most powerful and most eloquent remarks of his presidency.”

“I thought it was very important that he take some time to remind the American people of the human toll of these endless wars,” said Mr. Caldwell, a former Marine who served a tour of duty in Iraq. “Policymakers, especially here in Washington, D.C., need to understand that these wars have a real cost,” he added.

Mr. Trump has also spoken increasingly often about his somber encounters with the wounded at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, which the White House spokesman said he had visited eight times.

He recently recalled meeting a soldier whose nose had been reconstructed from “a thousand fragments,” and recounted his awkward conversation.

“I said, ‘So where were you hurt?’” Mr. Trump asked the soldier, whom he did not name. “He said, ‘My face, sir, was almost obliterated.’”

“I said, ‘You have a better face than I do,’” Mr. Trump disclosed to nervous laughter in the room, before praising the skill of the man’s surgeons.

Scott Corsaut, a Marine veteran and interim president of America’s Gold Star Families, a support group for the families of people killed during active duty, said he sympathized with the emotional nature of Mr. Trump’s interactions.

“It’s got to be tough as a president, whether it’s President Trump or President Obama, to greet the families. I just really feel that as a human being that’s got to be a tough job,” he said.

Others see little introspection on Mr. Trump’s part.

“Having a draft dodger come and lecture us about what service to the country means or hard it is to lose troops in combat is hypocrisy at its worst,” said Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a former Marine who served four tours in Iraq. “It’s disgusting. Fake piety is worse than none at all,” added Mr. Moulton, who was briefly a Democratic candidate for president. “He’s saying what he believes is politically popular.”

Peter D. Feaver, a scholar of civil-military relations at Duke University who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said that Mr. Trump may be haunted by his exemption from Vietnam service after a diagnosis of bone spurs that some evidence suggests was unfounded.

“Some presidents struggle with whether they have the moral authority to cause other people to risk their lives,” Mr. Feaver said.

Mr. Trump’s past two predecessors, Mr. Bush and Barack Obama, each regularly visited Walter Reed to meet with service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Bush was a pilot in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, but Mr. Obama, like his successor, did not serve in the military.

But Mr. Bush never visited Dover, despite the thousands of troops killed under his watch, although he met privately with the families of hundreds of lost soldiers in other locations. His White House, determined to maintain support for the Iraq war, resisted pressure to allow cameras to film the return of bodies there.

In late 2009, as he weighed whether to send more troops into Afghanistan, Mr. Obama paid an unannounced midnight visit to Dover to greet a plane returning several Americans who had been killed there. The White House allowed a photographer to capture the scene, prompting conservatives to accuse Mr. Obama of exploiting a sacred ritual.

Mr. Trump has also allowed cameras to photograph him at Dover, but families must also agree to any coverage by the news media.

“The burden that both our troops and our families bear in any wartime situation is going to bear on how I see these conflicts,” Mr. Obama said the next day. “It is something that I think about each and every day.

When Mr. Trump posted a video to his Twitter account defending his first call for a total withdrawal from Syria in December, he suggested that such a disentanglement from a foreign war would comfort those who had died fighting in them.

“I’ll tell you, they’re up there looking down on us,” Mr. Trump said, adding that “there is nobody happier” about his withdrawal plan. “That’s the way they want it,” he continued, pointing his finger toward the sky.

Mr. Bacevich shares Mr. Trump’s skepticism of foreign military action, but he said the president is a flawed and ineffective antiwar messenger, noting that he has overseen Pentagon budget increases and appointed hawkish aides like John R. Bolton, who has since left as national security adviser.

Mr. Trump “doesn’t know how to end endless wars,” he said. “He doesn’t know how to deal with the situations he’s inherited. You can’t just say, ‘Well, we quit.’”


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