Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military

Would we have troops in dangerous places the American public has never heard of, if everyone’s child were at risk to be sent there? Would we respond the same way when some of those Americans died?


When I first heard that four American soldiers had died in Niger on October 4, I had to ask two embarrassing questions:

  • Where the hell is Niger?
  • Do we really have troops there?

So I’ll assume that at least a few of you are as ignorant as I was and start there. Niger (I’m hearing it pronounced either NAI-jer or nee-JAIR — sometimes both ways by the same TV anchor in one broadcast) is in the northern half of Africa, close to the center of the wide part. It’s landlocked, and sits just to the north of Nigeria [1], between the equally unknown (to me) countries of Mali and Chad. Here’s a map.

Apparently, we have about 800 troops in Niger. They are part of our attempt to deal with the region’s multi-faceted Islamic insurgency: Boko Haram in Nigeria; a number of groups in Mali that recently united under Al Qaeda; and ISIS in the Greater Sahara, which the Pentagon believes is responsible for this attack.

Since Islamic jihad is more of a global vision than a national one, it’s not surprising that the conflicts spill over into neighboring countries. So the governments in the region are all working together against these groups. They’re backed by France, which used to consider the whole area French West Africa (except for Nigeria, which was a British colony). So far, Americans play a secondary role, mainly training local troops and flying drones.

The attack is being described as an ambush in an area where the Americans did not expect to run into trouble. (After all, they’re not supposed to be on a combat mission.) So far, our government has released very little about how this all happened, and the president has said nothing at all. This is bothering Senate Foreign Relations Chair John McCain to the point that he’s threatening a subpoena. [2]

This incident ought to raise another question in your mind: Where else does the U.S. have troops? Politico published this helpful map of U.S. military bases around the world.

Not all of those dots are danger zones, of course. (I don’t worry much about the one in Canada.) But a lot of them are near places where people are shooting at each other.

How many of those dots are in countries you could name? For how many of them could you explain why American troops are there, what local problems they are trying to solve, and what level of danger they face? How would you feel if you or your child or someone else you care about might be sent there at any moment?

The condolence distraction. When Americans are dying by the dozens week after week, as they did in Iraq, the President typically says little or nothing in public about individual deaths. But deaths of American troops or other government officials in a surprising place or manner usually calls for some public acknowledgment. For example: President Obama, flanked by Secretary Clinton, read a solemn five-minute statement in the Rose Garden the day after the Benghazi attack in Libya. (“No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”)

So the day after the Niger attack, the NSC staff drafted a statement for President Trump, but for unexplained reasons he didn’t use it, or say anything at all. Last Monday, nearly two weeks after the attack, at an event about something else entirely [3], a reporter asked him:

Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?

That question was not at all about the soldiers’ families. Trump was asked why he hadn’t made any statement to the public about the soldiers, their sacrifice, or their mission. (“Why haven’t we heard … “) The second question “what do you have to say about that?” gave him an opening to fix his apparent oversight.

But instead, Trump started talking about his private communications with the families, and opened a can of worms by lying about how President Obama and other previous presidents had treated them.

if you look at President Obama and other Presidents, most of them didn’t make calls, a lot of them didn’t make calls.

When challenged on the truth of this, he said, “I don’t know. That’s what I was told.” It’s as if he had been gossiping over the back fence, rather than speaking on the record as the President of the United States.

That claim touched off the whole week-long media firestorm, which never would have happened if Trump had simply answered the question he was asked, rather than distract everyone with his hot-button lie about Obama. Is that what he meant to do? Hard to say, but it’s also hard to argue with the result: Rather than question why we’re in Niger, we’ve been rehashing the endless argument about whether Trump is a crappy human being.

Sgt. Johnson’s family and Congresswoman Wilson. Trump’s claim that he treats the families of fallen soldiers better than previous presidents pulled those families into a political controversy — something that to the best of my knowledge had never happened before. [4] Respect for the families’ grief had always been a shared value, not something to claim an advantage from.

The press, naturally, tried to determine whether Trump’s claim was true. In the course of that collective investigation, someone talked to Rep. Fredrica Wilson of Florida, who was a friend of the family of one of the four men killed in Niger, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson. Wilson had been in a car with Johnson’s widow and his mother when the President’s call came, and she heard it because the widow, Myeshia Johnson, put it on speaker phone. Wilson recalls Trump saying that Johnson “knew what he signed up for”, a statement that she found insensitive and claimed that the family was offended by.

Trump went ballistic about this, accusing Wilson of making it all up. Even after her account had been verified by Johnson’s mother, and indirectly verified by his own Chief of Staff John Kelly [5], Trump continued to label Wilson’s version a “total lie“. It would follow that the grieving mother is a liar too. (This morning the widow gave her own account, saying she was very angry at Trump “stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name”. Trump immediately went to Twitter to argue with her. In her interview, Myeshia Johnson asked the obvious question: “Why would we fabricate something like that?”)

Kelly and Sanders. What Kelly said in Trump’s defense is interesting on its own. It starts with his own experience when his son was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. [6] I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

Kelly then pressed his attack on Rep. Wilson by giving a false account of a speech she made in 2015, citing her as an example of the saying that “empty barrels make the most noise”. [7] He took a few questions, but only from reporters who “know a Gold Star parent or sibling”. Apparently, General Kelly believes he is not answerable to anyone else. As long as Trump hides behind Kelly, he’s not answerable to anyone else either.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was confronted by the fact that Kelly had lied about Wilson [8], she at first tried to dodge, and then made this astounding claim:

If you want to go after General Kelly, that’s up to you. But I think that that—if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.

Four-star Marine generals — even retired ones who are doing Reince Preibus’ old job — are not to be questioned on the lies they tell.

The professional military. It’s striking how many of this week’s events are related in one way or another to the post-Vietnam professionalization of the American military. The United States’ armed forces have always been centered on a small core of career military officers, and in times of crisis many Americans have volunteered to fight for their country. But from Lexington to Saigon, we have relied on involuntary citizen-soldiers in times of war. Early on, they formed the militias. [9] From the Civil War to Vietnam, they were draftees. Military service was not their career choice, a way to raise money for college, or part of any other personal strategy. It was their duty to the country. The country, in turn, had a duty to use their service wisely.

That all changed after Vietnam, where the government learned how difficult it was to fight an unpopular war with citizen-soldiers. “What are we doing in Vietnam?” is a much more immediate question if members of your own family — and members of everyone’s families — face the risk of dying there. The movement against the Vietnam War had a much greater urgency than the subsequent efforts to end the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars. Conversely, many fewer people had the luxury of being apathetic.

Consider how many facts about the Niger attack and its aftermath would be different if most of the soldiers stationed in those far-flung bases were draftees rather than volunteers.

  • Parents with draft-age children would know where American soldiers were being sent, and would have opinions about whether they should be there.
  • Before sending troops into a hotspot, presidents would feel a stronger obligation to make a case to the American people.
  • Voters would expect their representatives in Congress to be asking the hard questions, and would not tolerate Congress ducking its responsibility to authorize or not authorize military commitments.
  • Neither Trump nor Kelly nor any of the rest of us could comfort ourselves by saying that a fallen soldier “knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted”. We would bear responsibility for interrupting people’s lives, making them soldiers, and sending them into danger. Even those who enlisted would have done so under the threat of being drafted.

And there is a fifth point that is more subtle: The country’s relationship to the military would be different. The all-volunteer Army has a relationship with fewer people, but that relationship is more intense. “Military family” has become a stronger identity.

The danger a professionalized military poses to democracy is that soldiers may come to think of themselves as a breed apart, with more loyalty to the Pentagon than to Congress or to the electorate (which has remained oblivious to them, no matter where they’ve been sent or what risks they’ve faced). Generals who commanded citizen-soldiers always had an ambiguous relationship with them; command, like the whole soldiering experience, was temporary. But generals leading professional soldiers may come to see them as their constituency and to count on their personal loyalty.

American voters have often looked favorably on successful generals, from Washington to Grant to Eisenhower. Political careers on both sides of the aisle — from John McCain to Tammy Duckworth — still arise out of military service. But in many other countries, soldiers develop a less healthy attitude towards government: They feel that their military service entitles them to rule. Such countries are often subject to military coups.

We are not there yet, but the signs are bad. The Trump administration devalues every non-military public institution: the civilian agencies (“bureaucrats!”), the press (“fake news!”), scientists, courts (“unelected judges”), Congress, and even the electorate, which it falsely portrays as corrupted by the fraudulent votes of non-citizens. The administration is full of generals, including in posts where generals are not supposed to serve, like Secretary of Defense. Trump’s own behavior has made the presidency so untrustworthy that liberals and conservatives alike are hoping that his generals (Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster) “manage” him. The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer was already discussing this in August:

Democracy does not work with a power vacuum for a president. As Trump makes a mockery of his office, he has left America to drift in two fundamentally anti-democratic directions, with the military exercising ever greater power as neo-Nazi street protesters form militias of their own. People of good faith around the country may be trying desperately to counter both, but this is fundamentally a political crisis that has to have a political solution. The president is unfit to serve, and until Congress comes to its senses and remembers its constitutional powers, this is what we can expect: a weakened president subservient to the military egging on armed fascists as they take to the streets.

The Founders worried about this. Both at the Constitutional Convention and in the First Congress (which wrote and passed the Bill of Rights), the Founders argued about how the new nation would defend itself. Having just fought a revolution, George Washington in particular recognized the importance of a well-drilled army that follows orders and isn’t tempted to head for home when the fields are ready to harvest.

But many others also feared such an army. An army that follows orders too easily can be sent places that a citizen militia would refuse to go. It might fight imperial wars rather than wars of national defense. “A standing army,” quipped Elbridge Gerry, “is like a standing member [i.e., penis] — an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.”

Worst of all, it might install its own leader as ruler of the country. The original point of the Second Amendment was not that armed citizens might overthrow a tyrannical central government (as the NRA has it now), but that through local and state militias, the People might defend themselves, obviating the need for a standing federal army under all but emergency circumstances. A well-regulated militia is “essential to the security of a free state” because a large standing army is a threat to that freedom. [10]

Ships have sailed. Few Americans want to go back to the Jefferson-era system of militias. We don’t want to be Minutemen, ready to grab our muskets and assemble on the Green in case of invasion or Indian raid or pirate attack. We don’t want to disband the U.S. Army or our local police departments. We are also happy to be able to plan our careers without worrying that our draft numbers might come up and send us to God-knows-where.

What’s more, nobody’s too sure how any other system would work in this era. You can’t just take random people off the street, train them for a few weeks, hand them 21st-century weapons, and expect good things to happen. Even if we could all agree that we wanted the United States to get out of its current role in the global balance of power, those commitments would need to be carefully unwound, not just abandoned. We would need to re-envision the global mission of the United States, or else we’ll lurch back and forth between “What are we doing in Africa?” when our troops get ambushed, but then “Why aren’t we doing anything?” the next time Boko Haram kidnaps a few hundred Nigerian girls.

So for now and possibly for a long time into the future, we have a professional military spread all over the world. That fact creates risks for our democracy, risks that have been recognized for hundreds of years. If we can’t change the fact — at least not immediately — we should at the very least keep our eyes on those risks.

That means:

  • Paying attention to where our troops go and why, even if we don’t know any of them.
  • Pushing back against efforts to demean civilian institutions of government, and demanding that the people in charge of those institutions do their jobs rather than yield to the military.
  • Refusing to be cowed by military authorities, or to let them off the hook when they behave dishonorably.

And in the long run, we need to look for ways out of this situation. The Rome of Cicero’s era tried to be a republic at home and a military empire abroad. They failed, and eventually we will too.


[1] Both countries get their names from the Niger River, which they share.

[2] When the government says little or nothing, other voices fill the silence. Thursday night, Rachel Maddow did some speculative-but-plausible dot-connecting:

  1. For reasons that don’t quite add up, Chad wound up on the Trump administration’s latest travel-ban list, which was announced on September 24.
  2. Chad has one of the more effective anti-terrorist forces in the area. Shortly after the travel-ban insult, Chad began withdrawing its troops from Niger.
  3. On October 4, four Americans were ambushed ISIS fighters in a region of Niger previously believed to be safe.

“If I were president,” she suggested, “I might not want to talk about this either.”

[3] He was making a joint appearance with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an effort to show that “We have the same agenda.”

[4] It also set off a race at the White House to get condolence letters out before the press could report their absence.

The full back-and-forth of this has been covered extensively elsewhere, so I’m not going to rehash it in detail. One the crazier stories, unrelated to any point I’m making here, concerns the $25,000 Trump promised to a soldier’s father in June, apparently forgot about, and then made good on after The Washington Post reported the story this week.

[5] Kelly explained why Trump might have said something like that and what he meant by it. He pointedly did not deny that Trump said it.

[6] It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, because some of the issues are very different. In addition to all the other reasons a young man or woman might enlist, a general’s son might be trying to follow in his father’s footsteps or win his father’s respect. In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.

By contrast, I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.

[7] It’s striking how many of Kelly’s criticisms of Wilson actually apply much better to Trump: He has politicized dead soldiers; he grandstands; he makes a lot of noise about things he doesn’t understand; instead of respecting those who deserve respect, he makes everything about himself and his own accomplishments. Obviously, Kelly doesn’t say any of that to Trump. So it’s no wonder he grabbed a chance to unleash those bottled-up feelings on a different target.

[8] A Kelly defender might say that he simply remembered the incident wrong. And that would be a valid defense if he had responded off-the-cuff to a question about something that happened two years ago. But it was Kelly who brought the incident up, in a setting where he had time to prepare. He had both the opportunity and the responsibility to get it right, but he chose not to.

[9] The militias of the early American Republic were not voluntary. All men of appropriate age and ability were required by law to arm themselves and show up periodically for training and drills.

[10] For a detailed account of this, see The Second Amendment, a biography by Michael Waldman. That’s also where I found the Gerry quote.

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Comments

  • Anonymous  On October 23, 2017 at 12:00 pm

    “In effect, Dunford was reassuring Kelly that his son’s death wasn’t his fault; it was the result of choices the son made for himself.”

    This is why the statement appealed to Trump and why he worded it the way he did. As Commander in Chief who is also a narcissist, he was very sensitive to the idea that he might be blamed for the soldier’s death (especially if there’s more to learn about the reason it happened), so he warmed to the idea of informing the widow that her husband’s death was his own fault and not Trump’s.

  • Tim  On October 23, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Paying attention to where OUR troops…etc. Small typo.

  • GeoOT  On October 23, 2017 at 12:11 pm

    Unfortunately, the statistics on foreign placement of troops is confused by the normal requirement for our embassies to have military guards. I have had a hard time finding statistics that subtract out embassy contingents.

  • GeoOT  On October 23, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    I think the argument about the dangers of a professional military is correct at the high level. I think your more detailed lower level points don’t hold up as well. Embassy contingents are, I believe, always Marines, subject to an unexpected attack and always drawn from an all volunteer force. Small contingents sent into hotspots are always likely to be manned by elite volunteer forces. The draft has been used for manning only the larger (and more well-known) foreign deployments.

  • Tom Hutchinson  On October 23, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    What exactly is the difference between an Islamic insurgency and thebsinging of “Onward Christian Soldiers”? The major Christian factions are major players in influencing governments and nations worldwide, when will the push back against these religious zealots start?

  • Loredena  On October 23, 2017 at 2:34 pm

    ” It’s not clear why either Trump or Kelly thought that a pregnant widow would be comforted by the same thoughts that comforted a general about his son’s death, …I would expect a wife to want to believe that her husband’s last thoughts were of her, and not that his military comrades were “exactly the people he wanted to be with” as he died.”

    Worse, even if she would find that a comfort (unlikely) it’s also not what happened, and 45 and Kelly both knew it. He was left on the field of battle still alive (as shown by his locator beacon being turned on) and his mutilated body retrieved a mile away and 48 hours later by Nigerian soldiers.

  • Larry Benjamin  On October 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    A draft would definitely lead to more people taking an interest in our overseas adventures and entanglements, with the probable result that they would no longer be tolerated. And a new draft would have to be more egalitarian – no student deferments, for example – and if you thought there were large demonstrations after Trump was elected, I can’t think of anything that would motivate the young people of today more than the draft.

  • Dennis Maher  On October 23, 2017 at 11:57 pm

    Jeez, I never heard the Gerry quote before. (And I just put the Waldman book in my Amazon cart last week.)

  • Dale Moses  On October 25, 2017 at 2:27 am

    It’s also worth noting that Kelly threw Obama under the bus, being the source of the claim that prior presidents did not call family, when he said that President Obama had not called him when his son died.

    The President would not normally call the father unless the soldier were unmarried. Kelly however did sit at Michele’s table during a gold star dinner and so almost certainly received additional acknowledgment.

  • nwbaxter  On October 26, 2017 at 7:43 am

    As the number of generals, retired and otherwise, keeps going up in the trump administration, at what point do we have a junta running what’s left of our democracy?

  • Jane Wilson  On October 28, 2017 at 8:45 am

    The selective service act has been considerably revised throughout 1980’s and 1990’s. Registration had stopped in 1975, and was resumed in 1980’s. All conscientious objectors must register and no one is guaranteed that that status will be honored. All disabled men,hospitalized men,incarcerated men and transgender men born male must register. Also all immigrant men, even non citizens must register. You will be shocked to read the new act and the procedure for reinstating the draft includes provisions for drafting medical personnel and drafting women.

    • Larry Benjamin  On October 28, 2017 at 10:26 am

      And if they are foolish enough to actually reinstate the draft with those requirements, you’ll see an uprising in this country that will make the Vietnam demonstrations look insignificant. It’s one thing to know that the country is pursuing military actions you disapprove of, quite another to be told that you personally will have to risk your life in one of them.

      One obstacle to the draft is that the current military leadership doesn’t want one. It’s not easy to command recruits who don’t want to be there and may be looking for a way to kill their commanding officer.

Trackbacks

  • By Military Swagger | The Weekly Sift on October 23, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “The Billie Jean Republicans” — picture a GOP senator backed by a chorus of corporate donors, denying their responsibility for Trump — and something a little more serious: “Niger, the Condolence Controversy, and Why the Founders Feared a Professional Military“. […]

  • […] this whole Niger/condolence controversy, people are correct to point out that almost no one, certainly those in Congress who should have […]

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