They shall have wars and pay for their presumption.
—Shakespeare, Henry VI
Like many a new president before him, President Trump is opening his administration with bold—and sometimes contradictory—actions that have many wondering what to make of his relationships with his most senior admirals and generals. The cost of such uncertainty, as Shakespeare might suggest, could be unbearably high.
In an early blitzkrieg that offered some hints, the President quickly denied his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (by law, the nation’s senior ranking officer and primary military advisor to the president) his usual permanent seat in the National Security Council’s principals committee, though he later did an about-face. He also broke tradition by appointing a recently-retired general as Secretary of Defense, then gave Secretary Jim Mattis carte blanche to determine Department of Defense doctrine and policy on the use of torture, despite Trump’s fundamental disagreementwith Mattis on the issue. President Trump has launched punitive missile strikes against Syria for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, a one hundred and eighty degree spin from his earlier aversion to military intervention. He elevated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a scholarly critic of dysfunctional civil-military relations during the early years of the Vietnam War, to National Security Advisor, ironically continuing to surround himself with military brass despite an early negative appraisal of such senior leaders (he referred to generals as “embarrassing” and “reduced to rubble” under the Obama Administration). Much gnawing about these shifts as has already occurred. With James Comey’s unusual dismissal from his position as FBI Director, the extent to which a political principal can or should demand loyalty from “career” officials is an open question.
But as the saying goes, there is nothing new under the sun. President Trump’s actions may be unprecedented, but a complicated relationship between the military and its commander-in-chief is not.