Four-star US generals and admirals are a taciturn bunch: they measure their words, qualify their statements and guard their silence out of loyalty to the armed forces and to their country.
Not this week.
A torrent of raw military condemnation has been unleashed on Donald Trump, with some of the most respected figures among retired military leaders lining up to express their profound disapproval of their commander-in-chief.
The outpouring was exceptional, both for the sheer number who unloaded on the president and for the unrestrained language in which they put it. The most breathtaking words came from William McRaven, a former commander of US special operations command who oversaw the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
In an opinion article in the New York Times, McRaven accused Trump of spreading “frustration, humiliation, anger and fear” through the armed forces and of championing “despots and strongmen” while abandoning US allies. The four-star admiral called for Trump to either shape up or ship out of the White House.
“If this president doesn’t demonstrate the leadership that America needs, both domestically and abroad, then it is time for a new person in the Oval Office – Republican, Democrat or independent – the sooner, the better. The fate of our Republic depends upon it.”
That Trump should be coming under such sharp criticism from figures as revered as McRaven is all the more extraordinary given that Trump put those he called “my generals” at the center of his cabinet when he took office almost three years ago. He appointed Jim Mattis as defense secretary, Michael Flynn and HR McMaster as successive national security advisers, and John Kelly as homeland security secretary and then White House chief of staff.
Now all those generals are gone, and some are speaking out.
Mattis, who has largely kept his silence since resigning last December, made clear his disdain for the president in the form of a stream of jokes at a black-tie roasting on Thursday night. In his first public comments about his former boss, Mattis mocked the amount of time Trump spends on his golf courses and poked fun at how he had avoided military service in Vietnam by claiming bone spurs in his feet.
“I earned my spurs on the battlefield; Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor,” Mattis said.
The new sense of license to criticize Trump among military leaders originated with the president’s highly contentious decision last week to pull US troops from northern Syria. The sudden move has paved the way for a Turkish invasion that has put a prominent US ally in the fight against Isis, the Syrian Kurds, in mortal danger.
Several US generals and admirals expressed their disgust and bewilderment at Trump’s decision. Adm James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of Nato, told MSNBC that it was a “geopolitical mistake of near epic proportion”. He said its long-term impact would be to cast doubt on the reliability of the US as an ally.
“It’s hard to imagine how one could, in a single stroke, re-enable Isis, elevate Iran, allow Vladimir Putin the puppet master to continue his upward trajectory and simultaneously put war criminal chemical-weapon user Bashar al-Assad in the driving seat in Syria.”
On the same channel, the former four-star general and battlefield commander in the Gulf, Barry McCaffrey, said the Syrian withdrawal was “inexplicable”.
“Mr Trump seems to have single-handedly and unilaterally precipitated a national security crisis in the Middle East,” he said, adding that the president had put the armed forces in a “very tricky situation”.
Trump’s former national security adviser, HR McMaster, agreed that the decision would destabilize the region and intensify the Syrian civil war.
But the key question is what the highest echelons of the serving military think about Trump’s increasingly erratic leadership. A clue can be found in the viral photograph of the confrontation between Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and Trump in the White House on Wednesday.
Pelosi is seen jabbing her finger at Trump who appears to be yelling across the table from her. Soon after the photo was taken Pelosi walked out of the meeting after Trump called her a “third-grade politician”.
Sitting next to Trump is Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff – the highest-ranking officer in the US military. What he was thinking in the moment is not known, but he is looking down at his hands and his face is clenched.
Milley may not have the luxury to emote enjoyed by his retired four-star equivalents. But his expression spoke volumes.