Military honor in the age of Trump

US soldiers in Afghanistan, 2015. AP Photo/Jonathan Ernst

What impact can Donald Trump have on the U.S. military? A great deal, as I learned while observing combat operations up close in Afghanistan.

In March 2009, I stood in a U.S. military command center at Bagram Airfield and watched what appeared to be the last moments of an Afghan farmer’s life.

U.S. soldiers had targeted a Taliban position for an airstrike, and moments after the bomb’s release, an unlucky farmer wandered into the video screen to pause at the site. The room went silent: Soldiers watched with horror, knowing that the U.S. bomb was seconds away from killing an innocent civilian.

Only, it was not to be: The man walked out of the kill zone just before the bomb’s impact. The room filled with “hard-core” warriors erupted in the loudest cheers and broadest smiles I had seen my entire time there.

Their elation was not unusual. As a political scientist who studies military training and the law of war, I’ve found in my research that U.S. soldiers overwhelmingly view protecting civilians and following the laws of war as a vital aspect of their duty – as vital as inflicting violence on the enemy.

They do so largely because the U.S. Army’s organizational culture embraces the principles of honor, ethical conduct on the battlefield and compliance with the law of war. Since Vietnam, such principles have been part of the Army’s DNA on how to wage war. Indeed, the U.S. Army was the first military in the world to put the law of war into writing: The Army’s Civil War-era “Lieber Code” later became the basis for the world’s first treaties on humanitarian law in war.

As the next commander-in-chief, Trump will have a major impact in upholding these principles of honor and ethics at the core of the U.S. military. Is he up to the task?

Mind the ethical gap

Sadly, the evidence so far indicates no. Trump’s troubling policy positions on conflict have been thoroughly catalogued: support for waterboarding and other forms of torture; threats to kill the families of Muslim terrorists; cheering Russia’s indiscriminate air campaign against Syrian civilians; and a dismissal of the Geneva Conventions as a “problem.”

Indeed, Trump has only recently reconsidered the use of torture, not for reasons of morality, but due to a perception of its ineffectiveness as an interrogation tactic.

These statements, in conjunction with the appointment of unconventionally hawkish officials to a number of key national security positions, reveal an openness to an “ends justify the means” posture for the use of force echoing the worst excesses of the post-9/11 era. Trump’s dismissal of military ethics and the law of war signal to U.S. commanders and soldiers that, under a Trump presidency, ethical conduct in combat may be viewed as antiquated, absurd or even weak.

Such bluster counts for more than just words. Social science studies have shown the strong influence leaders can have in shaping the behavior of their organizations. Indeed, my research on military conduct finds that leaders can have a powerful effect in influencing soldiers’ treatment of civilians in war. A Trump presidency alone will not extinguish the core aspects of the U.S. military’s culture. Unfortunately, however, despite even the influence of more judicious advisers, Trump’s rejection of principled warfare could impact the U.S. military for years to come.

Words that matter

The U.S. military has been down this path before: In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration reinterpreted the Geneva Conventions to authorize “enhanced” interrogations, advocating coercive tactics and dismissing the law of war as “quaint.” Such declarations helped lead directly to a breakdown in the Army’s culture of ethics, ultimately producing the failures at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere. As happened in the torture cases before, a dismissal of ethics in conflict by U.S. civilian leadership will, in the long term, fracture the discipline and values upon which the Army’s effectiveness is built, eventually damaging the most respected institution in American society today.

Members of the U.S. military recognize something that President-elect Trump may not: Words matter. A Trump presidency that follows the principles of the Trump candidacy will, over time, corrode the ethical core at the heart of the Army.

As Donald Trump assumes the vast powers of the presidency, he faces a crucial choice: Will he follow the worst instincts of his campaign, advocating tactics that ultimately both produce strategic failure and dishonor American soldiers? Or will he uphold the military’s traditional emphasis on honor and the law of war?

U.S. hard and soft power alike require a presidential commitment to ethics in war. American soldiers – and the world – await the decision the future commander-in-chief will make.

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