“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” This verse from John 15:13, recited at the graveside of countless Americans who gave their lives in service to our nation, has provided comfort to their families and purpose to their sacrifice.
Whether they wore military uniforms, the “blue” of law enforcement, firefighters’ turnout gear or health professionals’ PPE, until recently we all used a single word to honor them: “Heroes.” I say “until recently” because a new report based on anonymous sources suggests that at least one of us — the president of the United States — may have used other words to describe them: “Suckers” and “losers.”
That report in The Atlantic magazine contends that the president, during a 2018 trip to Europe, declined to visit a World War I American military cemetery because “it’s filled with losers.” Of course, Trump has vehemently denied saying such a thing, leaving each of us to decide who is telling the truth. For many reasons — not the least of which is that, according to the Washington Post, Trump has made more than 20,000 false and misleading statements while in office — my money is on The Atlantic.
As a general officer assigned to the Pentagon, one of my most solemn duties was to present the American flag to the families of men and women who gave their lives in our defense. For me and for everyone I know who has visited Arlington Cemetery, we have no doubt that heroes lie beneath those simple white headstones. When confronted with his alleged refusal to honor our war dead, Trump angrily replied: “What animal would say such a thing?” Indeed. Yet, rather than convincing many of us that he would never describe our war heroes as “losers,” his protests simply invite us to remember all the other things he has done and said, as we decide who to believe.
Remember when Trump disputed Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE’s Vietnam War heroism? He said, “He’s not a war hero. He is a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay.” Whatever one may think of McCain’s political ideology, there is no denying that he endured unspeakable torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors. What many Americans don’t know or have forgotten is that McCain was offered an early release because his father was the commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific. McCain refused; he would not leave his brothers behind. Who would deny that such a man is a hero?
Remember when Trump belittled the parents of a fallen soldier, Capt. Humayun Khan, during the 2016 presidential campaign? His suggestion that Mrs. Khan did not speak at the Democratic National Convention because her Muslim faith didn’t permit it infuriated many Gold Star families and many Muslims. Then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) got it right when he said, “There’s only one way to talk about Gold Star parents: with honor and respect.” Who would treat them with contempt?
Speaking of contempt, what kind of president would use the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a prop in a staged stroll through Lafayette Park while the National Guard and federal police parted a sea of peaceful protesters? What kind of commander in chief would sabotage our military justice system by granting clemency to war criminals? What kind of “law and order” president would threaten to unleash the military on peaceful protesters?
As Americans review the litany of cases in which this president has demonstrated his utter lack of respect for the military, each of us must decide whether to let him continue — or to say “enough.” A recent poll suggests that a majority of today’s service members are saying “enough.”
Trump views himself as a “winner” because he is surrounded by people who tell him what he wants to hear and who submit to his will. He has lived a life of privilege in which not much was ever asked of him, so not much was ever given.
He easily avoided the Vietnam draft and has avoided the consequences that normally come from mismanaging businesses. He never accepts responsibility for failure, but always claims credit for success.
He is incapable of understanding why our troops would sacrifice their lives for anything bigger than themselves. Perhaps that’s because no one — including us — has ever held him accountable or otherwise demonstrated that there are things bigger than him.
Our nation today is less safe, less prosperous and less peaceful than it was four years ago, and Trump wants us to believe our decline is not his fault.
Again, that’s for each of us to judge.
When I vote this November, I will cast my ballot in memory of the fallen heroes who Trump allegedly treated with scorn and contempt — my small part to hold him accountable for the pain, sorrow and damage he has wrought.
Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.