At a White House dinner for military leaders and their spouses on Thursday night, President Trump summoned the TV cameras and reporters in to document the event. Reporters were confused, because such a step was unusual and not on the official schedule.
“You guys know what this represents?” Trump then asked reporters, smiling broadly and gesturing around the room. “Maybe it’s the calm before the storm. Could be, could be the calm before the storm.”
He said all that with a smirk, like the cat who had swallowed the canary and rather liked the taste of it, using his guests as a dramatic backdrop.
I’ve seen a lot of coverage since then, wondering what Trump might have meant, but my reaction was more personal. I grew up as a military brat. I was born on a military base and I graduated from high school on a military base. That was back in the Vietnam era, and the war was a constant, looming presence in our lives.
Every week, when Walter Cronkite would announce the most recent death totals for U.S. servicemen, my family’s normally boisterous living room would grow silent and solemn. Those weren’t just numbers we saw on the TV screen. These were men who served in uniform alongside my father, often men who had families much like our own, but who would not be returning to them. My dad’s specialty meant that he was unlikely to be assigned to Vietnam, but we certainly knew other families in which mothers were trying to raise kids and keep the household running while her husband was overseas for a year at a time. There’s a sense of tribal belonging, particularly in wartime, that is difficult to describe to those who weren’t raised in it.
So if you send our people to war, I think you should do that reluctantly and grim-faced. It’s certainly not a step to be relished, as Trump seems to do. You also don’t stand before the spouses of our personnel and treat it as some sort of game. You have to respect, at a deep level, what these people are willing to risk. You respect what their families would be going through.
In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric about the decision by some pro athletes to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem, about how that protest against racial injustice somehow disrespects the sacrifices by our military. Personally, I will always stand for the anthem and salute the flag. Respect for those symbols is too engrained in me to do otherwise, but I can also understand how others, with different life experiences, might see things differently.
However, I cannot understand the cavalier attitude that our president seems to take to such matters, as if our war-making machine is a toy that he can’t wait to open. I think that shows a disrespect that is far more profound than kneeling during the anthem.