Maybe seven or eight years ago I had a memorable conversation with a former Marine who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was honorably discharged after being severely wounded by an I.E.D. (He made a full recovery.) Like other military officers I’ve spoken with, he was thoughtful and well-informed, almost a bit of an intellectual — very much someone I could talk to, despite his having had experiences I can’t imagine.
But he was, he said, finding his post-military experience somewhat unsatisfying, because “there’s no honor in civilian life.”
Strange to say, I felt that I understood him. I’ve had a wonderful professional life, getting well paid to do work that I enjoy and even amounts to a vocation. Yet I sometimes feel the hankering for something more — a sense of serving a larger purpose, including being willing to make big sacrifices if necessary. And I don’t think I’m alone in having those feelings, or in having special admiration for those public servants, not just in the military, who do live by an honor code.
But if you’re both powerful and corrupt, you don’t admire women and men who serve with honor. On the contrary, you hate and fear them, because their sense of duty may stand in the way of your schemes. And you especially hate the admiration most of us feel for honorable public servants, which makes it hard to brush them aside.
This hatred of honor, I believe, is the link between two big Trump-related stories of the past few days.
One story involved Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine whom Trump fired. Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, so this firing wasn’t in itself illegal. What became clear over several days of testimony, however, was that Trump wanted Yovanovitch gone precisely because she insisted on doing her job and serving the nation rather than Trump’s personal interests.
And the reason Trump tried to smear Yovanovitch even as she was testifying was his fury at how she was coming across: as an official who tries to serve with honor. One can only imagine his rage at the standing ovation she received at the end.
The other honor-related story was Trump’s decision — against the wishes of military leaders — to pardon three servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes.
Why did he pardon them? When he first tweeted that he was reviewing their cases, Trump declared, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill.” But it’s precisely because soldiers have the terrible power and responsibility to kill people in the nation’s service that they’re expected to do everything they can to avoid killing indiscriminately. Honorable behavior isn’t an annoying impediment to the use of force, it’s an essential part of what makes our military more than a gang of thugs.
But Trump hates those who serve with honor, and prefers thugs.
That’s the thing about Trumpism. It’s not just an ideology I disagree with; it’s not even merely a cult of personality that celebrates a leader nobody should admire. At its core is a rejection of the values that we used to think defined us as a nation. You might say that Trump is at war with truth, justice, and the American way. And that is, terrifyingly, a war he might win.
Paul Ryan — remember him? — claims that he didn’t realize that Trump was insulting him by calling him Boy Scout. But of course Boy Scouts are supposed to be honorable.
Some years back, new members of the Foreign Service were told about how professional diplomats have often been unsung heroes. No wonder Trump hates them.
The Founding Fathers passed a resolution honoring whistle-blowers who revealed official misconduct — in 1778!
Why we have rules of war.