Veteran: Trump could throw the military into 'crisis'

The Takeaway
Donald Trump

Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on Super Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, March 1, 2016.

Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters

On Wednesday, Donald Trump attempted to lay out an "America first" foreign policy plan at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

“Our foreign policy is a complete and total disaster: No vision, no purpose, no direction, no strategy,” Trump said.

Trump departed from his off-the-cuff style. With the help of a teleprompter, he laid out his vision for America’s economic and national security, and the buildup of the US military.

After his landslide primary victory on Tuesday, Trump is trying to appear more "presidential." But Mike Breen, CEO of Truman National Security Project and a former Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, offers a harsh critique of Trump's approach.

"If you take the man at his word and you listen to his statements on the [campaign] trail, he set himself up, if he's elected, to trigger the largest civil military crisis probably since the American Civil War," he says.

Breen argues that Trump is suggesting that US soldiers carry out "illegal orders" — things like targeting the children and families of terrorists, intentionally murdering civilians, and torturing for the sake of torturing.

"He says even if [torture] doesn't work, let's do it anyway," Breen says. "He says the Geneva Convention makes American soldiers afraid to fight. He's talking about, as a presidential candidate, issuing clearly illegal orders that I think our senior military leaders would be very unlikely to follow. That's a crisis we haven't had in a long time."

Breen stops short of saying that America’s military generals would perform a kind of coup, but he does say that the entire US national security apparatus would go into a state of panic under a President Trump.

When it comes to the international community, Trump has suggested that the US military should start charging for its services.

“Building up our military to provide a strong defense for Europe and Asia, the countries we are defending must pay for this defense, and if not, the US must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves — we have no choice,” Trump said on Wednesday.

This plan doesn’t sit well with Breen.

“I think it’s an incredibly dangerous and naive idea,” he says. “[Trump] thinks we’re suckers for providing for the defense of our allies that don’t have the size of military and economy that we do. The problem with that is twofold: It’s very hard to say that you’re going to right by America’s allies and then ask them to pay protection money. More importantly, it’s a very naive view of how wars are prevented.”

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Breen says that global powers tried to manage defense operations alone on a country-by-country basis.

“What you get in a situation like that is a rapidly changing network of alliances, great distrust, and we’ve had the two most destructive wars in human history,” he says. “It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of why our allies matter.”

When it comes to the Islamic State, Trump says that America must be more “unpredictable” in its plans to take out the terror group, a stance that worries Breen.

“This is a candidate who’s refused to rule out using nuclear weapons against ISIS, which is complete military and moral nonsense,” he says.

Using a bomb of such magnitude — even under orders from the commander-in-chief — would likely be unwelcome news to those in the military, Breen says.

“This is the Catch 22 that Trump threatens to place our senior military leaders in,” he says.

Dropping a nuclear bomb on ISIS-held territory would result in mass civilian casualties and could set off a global nuclear war, Breen says, something that officials in the Pentagon would have to seriously consider — and may even stand against. When it comes targeting the families of ISIS, Breen makes the same calculations.

“There is a large body of US law — military and civilian — that says you can’t go murder kids, whether you’re wearing a uniform or not,” he says.

While he acknowledges that civilians are sometimes killed during war, Breen says it shouldn’t be a de facto strategy.

“The US military has spent a tremendous amount of time and effort working through legal checks, but also through more and more precise weapons systems, smaller and smaller bombs, and a whole host of other things to minimize those casualties,” he says. “That’s not just because it’s the nice thing to do. It’s because it’s the strategically smart thing to do.”

When it comes to Asia, Trump argues that the US must reclaim its strength because China has “no respect” for the United States, especially as it continues its operations in the South China Sea. Breen says this outlook is too simplistic.

“Projecting strength is one thing, projecting strength unpredictably as the most powerful military in the world is pretty dangerous,” he says. “If you’re trying to guarantee a stable global security environment, the worst thing you want to do is be erratic. If you saw a police officer down a fifth of Jack Daniels and then tie himself to his car and duct tape his foot to the gas pedal and then go on the road, yeah that guy is unpredictable, but he’s not guaranteeing anyone’s security.”

Overall, Breen believes that security officials are already thinking about these hard choices, and whether they’ll resign should Donald Trump be elected.

“When he talks about killing the families [of ISIS], he’s talking about ordering the My Lai massacre,” he says. “That’s not a war crime anymore, that’s not somebody disobeying orders — that’s a president saying, ‘Go do that.’ If everybody in the military who doesn’t want to do that, who didn’t sign up to be that, but signed up to support and defend the United States of America — we don’t do that kind of thing — if they all quit, if they all resign in protest, who’s left in the military? These are the kinds of conversations that our senior leaders and my friends who are mid-level officers are having. That’s deeply troubling.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.