Chain of Command

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We have become inured to the fact that our chief executive prevaricates. But Trump had better be careful when he fiddles with facts about commands he issues to the military.

The military is a chain of command. That’s what turns a million and a half diverse and talented men and women into an effective fighting machine. That machine gets orders. Following those orders accurately and punctually is of paramount importance; it testifies not only to the value of that very expensive machine, but to the obedience and loyalty of the individual service members who actuate it. To prove its loyalty and efficacy, the military logs its orders. A trail of command and execution exists.

The top of the command chain is Donald Trump. Any orders he issues will be carried out. Any orders he does not issue will not be carried out. The orders he gives are logged.

Perhaps Trump is unaware of this. In an NBC interview Friday, June 21, Donald Trump contradicted accounts of senior U.S. officials who said Trump called off Thursday’s U.S. strike against Iranian targets while it was under way. Those reports were inaccurate, Trump said; he had halted the military strike ten minutes before its scheduled start.

We know by this time that Trump mixes things up. Sometimes he doesn’t understand the terms. Sometimes he doesn’t understand the words. We know he is but slenderly acquainted with U.S. legislative and military processes. And we have been crestfallen to witness time after time how generously his ignorance mitigates his prevarications. Did he lie, or did he really not know? Impossible to tell.

The fact remains that if the commander in chief approves a military strike, the military must strike. If the commander in chief gives no order to strike, the military is not to strike. If the military carries out an order the commander in chief denies issuing, all military personnel involved are subject to charges of dereliction of duty or worse unless proof can be provided that the order was in fact issued. That would force a rare confrontation between commander in chief and the military, with the integrity of the entire U.S. military forces at stake.

As background, Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone Wednesday, June 19, at 7:35 p.m. Eastern Time. Tumult in U.S. military and political offices ensued. By 7 p.m. Thursday, officials were alerted that a strike was on for 9 or 10 that evening. Ships were brought into position, jets were airborne headed toward their targets. Within an hour the mission was aborted. The ships and planes were ordered to stand down.

On Friday, we heard from Trump’s lips that he cancelled the strike ten minutes before it began. Was Trump prevaricating or simply ignorant of military operations? The strike had begun. Ships were in position, jets were in the air. He didn’t cancel the mission ten minutes before it was to begin; he cancelled ten minutes before the missiles were scheduled to fire, that is to say, well into the mission. Perhaps he didn’t realize that missions require preparation – getting the ships and planes into position to make the strike. Perhaps he doesn’t know that those preparations are part of the mission and begin when the order for the mission is issued, in this case, Trump’s order. Under cover of ignorance, Trump can expunge the fact that he ordered the mission, preferring instead to call the world’s attention to the fact that he cancelled it.

This account is flattering to Trump. It frames him as a kind of hero, the humanitarian who saved international forces from a hazardous clash, floating the subtlest of hints that he alone reined in a hawkish military.

This time, in this context, however, Trump cannot blur his role in who did what to whom. He may teeter on payments he told Michael Cohen to make to Stormy Daniels, but it is of utmost importance that Trump, as commander in chief, stand by the orders he gives, including his approval of Thursday’s strike. Of course, Trump may try to have that information classified as top secret. He may unearth a long-forgotten privilege of some sort to keep the record from his critics. But should the military cooperate with Trump on this one, it will indicate that the Trump fungus has penetrated deep into American tissue.

None of this, of course, will ever be discussed. The Iran situation is too tense and volatile for anyone to give this peccadillo a second thought.

Yet, it will have consequences.

The next time Trump orders a strike in similar circumstances, with what doubts will pilots take to the air? Perhaps Trump will cancel this one, too. But will he cancel in time? Will he countermand too late to pull the strike? Will he deny he gave the initial command? That could ruin a pilot’s service record unless the military stands up for its people, as it now must, and avow, citing the proof that it has, that the commander in chief did in fact, contrary to the commander in chief’s statement, issue the command to strike on June 20. And Trump has the chance to acknowledge he ordered the strike. The yield would be terrific: Instead of making dithering fools of his entire military, he will finally admit there’s only one. He’ll survive that. He should know by now, his supporters are very forgiving folk.

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