Another week, another self-inflicted wound by the White House and another conversation about how we honor and respect those who have served.
President Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, a Green Beret killed in Niger, Oct. 4, drew widespread condemnation from his opponents. Sgt. Johnson’s mother, Cowanda Jones-Johnson, accused the president of showing disrespect when he purportedly forgot her son’s name and told her daughter-in-law that Johnson “knew what he was getting into when he signed up.”
Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Williams, who witnessed the exchange with Myeshia Johnson and first brought the details of the call to light, said of the president’s remarks: “It was horrible. It was insensitive. It was absolutely crazy, unnecessary. I was livid.”
In response to the criticism, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine General who lost his own son in Afghanistan, came to the president’s defense Thursday and offered a rebuke of Rep. Williams saying: “It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. It stuns me. I thought at least that was sacred.”
Sgt. Johnson is just one of the thousands of victims of a status quo of permanent war that would have been unrecognizable to this nation’s founders.
To be fair to the administration, the satisfaction of a grieving family who just lost a loved one in combat is not a reasonable bar by which to judge the president’s comments or his intent. It is also entirely justifiable to question whether Congresswoman Williams’ decision to thrust Myeshia Johnson and her family into the center of an unseemly national political debate was the right thing to do.
Once again, however, President Trump has proven incapable of restraint. Speaking with reporters last week, he lauded his credentials as a consoler and, without presenting evidence, criticized past presidents including Obama for not making calls to gold star families. In a veritable masterstroke of poor taste and callousness, the president took to Twitter to discredit Myeshia Johnson following an interview in which the grieving widow corroborated Congresswoman Williams’ account.
While this imbroglio might rank among the crassest of the Trump Presidency — and it has a good deal of competition — it is of far less consequence than the energy being expended upon it by pundits would suggest.
Whether it is debating the method by which NFL players protest or the manner in which the president offers condolences to families that have paid the ultimate price, as a society we have a decided bias towards the superficial.
The war in Afghanistan has entered its 16th year. At an estimated cost of $1.07 trillion, it is the second most expensive war in U.S. history in inflation-adjusted dollars behind only WWII. This is to say nothing of the 3,541 American and Coalition service members killed and the orders of magnitude more wounded and maimed. This expenditure of blood and treasure has purchased the American people a deteriorating situation on the ground and a stagnant strategy with no clearly articulated goals.
Even as the Afghan war continues with no sign of abatement, in an act of callous disregard for recent history the Trump Administration is expanding the military’s role in Iraq and Syria.
In a political climate governed by rationality, it would be these issues that grabbed headlines. Indeed the far more consequential aspect of this story is that Sgt. Johnson was killed in a country in which the U.S. is not on-paper engaged in any active combat operations.
Instead of discussing the merits of the missions that Sgt. Johnson and other Americans killed-in-action are called upon to undertake, our news coverage and tweet storms focus on matters of decorum and protocol. How can families such as the Johnsons believe that the American people and the nation’s leadership are worthy stewards of their loved ones’ wellbeing when trivial matters are treated with the utmost gravity and difficult questions go unasked?
For its part, Congress has completely abrogated its role in checking the executive branch when it comes to overseas adventures. That said, the legislative branch is enabled in its inaction by a disinterested public and a fourth estate inclined to the salacious.
President Trump deserves criticism for overvaluing style and offering little in the way of substantial policy to address this country’s greatest challenges but, if recent controversies are any indication, he is merely reflecting the most ubiquitous characteristics of the electorate: a partiality towards frivolous matters and an allergy to nuanced problems without easy answers.
Sgt. Johnson is just one of the thousands of victims of a status quo of permanent war that would have been unrecognizable to this nation’s founders. It is a status quo unlikely to be challenged in a climate in which the most hotly debated question of the last month was whether kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful to service members or not.
Our military deserves better. Future generations of Americans deserve better.