Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Qualities of Command

| March 14, 2016

“He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Donald Trump spewed this bile about Senator John McCain last July. Yesterday in Ohio, quietly challenged by a veteran about the statement, Trump lied. He said, “Oh no, no, no…I was…I never did that.”

John McCain is a hero for many reasons: his courage and grace under North Vietnamese torture; his resolute leadership of fellow prisoners; his refusal to return home early, despite grievous injuries, because it would have handed Hanoi a propaganda coup.

But it is also important to remember that McCain was first a hero because he steered his aircraft toward his assigned target to inflict damage on an enemy of the United States. He did so in the face of “heavy and accurate anti-aircraft fire” and “more than fifteen surface-to-air missiles.” He pressed his attack knowing the danger he faced because it was his duty. For this, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The president of the United States has many responsibilities, but none is more important than Article Two of the Constitution’s charge that the president shall be commander-in-Chief of our armed forces. Any commander of military forces must engage those whom he or she leads in mutual respect, trust, and confidence. Because the commander-in-chief’s responsibilities are so great, those qualities are even more vital for our president.

Ordering people to put their lives at risk in defense of their country, and to use the awesome power of military force, are heavy responsibilities. Anyone who would demean a service member’s heroic pursuit of duty, or even contemplate issuing unlawful orders to commit war crimes and expect them to be obeyed (as Trump did when he threatened to attack the families of terrorists), is unfit for any rank in the U.S. military, let alone service as commander in chief.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Tobey, William H..“The Qualities of Command.” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2016.

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