Myeshia Johnson, the newly widowed spouse of Green Beret La David T. Johnson, got an oaf for the ages when, as she rode to the airport to greet her husband's body, President Trump called and gruffly told her that her "guy" probably "knew what he was signing up for... but it still probably hurts."
At my own young husband's wake three decades ago, one mourner chirped, "Don't worry, you'll get over it sooner than you think and get married again," while a contrarian noted "You'd better not get married again, Karen. After all, the first one left you and the second one died on you!"
There were many more condolences of that clumsy and insensitive but well-meaning ilk. But since none of them came from the president of the United States, they didn't make the front-page news as the latest chapter in Political Distraction Theater.
The Emily Posts of political etiquette in the Age of Trump are universally incensed that he so sorely lacks the fake empathy skills of his predecessors. Other presidents have actually stuck to their boilerplate scripts and recited not only the names, but the entire life stories of dead soldiers as if they'd known them intimately their entire lives. They even developed such acting skills as the quavering voice and the tear-filled eye.
Donald Trump doesn't believe in either crocodile tears or in sticking to scripts. So when he probably meant to tell Myeshia Johnson that "despite the dangers he knew were lurking everywhere, your husband was very brave to protect our country and preserve our freedoms by making the ultimate sacrifice," he came out instead with the equivalent of "War is hell. Shit happens."
The bereaved were rendered sadder by the fact that Trump didn't even remember to say Sgt. Johnson's name in his condolence call. And they'll be rendered sadder still by the fact that political and media critics are making this story more about Trump's poor social skills than they are about Johnson and his surviving family members. In its own front page story, headlined as an "imbroglio," the New York Times itself didn't get around to mentioning Johnson's name until the third paragraph (after putting Trump in the first graf, and John McCain in the second.) It didn't acknowledge Myeshia Johnson by name until the seventh paragraph.
What I suspect is really bothering the political establishment more than Trump's crude words is that his crude words will discourage young people from volunteering for military service. The commander in chief just committed the ultimate faux pas of admitting that people in uniform are nothing but human meat in buffer zones between the poor citizens of resource-rich countries and the US-based corporations which want to plunder those rich resources. Rather than tell recruits that the military is a great place to get job training, college tuition and other lifetime benefits, Trump just brayed out that you have a very good chance of getting killed if you join up. Presidents are supposed to celebrate and mourn and gloss over deaths, not throw a shadow over the rosy patriotic glow of it all.
And of course, Trump had also brought the latest criticism upon himself when, days before his clumsy phone call, he'd boastfully compared the frequency of his own personal condolence calls to those of his predecessors.
This latest Trump outrage, this slap in the face to everything that is stylish and sacred, also distracts attention from why the United States has troops in Niger and other parts of Africa in the first place.
As Phillip Carter, of the liberal think tank Center for a New American Security, writes in Slate,
Thirteen days after their deaths, we lack any real explanation for why and how Army Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright died in combat on Oct. 4. In a wide-ranging press conference, senior Pentagon officials said they were in Niger to train and advise the country’s security forces, which have partnered with the U.S. to root out al-Qaida-linked elements in Africa. The efforts in Niger appear broadly linked to the global U.S. counterterrorism campaign, which began after 9/11, an effort that now continues to expand and grind on under an amorphous blend of legal authorities.
Sgts. Black, Johnson, Johnson, and Wright died while accompanying Nigerien forces on a patrol near the border with Mali. Similar patrols had been conducted some 30 times previously without incident. And yet, on Oct. 4, al-Qaida-linked militants ambushed the American Green Berets and their Nigerien teammates. The ambush—and American fatalities—punctured the lie that American troops were simply in Niger for a training mission, just as American casualties have done for decades of similar missions in Vietnam, El Salvador, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Training and advising missions frequently include combat, too; the enemy gets an important vote on deciding when and where they make the switch. Insisting otherwise insults those who conduct these missions, and the memories of those who die during them.
Since Trump became president and elevated the military to even the highest echelons of his civilian cabinet, ground troops have been granted unprecedented leeway all around the world. The Guardian quotes one unnamed former official as saying "Decisions about when and what to engage have been devolved right down to unit level. Any soldier knows that if you give guys on the ground more independence, then they will be that much more aggressive and will take more risks.”
Trump has given his "guys" all the freedom in the world to protect the freedoms of the global oligarchy. If they didn't know what they were getting into then, they probably are getting a nasty reality check right about now, thanks to his unabashed oafishness.