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President Trump’s deference to military leaders like John Kelly and James Mattis on civilian matters threatens democracy, says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

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AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump’s latest feud is with the grieving family of a slain soldier and their Congresswoman, Frederica Wilson. This stems from Trump making a condolence call to the family over the killing of Sgt. La David Johnson in Niger. Wilson reports that Trump told Johnson’s widow, “He knew what he signed up for, but when it happens it hurts anyway.” Both Trump and his Chief of Staff John Kelly have responded by attacking Wilson and making false claims about her. But in a news conference last week, General Kelly also raised a separate issue, the divide, he said, between families of those who have served in the military and those who have not. JOHN KELLY: Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, or coast guardsmen in combat. Most of you as Americans don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them, but they are the very best this country produces and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. AARON MATÉ: Joining me now is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, retired U.S. Colonel and former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, welcome. Everyone’s talking about this feud that Trump is having now with the family and their Congress member. We wanted to talk to you, though, about the issue that Kelly raised there in this divide he said between the families of those who have served and those who haven’t. Your thoughts on what he said? LARRY WILKERSON: I was very disturbed by what he said. While I appreciate it and I understood where he was coming from, I was nonetheless disturbed by it. Most Americans today look at the Armed Forces through the lens of ignorance, apathy, fear, and guilt. Think about that for a few moments. He’s right, Kelly is right that 99% do not bear the burden of defending this country at the risk of their life or limb, and 1% do, but let’s just examine some of the things he said. I’m going to be very frank here. First of all, they’re not the best America produces. We are bribing many people to serve in the Armed Forces today. The bribed this last year totaled $424 million. That’s almost half a billion dollars. We are getting some of these very best Americans from seven states, which compose 40% of our Army now. For example, Alabama with a combined population of 4.8 million provides more recruits than does Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York combined with an aggregate population of 25 million. Now I’m not trying to disparage these people. Not at all, and many of them do serve because they are intensely patriotic, but in most cases when you’re talking about the instrument toting the rifle, the person on the battlefield in harm’s way’s most intense environment, you’re talking about a person who would be here at William and Mary with me if they could, but either financially, or intellectually, or whatever, they don’t have the capacity to do that, so they’re on the battlefield. The way we got them there was to bribe them. That’s right, we bribe them. So while I have every respect- AARON MATÉ: Colonel, how do we bribe them? Bribe them with what? LARRY WILKERSON: We bribe them with bonuses. We pay $40,000. As I said, we jumped from about $250 million in bribes in 2005 to over $420 million today in bribes. These are bonuses that we pay them in order to enlist. In 1863 when Abraham Lincoln confronted draft rights in New York, when he instituted a draft, you could buy your way out for about $300. If you take that $300 and you do cost inflation over time to get to today, well we’re paying about that amount today to get people to enlist in the Armed Forces. That’s one point. A second point is what that’s doing is creating a massive divide between the son of the Harvard graduate or the Harvard graduate, between the son of the Congressman or the Congressman, and all the rest of the people in this country who can in effect “buy themselves out” of having to serve. Now that’s not to disparage firemen and policeman and peace corps volunteers, and other people who serve, John Kelly, just as bravely and just as patriotically as anyone in the Armed Forces, but it is to describe, as Kelly was pointing out in his own way, ineloquent, but nonetheless his own way, that we do have this gap growing between those who think they’re the only patriots in the country and those who aren’t. That is a very dangerous thing to be doing. I’ll give you an example. I had a woman ask me, from an audience to whom I was speaking recently, if all the President had to do was order the use of a nuclear weapon. I said yes, that’s the way it works. The order goes to the Secretary of Defense, and then down to the Strategic Command Commander who selects a ballistic missile submarine, an Air Force aircraft, or an Air Force MX missile. That’s the nuclear weapon on its way. Of course, there would be others in the chain, regional commanders and so forth who would hopefully know about it, but that’s the way it works. She said well that’s very disquieting. I said well what would you have. She said well one of those generals, or the Secretary of Defense or somebody ought to step in and say no you can’t do that Mr. President. Well that would be a coup d’etat. I’m sorry, that’s the way things work in our democracy. She was not comforted by that. She felt that the generals, the General H.R. McMaster, Jim Mattis, John Kelly ought to intervene. That’s another aspect of this gap that’s growing between the Americans who look at the military as I said through the lens of fear, apathy, guilt, and ignorance, and the rest of the group that thinks it’s the most patriotic group in America. This is not a healthy thing to be developing. AARON MATÉ: Yeah. Speaking of which, so much of the hopes of many people in the resistance are that the so-called adults in the room that Trump has installed in the White House, Generals Kelly and Mattis, are going to be the voices of reason. For many, Kelly with his defense of Trump last week, and even being dishonest about that Congresswoman Wilson and lying about her, he disappointed many people who were relying on him to be a voice of sanity. LARRY WILKERSON: Yes Aaron. That’s another point, but it’s a connected point that General Kelly seems to have been co-opted by President Trump and be just as, perhaps more sober about it, but just as enamored of some of the concepts that President Trump apparently is as President Trump. That’s very disquieting. When we come to this idea of having three generals around the President, three generals in whom he by his own admission apparently places more trust than anyone else, certainly more than his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, then we’re talking about that divide being enhanced and made even more dangerous because of the propensity of the Commander in Chief to turn to that element of our institutional framework to do most of the missions in this world. That’s already been a tendency for some time now, and to make it the ultimate instrument of national power, which Donald Trump seems to be willing to do, is extremely dangerous. AARON MATÉ: Right, Colonel. On this point about deference to military leadership, I want to go to a clip from the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She was asked last week at a news conference about Kelly’s dishonest comments. Reporter: Can he come out here and talk to us about this at some point so that we can get the facts straight? S. HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think he addressed that pretty thoroughly yesterday. Reporter: …wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money was to [inaudible 00:08:50] before she came into Congress. S. HUCKABEE SANDERS: If you want to go after Kelly that’s up to you, but I think that if you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate. AARON MATÉ: Colonel, that’s the White House Press Secretary telling news reporters that trying to debate a Marine general is inappropriate. LARRY WILKERSON: Perfect example, Aaron. I mean here we have a civilian in a position of authority deferring to a uniformed military officer, and not just deferring to him, but saying that, implying that no one should challenge that, no one should stand up to that. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, the war I fought in featured that big time. The national security advisor wrote about that war, H.R. McMaster, in his book ‘Dereliction of Duty.’ Sometimes I wonder if H.R. has read his own book based on some of the things he said recently. But this is not something in this Democratic republic that one is supposed to do, defer to the generals. Maybe on military tactics, maybe even from time to time on military strategy, but on other matters that are supposed to be decided by smart civilians, that’s the way our republic works. We don’t defer to the generals. If someone had deferred to me as a colonel in that regard, I would have looked right back at them and said, “Do you understand how our republic works? Do you understand civil military relations and the concept? Do you understand what James Madison said that the surest way to tyranny was through the instrument of war? Do you understand all that? Maybe you want to retract your remarks.” AARON MATÉ: You know Colonel, I’m just thinking there’s a parallel to this in the media as well because so often when you look at the cable news networks, so many of their so-called experts are retired high officials from the military who now have lucrative stakes in the military industrial complex, who have a stake in advocating for militaristic policies. LARRY WILKERSON: Very much a stake in it. I was just looking at Bill Hartung’s article on how much the CEOs of the six top defense contractors, Lockheed Martin, the Northrop, Boeing, and so forth, were paid and how much of the defense budget in that particular fiscal year they got for making their arms, over $300 billion. That’s taxpayer money, and much of that went out to pay their executives. Unbelievably obscene numbers of salaries that were over $1 million, $2 million, $3 million, $4 million, $200 million in bonuses and things like that. We’re paying taxpayer money to these people for the weapons of death that they’re producing for our Armed Forces, and producing increasingly for armed forces all over the world. This is an incredible situation we’ve gotten ourselves to in our supposedly democratic federal republic. AARON MATÉ: All right Colonel, so speaking of weapons of death, I wanted to ask you also about an issue that you touched on earlier, which is nuclear weapons. The White House today is denying a report that was in Defense One that the U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear bombers on 24 hour alert status. Now, if that were to happen, it would be the first time they’ve done so in 28 years since the end of the Cold War. You actually were serving during this time under General Colin Powell when he was Chair of the Joint Chiefs. I’m wondering your thoughts on this news? Whether or not it’s true, it certainly was an alarming news item to read. LARRY WILKERSON: I would think that if it were true General Powell would probably just be bewildered, as am I. We were so elated to be able to take things off of alert status, including those bombers, at the end of the Cold War and to go back to what you might call more normal way of life, not a garrison state certainly. I can tell you that all the pilots in the Armed Forces themselves were happy to do that too because it gave a lot of flexibility in other things that they had to do, and stopped some things that looked like they were just burning up money in the sky. If we’re going back to that, I would think that the rhetoric of it was probably to be heard by North Korea, and that perhaps it isn’t going to be done. If it is going to be done, if we’re actually going to do that, in conjunction with this business of calling back some 1,500 retired Air Force pilots and so forth, I think we’re entering a period that one of my colleagues said to me the other day is more dangerous even than the Cold War itself. He even went so far as to say more dangerous than the Berlin crisis of ’61 or the Cuban missile crisis of ’62, and said that he thought there was a higher, and this is a scholar of nuclear weapon issues, that there was a higher probability of a nuclear weapon being used today than there was at any time during the Cold War. That is one hell of a statement to make. Again, I think we’re entering waters here that we should not be wanting to enter. AARON MATÉ: We’ll leave it there. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, now a distinguished professor at the College of William and Mary. Colonel, thank you. LARRY WILKERSON: Thanks for having me Aaron. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.