“Get back to business!” With this tweet, President Trump directed his secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer, to stop the naval officers charged with oversight of the SEALs from disciplining one of their own. That order was confirmed on Monday by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and over the weekend, Mr. Spencer was fired.
There are three problems with Mr. Trump’s action. The first is that it is very much the Navy’s business — and every military’s business — to maintain, as the military so often recites and Mr. Spencer put it in his final letter to the president, “good order and discipline.” In conducting their “business,” our military services are not and must not be commanded in support of political ends, as Mr. Trump was apparently doing here.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, center, speaking at a commissioning ceremony for a naval destroyer in July.Credit...Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
How the president chooses to value order and discipline in his White House, and if at all, is of real concern to all Americans. But the military is not an extension of his White House. Some may argue that all actions by a president may have some political component, yet instead of constraining that component, this action by this president celebrates and encourages it.
The second problem intensifies the first. Contamination from the president’s approach is amplified when his judgment is largely shaped by television commentators and his decision announced by tweet. The military has well-established procedures for assuring good order and discipline. They begin by eliciting a judgment by peers. No one is as well positioned to balance the exigencies of combat and the demands of law and ethics as a panel of fellow sailors, Marines, airmen or soldiers.
Wise presidents let those who have made the sacrifices of combat — and who depend upon one another in combat — state first what they conclude. Such presidents provide opportunity for senior military officers and relevant civilians to add perspectives. They may not, in the end, agree. But to say at the beginning that the president mandates one and only one outcome deprecates the value of the SEALs’ judgment.
Finally, there is the judgment itself. An American service member shared a photograph of himself with a corpse along with the message: “I have got a cool story for you when I get back. I have got my knife skills on.” Our president’s endorsement of the perpetrator will be taken as a representation of our values. Our own troops, many of them teenagers, will be misled by the president’s sense, or lack of sense, of honor.
Our military engages over 1.3 million young men and women on active duty. Many will be thrust into situations of extreme risk. They, and hundreds of thousands of reservists, look to their commanders, their comrades and their training to find the proper course in the face of great challenges. All officials, and most of all presidents, should respect senior officers, the judgment of peers and the values articulated in training.
In his final letter, Mr. Spencer, a Trump appointee, put it well: “As secretary of the Navy, one of the most important responsibilities I have to our people is to maintain good order and discipline throughout the ranks. I regard this as deadly serious business.” He added, “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries.”
Our president should aspire to the same view. His values are not those of our military. It will do grievous damage to our armed services if they become so.