After President Donald Trump accused senior military leaders of advocating war to please defense contractors, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said he and his colleagues only recommend putting troops in harm’s way as a “last resort.”
During a news conference at the White House Monday, Trump claimed senior military officials did not like his opposition to “crazy endless wars.”
“I’m not saying the military is in love with me – the soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, and make the planes, and make everything else, stay happy,” Trump said.
McConville, whom Trump appointed in August 2019, declined to respond directly to the president’s remarks when asked about them during an interview Tuesday with Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron. Baron pointed out Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts had also been critical of the power wielded by what former President Dwight Eisenhower referred to as the “military industrial complex.”
“I’m not going to comment on, really, the president’s comments, or, really, any of the politicians’ comments,” McConville said. “We live in a political environment, but we’re an apolitical organization. I think it really must remain that way, especially with an election coming up.”
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Baron pressed McConville on whether it was accurate to say military leaders are beholden to defense contractors.
“Many of these leaders have sons and daughters that serve in the military. Many of these leaders have sons and daughters who have gone to combat, or may be in combat right now,” McConville said. “I can assure the American people that the senior leaders would only recommend sending our troops to combat when it is required in national security and in the last resort. We take this very, very seriously in how we make our recommendations.”
“I think that’s all I can really say on that,” McConville said. “I feel strongly about that.”
Though Trump claimed the rank-and-file troops support him, a recent Military Times poll found 50% of active-duty troops disapprove of the job Trump has done in office and 38% approved. Forty-one percent said they planned to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden and 37% said they planned to vote for Trump, while 13% said they planned to support a third-party candidate.
Trump’s remarks on Monday came after The Atlantic reported he had disparaged dead and injured service members as “losers” and “suckers.” The White House has strongly denied the report, which relied on four confidential sources, and produced statements from current and former officials who said they had never heard make such comments.
Critics said Trump’s comments fit a pattern of disrespectful remarks about the armed forces and service members, such as his attacks on the late Sen. John McCain, whom Trump said he did not consider a war hero because he had been captured.
“You have shown disrespect to the military on countless occasions. I’m stunned that any body in the United States military would consider you anything but a loser and a sucker. You’re no patriot,” retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton said in a video tweeted Thursday.
Trump has continued to criticize McCain since his death, telling reporters twice on Monday that he was “never a fan” of the 2008 Republican presidential nominee and that McCain, who spent more than five torturous years as a North Vietnamese prisoner, “wanted the endless wars.”
Several former generals who served in Trump’s Cabinet have publicly criticized the president after leaving the administration, including James Mattis, John Kelly and H.R. McMaster.
After protesters were forcibly cleared from the area around the White House on June 1, Mattis said Trump is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us.” And he accused the president of eroding “the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect.”
When asked Tuesday about the use of troops in controlling protests, McConville said, “The job of the American military is protect the nation, not to police the nation.”
He said the National Guard should only be used in a support role when local, state and federal law enforcement is incapable of managing the situation.
McConville said the use of regular Army troops to quell domestic unrest should be a “last resort” that should only be considered in “the most extreme conditions.”
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook