Notes on the Niger Ambush

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 10.25.51 PMI didn’t intend to write about this. Others have already said all the necessary things.

About his shameful silence for twelve days after the deaths in combat of four American soldiers in a warzone where few Americans even knew we had troops deployed (did Trump?), preoccupied as he was tweeting about the NFL, playing golf, and challenging Rex Tillerson to an IQ test….

About his jawdropping lie that he alone among US presidents has called “virtually” all the families of US soldiers who have been killed on his watch, a claim that is outrageously false on both counts….

About his instinct to lash out whenever he feels threatened or denigrated—invariably dishonestly, maliciously, and completely falsely—and usually at his predecessor (though in this case he decided to lump in all previous occupants of the White House). But this was arguably the most shameful, impulsive lie yet, and about the most sacred duty a president has….

About how he characteristically makes everything—everything, even this!—all about himself, such as how hard it is for him to make those calls to grieving families. (It is impossible to ignore the parallel to another sexual predator, Harvey Weinstein, who likewise couched his sins in the New Age-speak of the rehabilitative “work” he has to do on himself)….

About the pathetic absurdity of claiming he’d written letters to the families but just hadn’t mailed them yet, but would—tomorrow, or maybe Tuesday— sounding like a fourth-grader who hadn’t done his homework….

About his chronic issues with the military, a profession he fetishizes with juvenile glee, yet time and again proves profoundly ignorant about and insulting to: from his denigration of John McCain and other POWs, to his callous remarks about servicemembers with PTSD, to his appalling attacks on the Gold Star Khan family, to claiming he knows more about ISIS than the generals, to threatening to fire them all, to asking why the war in Afghanistan can’t be won as fast the kitchen at the 21 Club can be renovated. And now this….

So this ground has been well-trod in the four short days since this scandal exploded.

But here is the one thing that I feel compelled to say.

Like almost every incident these days, this one will be yet another partisan Rorschach test for the American public, with each side seeing only what it wants to see and dismissing the perspective of the other. General (Ret.) Kelly’s comments yesterday will only further entrench that divide, as the Right now has its own narrative of outrage in which Trump is the hero and an African-American congresswoman the villain.

But with the utmost respect to General Kelly, it is his boss who failed to properly respect the fallen and who politicized this tragedy, not the press or Rep. Frederica Wilson. General Kelly’s moving explanation that his own son died doing what he loved best—leading Marines—is a world apart from Trump’s casual, ignorant, beyond-tone-deaf remark to the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson that her husband knew what he was getting into. Even if Kelly’s sentiment is what Trump was clumsily trying to convey, his horrific mangling of it speaks to his lack of empathy and misunderstanding of the most fundamental principles of military service, not to mention his characteristic (and characteristically dishonest) cornered rat attack on anyone who dares cross him.

Even if you are inclined for some incomprehensible reason to give Donald Trump the benefit of every doubt, do ask yourself what the GOP, Fox News, and the rest of conservative America would have said if Barack Obama had said to a newly minted Gold Star widow the things Donald Trump said to Myeshia Johnson.


In my parents’ generation, when I was a boy, the notification of a combat death was not treated with the same delicacy as it is today. The military had not yet developed the “casualty assistance officer” program it now has. When my father was shot up in Vietnam in 1965, no one called my mother. In those days the Army just gave telegrams to anonymous taxi drivers to deliver to unsuspecting Gold Star wives and mothers. On Army posts like Ft. Benning, Georgia, the sight of a taxicab turning down your street and creeping along while its driver checked curbside address numbers was enough to make hearts drops into stomachs, as families peered out anxiously from behind drawn curtains, waiting to see at whose quarters that yellow angel of death would stop.

As chance would have it, on those particular days in the fall of 1965, my mother had been painting the interior of my grandparents’ home where we were staying and had taken a respite from her usual grim ritual of watching the evening news. So she didn’t even know about the battle that my father’s unit had been in, or the terrible death toll on both sides, or that all the officers in his rifle company were reported casualties and the company effectively wiped out. Not until mourners and well-wishers turned up at our front door to offer their condolences.

For days my mother thought my father was dead until she got a call from the Red Cross telling her, “We have your husband here at McGuire Air Force Base.” She thought they meant the body. When my mother, numb, didn’t reply, the Red Cross woman said, “Well, do you want to talk to him?”

My father survived his wounds and went back to Vietnam a second time. Plenty of others weren’t so lucky.

Donald Trump of course didn’t serve in Vietnam—arggg, those pesky bones spurs!—or in uniform at all, or really serve his country or anything other than himself in any way his entire life, so perhaps it is unfair to expect him to have any empathy or understanding or even simple human compassion for people like the Johnsons. No, that would require what is usually called a “soul.” (He is on record, however, as suggesting that the posh military boarding school he attended was tougher than most actual military training, and musing that avoiding VD was his “personal Vietnam.”) But none of that has stopped Trump from proclaiming his genius as a field marshal or the supremacy of his own patriotism.

Little evidence of either was on display this week.


Immediately after the Niger ambush was reported, some began calling this “Trump’s Benghazi”…..and that was just on the basis of the casualties, even before the calls to the families became an issue.

It’s a logical analogy, but somehow I am not holding my breath for Congress to spend years and years and millions of taxpayer dollars digging into it, or for Fox News and the rest of the right wing media to relentlessly beat the drums over it, only to have Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) finally admit it was just a partisan witchhunt all along.

During the long and grueling Benghazi circus, a particular point of outrage for right wingers (they no longer deserve the term “conservatives”) was Mrs. Clinton’s exasperated comment, “What difference does it make?” during her lengthy grilling before Congress. This sentence—uttered in frustration after Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin prattled on at length, questioning her nonsensically about an arcane issue of chronology in a blatant but empty attempt on his part to look tough. Not surprisingly, the Right took it out of context and turned it into a battle cry, ostensibly proving that Hillary Clinton did not care about the deaths of four Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth, but when did that ever matter when it comes to the right wing and Hillary Clinton? (Read the full transcript and see.)

Those same right wingers are unlikely to feel the same outrage at Donald Trump’s inarguably far more callous comment—to the widow no less—that Sergeant Johnson knew what he was signing up for, or that Trump reportedly didn’t even know his name (or at least didn’t use it) when speaking to the family. Likewise, little (that I have seen anyway) has been written about the racial aspect of the incident with the Johnsons, but I am confident that in various dark corners of the Internet and in barrooms in Trump country there is abhorrent talk about the skin tone of the grieving family.

By way of damage control, I expected Trump to trot out the family of one of the other slain soldiers who were supportive of him. (One family already weighed in to say they were not offended that the president had yet to reach out to them.) But as is often the case, I underestimated Trump’s flamethrower-to-a-knifefight mentality: instead, he brought in John Kelly. Prior to that Trump had—unilaterally I assumed—dragged Kelly into this by mentioning his son, a Marine second lieutenant who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. Kelly is famously tight-lipped and private about that highly personal tragedy—admirably so—which led me to believe that he might take the President aside, close the doors to the Oval Office, and tell him to fucking stop it.

I was quite wrong.

Among the Left there is an enduring fantasy that the generals who surround Trump are crypto-liberals who privately loathe the POTUS and stay on only to prevent World War III. Maybe that’s true. But Kelly is undeniably quite loyal to Trump, and his actions during his brief tenure as Secretary of Homeland Security would not warm the hearts of any progressives. Oddly—perhaps tellingly—none of Kelly’s ire when he went on TV to address this issue was directed at his boss for his shameful slander of previous presidents. Recall also that Kelly reportedly received an ass-chewing from Trump not long ago that he subsequently called the most abusive treatment he’s ever received in his long career. This from a Marine with 43 years’ service. Why does a man like Kelly subject himself to such humiliation from a punk like Trump who is not fit to shine his shoes? Only true loyalty—to the right wing, if not the president himself—or the aforementioned obligation to keep Trump from blowing up the planet could explain it.

Sadly for Mr. Trump, John Kelly cannot provide cover for him forever. No matter how much personal credibility any of his deputies might have, no one who serves this administration can plausibly complain about the breaching of norms, or politicizing the ostensibly sacred. Speaking even before the Johnson phone call threw jet fuel on this inferno, San Antonio Spurs coach and former US Air Force officer Gregg Popovich eviscerated Trump as a “soulless coward,” adding: “We have a pathological liar in the White House: unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day. The people who work with this President should be ashamed because they know it better than anyone just how unfit he is, and yet they choose to do nothing about it. This is their shame most of all.”


Of course it is ironic that Trump should fail in the duties of his office in this particular task after spending weeks engaging in textbook demagoguery over the issue of NFL players making a silent protest during the national anthem, in the process whipping up racially-tinged hatred with a transparently phony appeal to so-called “patriotism.” But Trump knows nothing of duty, any more than he knows what’s happening when a bugler plays “Retreat.”

The Niger affair has been rightly described as a self-inflicted wound on Trump’s part, causing reporters to dig into related things that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Chiefly, Trump’s outlandish claims about his predecessors naturally prompted swift and angry rebuttals from former staffers in previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican, which only served to make Trump look even worse, both for the lie and by comparison. (This too is a pattern with Trump: a spurious claim that blows up in his face and brings on the very punishment he was seeking to avoid. See also: firing Jim Comey.)

A story emerged about then-President George W. Bush, during a visit to Walter Reed Army Hospital, calmly allowing himself to be screamed at by the anguished mother of a badly wounded soldier (who later died), then taking her in his arms and comforting her. I am no fan of Bush, and he must answer for much regarding the wrongheaded and duplicitous war he led us into in Iraq. But that is how leaders are supposed to act, and even a man like Bush, who was often derided as a lightweight and a dilettante, had the empathy, decency, and simply humanity to know how to behave in that situation. By comparison with Trump he is Albert Schweitzer and Winston Churchill rolled into one. Barack Obama, by all accounts, took the burden of his office with exceptional gravity, and frequently honored the dead and their families—out of the spotlight—to the point where Republicans claimed he worried too much about fallen soldiers. (Like the old joke about walking on water goes, “Barry can’t swim.”)

In dealing with this incident and this grieving family, Trump demonstrated the same categorical unfitness to serve as commander-in-chief as he did with previous contretemps with the military, but also—more chillingly— with his policy actions, statements, and threats regarding Iran, North Korea, NATO, ISIS, mythical aircraft carrier task forces, nuclear proliferation, and on and on. He is unfit to lead in every conceivable way. And this is a man who might well order US troops into combat….who indeed seems to relish the opportunity to do that?

And so the hyper-partisan tribalism of American politics continues, and the Niger ambush will be just one more signpost along the road, soon to be overwhelmed by the next great polarizing outrage. Trump’s defenders will latch onto their champion’s version of events, forgive him all, and demonize someone else: Democrats, the press, even a grieving Gold Star family. They have done it before. The Right will no more turn on Trump over this affair than they did over the Access Hollywood tape, his tax returns, or Russiagate.

But they should.