President Donald Trump’s time as both candidate and chief executive has rendered more and more American voters inured to his outrageous public statements. With each successive statement, he proves himself incapable of political restraint, modesty, truth, or acceptance of the norms of behavior that previously guided American politics.
The public is currently debating the merits or dangers of Trump’s latest “send them back” remark; however, I contend his recent statement regarding the Afghanistan war should be recognized as his most outrageous and dangerous contribution to political discourse.
While discussing the war with Pakistan’s prime minister in late July, Trump claimed, “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally, in 10 days. And I don’t want to do — I don’t want to go that route.”
Though Trump claimed to reject what amounts to genocide as a viable option, he cavalierly left open the possibility of disregarding constitutional and international law if his judgment were to be suddenly overcome by an impulsive “if I wanted to…” whim.
This statement contains classic Trump language: a simple but unrealistic solution to a complex problem; a portrayal of himself as a benevolent ruler who “chooses” to follow the U.S. Constitution and/or international law, though someone who could just as easily go off the legal rails if he so wished; tough talk that advocates military power or violence as the best option; the dehumanization of non-white population groups; and minimization of contributions made by Oval Office predecessors.
Yet, this one doozy of a statement stands out for the following detailed reasons.
First, we are not at war with Afghanistan. Wiping Afghanistan off the face of the earth fails to take into consideration the obvious fact we are at war with the Taliban and remnants of ISIS, not the Afghanistan people. Government estimates put Taliban strength as high as 60,000 combatants. His vision of winning would thus entail murdering a little under ten million innocent people—the same people our service members and NATO allies have been fighting to support for so many years. A counter-productive strategy if ever there was one.
Second, Trump brags of being able to kill ten million people as if he were the first U.S. president to possess this capability, insinuating he should be credited for exercising restraint. However, as everyone knows, both George Bush and Barak Obama also maintained access to the nuclear codes. They both waged war in Afghanistan knowing the mass murder of innocent people (via conventional or unconventional weapons) was never an option.
Neither president saw diplomatic or political value in boasting of this irrelevant capability. These former presidents grasped the notion that in a counter-insurgency warfare environment, the application of more military fire power is too frequently the wrong answer. Lyndon Johnson humbly learned this lesson over 50 years ago.
Third, Trump must know the killing of ten million innocent people would constitute a war crime of the highest nature, yet he curiously did not offer this as justification for rejecting the “wiped off the face of the earth” option. Our understanding of the laws of war have evolved since World War II and the subsequent Nuremburg Trials. Though international law is often imperfectly applied, a select number of foreign leaders have since been charged and convicted of genocide for killing far less than ten million people. Trump’s willingness to raise genocide as a possible strategy for Afghanistan can lead one to question whether he ever opened a book and seriously studied recent history.
Finally, talk of killing ten million Afghanistan citizens makes Third World lives sound cheap and expendable. I’m left wondering if Trump would ever talk of killing ten million Norwegians in pursuit of military victory. Since Norway has a population of only seven million, perhaps demographics alone prevent Trump from equating the value of Afghanistan lives with those of more prosperous blond-haired people.
In light of his “ten million” statement, I suggest a recent historical episode for President Trump to study during his notorious “executive time.” In January 1991, as a mighty U.S. fleet floated along the Kuwaiti coast in preparation for Operation Desert Storm, military leaders studied the feasibility of an amphibious assault by Marine forces.
A decision was ultimately made to forego this military option. Of prime consideration was the understanding such an assault would require the destruction of a large liquefied natural gas plant near the proposed landing site, as well as adjacent hotel and condominium buildings. These would-be military targets were deemed too important to the post-war infrastructure requirements of the country we aimed to liberate. This decision, the product of sophisticated politico-military thinking, provides an illuminating lesson in legitimate wartime restraint, rational reasoning, and civilized thought.
Let’s hope President Trump truly understands the need for such thinking. And let’s also hope he understands the need for America to set the international example (in both word and deed) for much needed moral restraint.
Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.