By any measure, now-former Navy Secretary Richard Spencer’s letter, released on Sunday, was a strong one. He could not have been clearer how much he fundamentally disagreed with his commander in chief, Donald Trump.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper removed Spencer from his post this past weekend over his handling of a case involving Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher. Gallagher is a controversial figure whom the Navy had charged with war crimes, and who was convicted of posing with the dead body of an Islamic State combatant. Trump has vigorously defended Gallagher and has promised, via Twitter, that Gallagher would remain a SEAL and retire as one.
In his letter, Spencer wrote that maintaining order and discipline was “deadly serious business” and was part of the Navy’s professional execution of its mission, which he noted “depended on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside.”
He continued: “Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The oath to which Spencer refers is well-known to the active-duty and veterans in our Fort Bragg-connected community. People here also know better than most the degree to which Spencer’s public disagreement with the U.S. commander in chief is an extraordinary statement.
It is yet another sign that things are not entirely all right between Trump and the troops — or at least between the president and some of his top commanders.
These military heads are still reeling from what was generally viewed as a precipitous and counterproductive stand-down of U.S. troops last month in war-torn Syria. U.S. military leaders have watched helplessly as Vladimir Putin’s Russian troops and those of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have filled the spaces our troops abandoned — along with abandoning the Kurdish allies who helped lead the fight against the Islamic State terrorists.
Since then, Trump has begun intervening directly in how the military chooses to discipline its own. He pardoned former Green Beret Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who was stationed at Bragg; Golsteyn had been charged by the Army with murder in the killing of an unarmed Afghani man whom Golsteyn suspected of being a bomb-maker. Trump also pardoned Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who had been serving time in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., after convictions of second-degree murder for ordering soldiers to fire upon three men in Afghanistan. As for Gallagher, Trump ordered his rank restored and also challenged on Twitter a Navy review that could have ended with Gallagher’s removal from SEALs. Conservative media, of which Trump is an avid consumer, have made causes of all three servicemen.
In these cases, Trump appears to hold that even wrong or questionable actions by U.S. troops against an enemy are justified. In other words, the enemy is cruel; we do not have to respect his or her humanity. While this take can be emotionally satisfying for some, it undercuts our global credibility and moral authority. It weakens alliances with allies. It makes the hard job of our military that much harder — and by extension more dangerous for our men and women who serve.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump famously claimed that when it came to the Islamic State he knew “more than the generals.”
We wager the generals never believed that. And as symbolized by now-former Navy Secretary Spencer’s letter, many commanders are probably deepened in their conviction that the commander in chief knows much less than they do about how the military works.