Trump, 4 Dead Soldiers, & Col. Cathcart

Balsam as Colonel Cathcart in “Catch-22”


Few novels understand the military mindset better than Catch-22. Nevertheless, I imagine that even Joseph Heller would gape at Donald Trump’s latest claim that he has been far more caring than his predecessors towards Gold Star families. After all, Trump made this claim after admitting that he had not yet contacted the families of the four Green Berets who died in Niger two weeks ago

When asked about them, Trump sounded like a student caught out for not having done his homework. He first said that the letters were on the way, or would be soon, and then tried to change the subject by contrasting himself with Barack Obama with what everyone agrees was a vile calumny. Here’s ABC’s account:

Almost two weeks after four Green Berets were killed in an attack in Niger, the Trump administration has faced criticism over its response. On Monday, Trump said he plans to call the families of the fallen soldiers to offer his condolences. But he also falsely claimed that Barack Obama and other presidents did not make personal calls to bereaved military families.

“The traditional way, if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls. Lot of them didn’t make calls. I like to call when it’s appropriate, when I think I’m able to do it. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. So generally I would say that I like to call,” Trump said.

He said he plans to call and send letters to the families “either today or tomorrow.”

When challenged by a reporter, Trump walked back his response.

“I was told that he didn’t often. Lot of presidents don’t,” Trump said. “President Obama, I think, probably did sometimes. Maybe sometimes he didn’t. I don’t know. That’s what I was told. All I can do is ask my generals. Other presidents did not call. They’d write letters. Some presidents didn’t do anything. But I like the combination.”

As many noted, while Obama and George W. Bush would have been at the airport when the bodies were flown back, Trump was playing golf.

During the Iraq War, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld came in for a storm of criticism when people figured out he was auto-signing letters to the families of soldiers who were killed. Trump, however, makes Rumsfeld sound like Mr. Rogers. I’d say that the president was on a par with the execrable Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22 only Cathcart at least feels he must make an effort to console families. Trump reaches out only after he is exposed.

Cathcart’s outreach involves “sincere” form letters, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Here’s his order to the chaplain:

“Starting tomorrow,” he said, “I want you and Corporal Whitcomb to write a letter of condolence for me to the next of kin of every man in the group who’s killed, wounded or taken prisoner. I want those letters to be sincere letters. I want them filled up with lots of personal details so there’ll be no doubt I mean every word you say. Is that clear?”

The chaplain stepped forward impulsively to remonstrate. “But, sir, that’s impossible,” he blurted out. “We don’t even know all the men that well.”

“What difference does that make?” Colonel Cathcart demanded, and then smiled amicably. “Corporal Whitcomb brought me this basic form letter that takes care of just about every situation. Listen: ‘Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs.: Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.’ And so on. I think that opening sentence sums up my sentiments exactly.”

Sure enough, Cathcart means every word the letters say. After Doctor Daneeka supposedly gets killed, his supposed widow hears from the colonel:

Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr. and Mrs. Daneeka:
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded or reported missing in action.

It’s one thing for Trump to disrespect Gold Star families. Far more worrisome is that such lack of empathy might lead him to underestimate war’s human toll, including the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear war with North Korea. (“If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” then-candidate Trump once reportedly asked in a foreign intel briefing.) What if people dying are no more real to him than people getting fired on The Apprentice.

For a leader who takes matters of life and death seriously, I offer you Ned Stark from Game of Thrones. When a deserter must be executed, Ned himself does the deed. He explains why to his son Bran:

[W]e hold to the belief that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.

One day, Bran, you will be Robb’s bannerman, holding a keep of your own for your brother and your king, and justice will fall to you. When that day comes, you must take no pleasure in the task, but neither must you look away. A ruler who hides behind paid executioners soon forgets what death is.

We have a president who refuses to take responsibility for anything, including the servicemen and women who are fighting and dying under his command. He is a man afraid to look others in the eye. He doesn’t know what death is and he is uninterested in finding out.

Further developments

The stories keep coming, such as this one from a father whose son died last June, as reported by Washington Post:

President Trump, in a personal phone call to a grieving military father, offered him $25,000 and said he would direct his staff to establish an online fundraiser for the family, but neither happened, the father said.

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