President Trump told governors this week that a police officer’s failure to act during the recent school shooting was “disgusting” and added, “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
A lifetime of evidence, though, suggests he would not have. And that distance between who Donald Trump is and who he thinks he is casts renewed doubt on his ability to effectively serve as the commander in chief.
Like every other military officer, I received instruction on Sun Tzu more times than I can remember during my 23-year career. The teachers would throw out questions, derived from Sun Tzu’s adage about knowing oneself and knowing the enemy, to drive home the point. How can you lead effectively if you don’t know your own strengths and weaknesses? How can you lead in battle if you can’t reasonably estimate your limits?
Then, in training, we’d have our assumptions tested. Turns out cold breaks you down faster than hunger or fatigue. Enough nights of three or fewer hours of sleep will make you hallucinate now and again. It didn’t take long to realize that knowing yourself had real value for those of us focused on defending America and winning our wars.
In Afghanistan, I watched a young Army captain put the “I’d run in there” concept into action. Insurgents were burying an IED in the road 1,200 meters from our base. We had no good options. They’d be gone before airpower could arrive. The sound of our gun trucks would send them fleeing before we could kill them. The base’s long-range weapons would endanger nearby villagers. So the captain pitched a tactically unsound plan: He suggested going in on foot with three of his men.
It was pitch black outside. His team would have no time to develop a plan or check their equipment. Wearing 65 pounds of gear, they would have to run to intercept the insurgents in time. But because I knew the captain's abilities and he knew them, too, I approved his request. The night ended with one captured insurgent, one wounded insurgent, a safely detonated bomb, and no injuries to Afghan civilians or Americans.
On at least six occasions, Trump has also had the opportunity to demonstrate bravery and service before self. In each instance, though, he actively took steps to make sure he did neither. In 2008, he recounted an event at Mar-a-lago in which an elderly man fell from the stage and hit his head. “I thought he died,” Trump said, “And you know what I did? I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s disgusting.’ And I turned away.”
The other five times, Uncle Sam called on the then-20-something Trump to serve his country in Vietnam. Each time Trump found a deferment before finally being medically disqualified from military service.
Yet there is little reason to think the president was being insincere in his comments to the governors. In all likelihood, he really believes he would have rushed in unarmed to save lives. And that disconnect between who Trump is and who he thinks he is should trouble Americans.
America faces a number of complex national security threats and challenges: North Korea’s nuclear program, Russian elections and aggression, China’s increased military spending and regional ambitions, numerous civil wars in the greater Middle East, terrorism and Iran. Each of those threats and challenges requires a commander in chief who can accurately estimate the adversary, U.S. capabilities, and his own strengths and weaknesses.
Trump’s fanciful boasting further reminds Americans that their commander in chief does not know himself. If Sun Tzu is right, that means we should ready ourselves to lose as many battles as we’ll win.