Trump: What We Don’t Know

What is the Trump administration doing? What has it accomplished? More important, what has it not accomplished? For the most part, we don’t know.

Part of the reason is that so many top government positions are either empty or are filled by temporary “acting” personnel. According to the most recent information I could find, a Fortune article dated November 2019, we have 28 acting cabinet secretaries not confirmed by the Senate. Similar numbers apply to senior ranking advisors.

And top jobs in many departments go unfilled. One of the worst is the State Department—which Trump dislikes—where almost half the top jobs are empty. Dozens of embassies are understaffed, and no ambassadors have been named to many countries.

Of course, we have no information about the state of classified work in the government. We know that Trump disdains the U.S. intelligence community whose 16 agencies concurred that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election to help elect Trump. These agencies are the eyes and ears of the government. To the degree that they are crippled or weakened, danger to the U.S. increases. The job of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who oversees their work, is currently an acting official, unconfirmed by the Senate.

But even the status of unclassified government bureaus remains murky. Little or no news about the state they are in is reported by the press. The regular press briefings common in previous administrations have largely disappeared. We simply don’t know.

I suspect that only after Trump leaves office will we begin to discover the havoc he has wreaked.

American Ignorance of War

We Americans, unlike the citizens of the countries of Europe and much of Asia,  are woefully ignorant of what war is like. The last war we had on our own territory was the civil war, 160 years ago. As a result, the grisly reality of combat is unknown to us.

Military veterans are more likely than others to have some sense of the ghastliness of the battlefield, but as time passes we have fewer and fewer veterans. The draft ended in 1973. In 1980, according to the Census Bureau, 18 percent of the U.S. population were veterans. By 2000, the number was down to 12.7 percent. Those numbers have continued to dwindle as fewer and fewer men and women served in the military. Today, fewer than 7.6 percent of the population are veterans.

And even among veterans, those who served in combat are far fewer than the total. A combat veteran is defined as one who has been fired upon, either directly or indirectly, by an enemy combatant, and has fired upon an enemy combatant. According to various sources, about a third of all veterans served in a combat zone. That means something like 2.5 percent of all Americans have experienced being on or near the battlefield. How many have actually engaged in combat will be somewhat fewer.

The likelihood of suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) as a result of combat is unclear. Figures I’ve been able to gather indicate that something like a third of all those who have experienced combat report some traumatic or distressing experience, but only 18 percent are subject to PTSI. My own sense is that all who survive combat are damaged to some extent, some (like me) more than others. I can’t believe that any human being can experience combat without being profoundly affected.

The fact that so many who have lived through combat are subject to PTSI is prima facie evidence of its severity. It is incurable. The only path open to the sufferer is to learn to cope.

Yet so many Americans dismiss PTSI as weakness or cowardice. My sense is that they can only do that because they haven’t a glimmer of what a PTSI victim has been through.

So in my writing and speaking, I stress the butchery that combat entails. I want people to know what they are asking of their young men and women when they subject them to war. I’m hoping that people who understand the carnage of combat will think twice before entering into war.

My Two Causes (2)

The second urgent issue that concerns me is our national disregard for climate change. The vast majority of climate scientists conclude that the human inhabitants of the earth are responsible for global warning. We are already seeing the results with fires raging in California and Australia, communities world-wide facing floods, and islands disappearing as the volume of water in our oceans grows as a result of melting ice in our two polar regions. Venice is now flooded, and coastal communities as well as islands in the U.S. are sinking. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just issued a report warning us that the time to make changes is now.

But the U.S. government is ignoring the problem. President Trump maintains that global warming is a hoax. He has taken us out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, an international pact designed to avert the effects of global warming. The Republican Senate refuses to take any steps to ameliorate the growing threat. We have, in effect, another year to wait until the government installed as a result of the 2020 election takes action to ward off disaster.

So my two greatest concerns about the future of our country and the world—gun deaths and global warming—won’t be addressed in the United States until 2021. By then another 40,000 U.S. citizens will have been killed by guns, and low-lying regions, including islands in the Chesapeake Bay, will be swamped by rising tides.

Maybe the impeachment of Trump and the increased unpopularity of the Republicans will save us sooner. I doubt it.

My Two Causes

At the beginning of the new year, it’s worth taking the time to recap my arguments on two urgent issues: the plurality of guns and gun deaths in the U.S. and our national disregard of climate change.

In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data are available, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a death rate of more than 10 per 100,000 people. At the same time, our number of guns per hundred people was 120.5—we have 20 percent more guns than people in the U.S. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, we have about 46 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.

Compare us to our northern neighbor, Canada: death rate by gun-related injuries: 2.1 per 100,000. Guns per hundred people: 34.7.

Granted, the Canadian city of Toronto witnessed an increase in gun violence in 2019, but the majority of guns in Toronto were smuggled in from the U.S.

In short, we lead by a large margin the western civilized world in the number of guns we own and the number of our citizens killed by gunfire every year. No other western democracy even approaches our numbers in guns and deaths.

Only by reducing the number of guns in our country can we reduce the number killed by guns. Those against gun control point to the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which they interpret to mean that we cannot legally control ownership of guns. I argue that they are misreading the Second Amendment. It is specifically intended to avoid limits on guns for militias. It does not say that the general population should have unlimited access to firearms.

Those in favor of unlimited gun ownership also point out that guns are ingrained in American culture. We are gun owners by tradition. My answer is that we’d damned well better change our culture. It’s costing us tens of thousands of lives every year.

It’s time to go back to the original meaning of the Second Amendment and reduce the number of weapons in the hands of citizens. The alternative to accept as normal the death annually of 40,000 citizens.

Our current government—Trump in the White House and the Republicans controlling the Senate—are unwilling to act. We must vote in people who will.

More tomorrow

Dak To (2)

NSA’s success in hiding its own existence did not excuse the army’s failure to use SIGINT. Soldiers and their commanders need to be aware of classified sources and know how to utilize them in combat.

Our American can-do attitude is partly to blame as well. U.S. military forces in Vietnam were markedly superior to the North Vietnamese army. Too often U.S. army commanders in Vietnam were so determined to go after their target that they refused to be distracted by unwelcome information. Exemplary was a general (who will remain unnamed) who disregarded my warning that he needed to encrypt his own communications with his troops because the North Vietnamese were adept at intercepting and exploiting U.S. communications. “I want them to know I’m coming,” he told me. When he arrived at his objective’s location, there was no one there. The North Vietnamese knew he was coming and escaped.

The failure to believe and act on SIGINT happened repeatedly throughout my years in Vietnam. One of the worst examples was at the very end in April 1975. I warned the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, that the North Vietnamese were going to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me and didn’t implement evacuation. As a result, the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers working with my organization were all killed or captured when Saigon fell. I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.

I’m told that these days things have changed. Intelligence people and military commanders are now so closely intertwined that it’s hard to tell one from the other, according to my sources. I hope so. But I still worry that our can-do leaders, including the commander-in-chief, are so anxious to launch their operations that they fail to heed warnings from intelligence.

I can only hope we’ve learned enough to avoid catastrophe.