The president of the United States is also the commander in chief of our armed forces. There is absolutely no ambiguity about that role and the responsibilities that go along with it.
Since our founding, there has been civilian control over the military, a system that has served our country well. These dual roles of the president, one as leader of their respective political party, is a partisan one, while the other, as commander in chief, should definitively be nonpartisan. While it is inevitable that politics will sometimes play a role in how a president exercises judgment and makes decisions that affect the country — and the world in most cases — we have normally been able to take comfort that each president has ultimately put fidelity to the US Constitution before his own interests or political party.
As we now know, President Trump recently ordered Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to bypass a military review into whether Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher should be stripped of his SEAL trident. This action is much larger than Gallagher’s trial or trying to exact justice (he was acquitted by a jury of his peers on six out of seven charges). Rather, this is yet another example of a disruptive president who has broken and bypassed laws, customs, and precedents that are critical to the order and safety of America. By disrupting the military chain of command, he has compromised due process and tradition, which has cascading consequences. What’s at stake is the military’s foundational principles that ensure adherence to the rule of law, discipline, leadership, and even foreign policy. Ultimately, this puts our troops in greater danger and diminishes the role of military leaders and public servants.
The military, while led by the commander in chief, has its own traditions and processes, enabling it to be one of the most successful organizations in America. It’s a hierarchal system structured on discipline and order — to do otherwise is corrosive to the fabric of the armed forces. A poorly resourced unit that exhibits strong discipline can succeed, but a unit that does not can expect failure.
One of the key lessons I learned as a SEAL officer is that the troops are much smarter and more informed than they are often given credit for. They will view the Gallagher situation in a broader context, as a message that runs contrary to the system within which they were trained and indoctrinated. By design and necessity, junior officers and enlisted personnel in all military units take their lead from above. In bypassing SEAL Admiral Collin Green, as well as SEAL community protocols, Trump is effectively undermining not just Green, but all senior military leaders and their requirement and ability to discipline their own.
There is no guarantee that Gallagher would have had his trident removed from the review board that was planned at the behest of the SEAL community leadership. But this doesn’t mean the review should not have happened. Gallagher deserved to be judged by his peers.
The implications of this dysfunction on morale and readiness cannot be overstated and will have significant consequences here and abroad.
While Trump certainly has the authority to make these decisions, the larger and fundamental concern is when is it appropriate for our country’s leaders to take a stand for the greater good? When will elected or senior officials decide that certain actions are fundamentally disruptive to the proper functioning of our Republic and its institutions? Recent decisions such as abandoning the Kurds in Syria for the benefit of Turkey and Russia, negating the Iran nuclear deal, trading five Taliban for an Army deserter, and now intervening in the backbone of a military core discipline and order, are incredibly destructive to not only America’s interests but also our institutions.
There are powerful examples of when our country’s most courageous leaders have taken a stand when they thought a “lawful” order was absolutely against the good of their institution or America, such as when General James Mattis resigned over the Syria policy. I cannot imagine former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel or former Secretary of the Navy James Webb standing idly by in this current dysfunction. Whether one agrees with Green or now former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, each had the conviction and courage to push for what they thought was right for the SEAL community and the Navy. What is too often missing today are leaders who will serve as a check on decisions that are corrosive to the basic tenets of American principles.
If the absence of true leadership persists, our most cherished institutions — including the military — will continue to suffer long-term consequences and make America less respected and safe, at home and abroad.
Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL, was the Massachusetts Republican nominee for US Senate in 2013. He is now unenrolled.