The members of what Andrew Bacevich, author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East, calls “the Church of America the Redeemer” are in some disarray these days and in quite an uproar over the new Pope and his aberrant set of cardinals now ensconced in Washington. Perhaps there was no more striking ― or shocking ― evidence of that than the brief comments that hit the front page of the New York Times last week in an article on a month of “turmoil” in the Trump White House, but never became a headline story nationally. Amid the hurricane of news about the fall of national security adviser of 24 days Michael Flynn, the reported contacts of Trump associated with Russia, and a flurry of leaks to major papers from what are assumedly significant figures in the intelligence community (talk about “feud”!), one thing should have stood out. Here’s the passage from that Times piece: “Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, expressed concern about upheaval inside the White House. ‘Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,’ he said at a military conference on Tuesday. Asked about his comments later, General Thomas said in a brief interview, ‘As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.’”
It may not have looked like much, but it should have stunned the news media and the country. That it didn’t tell us a great deal about how the U.S. has changed since September 11, 2001. Thomas, the head of the crème de la crème, secretive military force (all 70,000 of them) cocooned inside the U.S. military, had just broken the unwritten rules of the American political game in a major way. He fired what amounted to an implicit warning shot across the bow of the Trump administration’s listing ship of state: Mr. President, we are at war and you better get your house in order fast. Really? Direct public criticism of the president from a top commander in a military once renowned for its commitment to staying above the political fray? Consider that something new under the sun and evidence that what might once have been considered a cliché ― sooner or later wars always come home ― is now an ever more realistic description of just where we’ve ended up 15-plus years after the Bush administration launched the war on terror. Seven days in May? Maybe not, but when the nation’s top special warrior starts worrying in public about whether civilian leaders are up to the task of governing, it’s no ordinary day in February.
It’s true, of course, that in many graphic ways ― including the migration of spying devices developed on this country’s distant battlefields to police departments here, drone surveillance flights not in Afghanistan but over this country, and the increasing militarization of our police ― our wars in the Greater Middle East have indeed made their way back to “the homeland.” Still, not like this, not directly into the sacrosanct heartland of democracy and of the political elite, into what Bacevich might call the precincts of the American political Vatican, where those like New York Times columnist David Brooks once happily opined about American “greatness.” It seems that we’re now plunged into the political equivalent of war in the nation’s capital, even if in the fog of battle it’s still a little hard to tell just who is who on that battlefield.