Why Donald Trump Scares Military Historians So Much

Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll
Nuclear Test at Bikini Atoll

The thought of a Donald Trump presidency sends shivers through most historians’ minds. But examining Trump’s proposed foreign policy solutions can give a military historian the shakes. Wednesday night’s debate was a reminder why.

Trump’s approach to international affairs shows an apparent ignorance of military strategy, the history of ongoing conflicts, or the last fifty years of American foreign policy. Combined with his refusal to listen and learn from experts, Trump’s lack of knowledge make a Trump presidency potentially explosive (literally and figuratively).

What little we know about Trump’s national security strategy is upsettingly new. For example, his movement away from nuclear nonproliferation by encouraging other nations to get their own nuclear weapons is something no former president has advocated. This has led much of the Republican foreign policy intelligentsia to break from the party.

Arguably Trump’s apparent inability to understand what has been a central tenet of America’s nuclear strategy for half a century is a threat to life on earth. For example, when Chris Matthews asked Trump whether he would use nuclear weapons unilaterally, Trump asked, “Then why are we making them? Why do we make them?” Matthews attempted to explain that paradoxically, the reason we have so many nuclear weapons—and we have more than enough to kill off humanity multiple times over—is to avoid having to use them.

The United States built its nuclear arsenal in large part for deterrence. So long as no nation could destroy all of the United States’ weapons, none could attack without the knowledge it, too, would be destroyed. The nuclear triad of planes, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-based missiles ensured the U.S. military would always be able to retaliate in kind.

During the Cold War, the danger of this Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) not only kept Russia from attacking the United States but also ensured that the United States did not use nuclear weapons first. Russia also had the ability to retaliate, were the United States to go nuclear. Historically, our nuclear arsenal has served more as a retaliatory threat than as a first strike weapon. There is a reason that the Strategic Air Command’s motto was “Peace is our profession”: if they had launched, the whole game would have been over.

Nuclear weapons are not easily used in a limited fashion. Threatening to use them as a first strike weapon would alienate allies and isolate the United States, even before the first bomb dropped. To openly suggest using nuclear weapons as a negotiating tool is an act foreign policy wonks and historians of Asia will likely recognize; North Korea uses it often.

Trump’s approach to fighting ISIS also contradicts the lessons learned by historians of counterinsurgency and military history. Numerous experts on foreign policy have decried Trump’s plans; even the normally non-partisan General David Petraeus, who studied the history of insurgencies and oversaw the rewriting of the Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, has criticized the anti-Muslim rhetoric of Trump’s campaign as harmful to American efforts. Trump’s refusal to listen to the advice of experts who have fought asymmetrical conflicts is in line with his tendency to ignore the advice of anyone but the voices in his head.

Many counterinsurgency experts, informed by history, believe local allies are crucial to achieving victory when dealing with an enemy like ISIS. President Obama understands that most of our allies in this fight are Muslim. The United States’ dependence on Muslims to fight ISIS is why President Obama smartly refuses to use the term “Islamic terrorism.” This is not political correctness; it is a strategic decision aimed at global diplomacy. The vast majority of troops fighting ISIS are Muslim themselves, and they have an even larger stake in stopping ISIS than the U.S. does. After all, ISIS has killed far more Muslims in the Middle East than they have Westerners. We would be wise to not forget that the refugees that Trump finds so frightening are fleeing from ISIS to begin with and represent key potential allies to defeat them. If Trump does not understand the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, a key aspect of Islam for those wishing to understand the various factions in the Middle East, then how could he build a coalition to defeat ISIS? Simply, he couldn’t—but then again, he doesn’t seem to want to.

Trump’s stated desires to use torture, bomb oil fields and civilian populations, and kill family members of terrorists are not only counterproductive—they would be war crimes that would alienate allies.

ISIS wants Trump to be elected because his rhetoric confirms their propaganda that there is a war between Islam and “the West.” The war that ISIS and Trump imagine would be far harder to win than our actual current war, which pits ISIS against most of the rest of the world. Indiscriminate bombing of civilians would help ISIS recruit new fighters. The goal is not just to kill insurgents; it is to destroy the insurgency. Bombing an insurgency to the Stone Age did not work in Vietnam, and there is no reason to believe it will work in the Middle East. It is a military solution ill equipped to address the political problems on the ground.

Tactically Trump appears to be unclear on what is possible. Logistically speaking, moving over 20,000 troops, many of whom are relatively green and untested, into position for a major offensive on Mosul without being noticed was never going to happen. Additionally, these troops come from multiple ethnic and religious groups who don’t always get along. Ensuring harmony between the Iraqi Army, Sunni militias, Kurdish Peshmerga and local civilians requires lots of planning. These campaigns to clear and secure areas are not meant to be quick; they are supposed to be methodical so as to avoid leaving behind ISIS fighters, who can resort to terrorist attacks that might destabilize the recaptured city. They are time consuming operations.

Trump’s bombastic decision to claim during Wednesday’s debate that General Douglas MacArthur was “spinning in his grave” because there was no surprise attack against Mosul was an astonishing choice. Considering Trump’s lack of knowledge about General John Pershing, Trump may not have realized why it was problematic. General MacArthur was removed from command because he failed to respect the president’s authority, and he was viewed by some as too unstable to trust with the atomic bomb. On second thought, given Trump’s past comments on nuclear weapons and his more recent ones on respecting the election’s results, his choice of general might have been appropriate.

Trump’s surprise attack idea is not only tactically flawed but it might actually have negative strategic implications by putting civilians at risk. By dropping pamphlets civilians can hunker down to prepare for the imminent attack or even slip out of town to refugee camps. This actually aids the Iraqi forces tactically by removing noncombatants from the field of battle.

Trump does not seem to understand that protracted irregular wars are political as well as military in nature. As such, they need political solutions to achieve victory. David Galula, a counter-insurgent in multiple conflicts who wrote one of the definitive works on counterinsurgency in 1964, pointed out that fighting an insurgency “is 80 percent political action and only 20 percent military.” Military historians understand one of the methods to defeat an enemy like ISIS is to win the population over so that your opponent loses its base of support and source of new enlistments.

Trump’s plans would do the opposite, providing Muslims worldwide new reasons to consider ISIS’s appeal. And while Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim speeches read like the Know-Nothing party’s attacks on Irish Catholics, they are far more dangerous; after all, in the 1840s and ’50s, there was no rogue group of Irish trying to recruit American Catholics to start killing their neighbors with bombs and mass shootings. Discrimination, xenophobic bombast from politicians, and vigilante terrorist plots against Muslims legitimate ISIS propaganda and encourage self-radicalization at home.

Trump’s rhetoric and policy solutions do not make the United States safer. Instead, they increase the threat to US citizens at home and abroad.

Adam Domby is an Assistant Professor of History at the College of Charleston. He is also former congressional staffer. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. This is the second of three posts on how history can inform this election. You can find the first one here.