Leading the leader on Charlottesville

By Fred Benson

On Jan. 31, 1968, 10,000 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops launched surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam. A key target was the city of Hué, the historical capital of Vietnam. After 24 days of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, American and South Vietnamese troops painstakingly retook the city, block by block, building by building, room by room. This battle claimed the lives of 10,000 people, most of whom, as is usually the case, were innocent civilians. When the dust settled, both sides declared victory. The Americans claimed the win for having evicted the communist forces from Hué, and the North Vietnamese were confident that they had won because of the damage done to U.S. public support for the war.

Hué was a turning point in the Vietnam War. Opposition to the war grew more rapidly as citizens realized they had been seriously misled by senior civilian and military leaders who repeatedly claimed that “victory was in sight.” Thirty days after this battle, President Johnson announced he would not seek his party’s nomination for the upcoming presidential election. General William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, was relieved a few weeks later. The debate in Washington turned from winning the war to finding an “honorable end,” a process that required an additional seven years and cost thousands of U.S. casualties.

The battle of Hué is historically important. The American people lost faith in the integrity and effectiveness of our government, a seed planted then that has flourished over time and is very much rooted in our society today.

When our president recently failed to differentiate armed Nazi thugs who showed up in Charlottesville to protest removal of confederate statues from those engaged in a counterprotest, he came under intense criticism. Foremost among those critics were the senior military leaders of our nation who, while not directly mentioning the president, clearly refuted the equivalent legitimacy he assigned to both sides of the demonstration. The chief of naval operations, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Air Force chief of staff all issued statements reflecting the tone of remarks made by Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism or hatred in our ranks. It is against our values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”

It is difficult to imagine that these four service chiefs spoke out without the permission or a nod from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who offered his own view while talking informally with U.S. troops overseas: “You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems. You know it, and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines; you just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.” These passionate critiques coming from our top military leaders suggest the possibility of a gentle coup.

With this president once again having failed to present himself as someone worthy of leading our nation by exposing his stunning lack of judgment and sensitivity in Charlottesville, a strong case can be made that his administration has reached a critical turning point.

Given that determination, the future of this administration rests squarely on the shoulders of three generals and a former corporate CEO. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have their hands on the throttles of our national defense and international affairs engines. But there is a governor on both those engines – the president – who, as Tillerson emphasized, “speaks for himself.”

Many observers wonder why these four senior administration officials would continue to suffer the indignity of not knowing what the president will say or do at any given time and whether his actions will undermine the vision of the administration as a whole. The three generals were trained to serve their nation through thick and thin. I do not believe they will let the country down by quitting. Surely they know that doing so would allow sycophants to fill their positions and make matters worse. Tillerson has shown on occasion that he is built the same way. We need to hope these men are talking to each other, and often. They are now engaged in the incredibly demanding task of attempting to lead their leader. We wish them well.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter.

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