Donald Trump, the self-anointed “wartime” president, the one who believes he deserves the Congressional Medal of Honor, is losing his version of the Vietnam War. No, not to STDs (sexually translated diseases), which Trump once said was his version of that war. "Wartime" President Trump’s Vietnam is his woefully mismanaged efforts against the coronavirus; even his efforts at propaganda are transparently missing the mark, much like the Five O’Clock Follies (the official government briefings) did during the Vietnam War.
All military members know that authority and responsibility are inseparable. You can’t — or, you shouldn’t — have authority if you’re unwilling to take responsibility.
Indeed, Trump even echoes the language of that war, speaking of seeing “lights” at the end of “tunnels” in the “war” on the coronavirus, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at TomDispatch.com. Here is how Tom put it:
And yet few who lived through the Vietnam War would be likely to forget that phrase. It was first used, as far as we know, in 1967 when the war’s military commander, General William Westmoreland, returned to Washington to declare that the conflict the U.S. was fighting in a wildly destructive manner was successfully coming to an end, the proof being that “light” he spotted “at the end of the tunnel.” (He later denied using the phrase.) That memorably ill-chosen metaphor would become a grim punch line for the growing antiwar movement of the era.
So let’s say that there’s a certain grisly charm in hearing it from the president who skipped that war, thanks to fake bone spurs, and has talked about his own “Vietnam” as having been his skill in avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, in various home-front sleep-arounds. He once even claimed to radio personality Howard Stern that he should have gotten “the Congressional Medal of Honor” for doing so. (“It’s Vietnam. It is very dangerous. So I’m very, very careful,” he told Stern, speaking of those STDs.)
In any case, to have picked up that metaphorical definition of failure from the Vietnam era seems strangely appropriate for a president who first claimed the coronavirus was nothing, then a “new hoax” of the Democrats, then easy to handle, before declaring himself a “wartime president” (without the necessary tests, masks, or ventilators on hand). In some sense, President Trump has been exhibiting the sort of detachment from reality that American presidents and other officials did less openly in the Vietnam years. And for this president, Covid-19 could indeed prove to be the disease version of a Vietnam War…
Give Donald Trump credit. He seems to be leading the richest, most powerful country on the planet in an ill-equipped, ill-organized, ill-planned battle (though not in any normal sense a war) against the pandemic from hell. Whether or not it ends in a Vietnam-style helicopter evacuation from that hell (or even from the White House) remains to be seen, but at least the imagery chosen so far has been unnervingly apt, though next to no one in our increasingly bunkable world even noticed.
By any metric, but especially by the daily body count for COVID-19, Trump is overseeing a defeat of monumental proportions, a flailing response and a failing “war” that may end up killing as many Americans as the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But Trump seems more concerned about getting his name added to COVID-19 stimulus checks than he is about saving lives. What next? Coinage that reads, “In Trump We Trust”?
Here’s the thing about Trump: He claims he’s got “absolute” and “total” authority over America, as if he’s a king, yet he takes no responsibility for his actions (or inactions). All military members know that authority and responsibility are inseparable. You can’t — or, you shouldn’t — have authority if you’re unwilling to take responsibility. Authority without responsibility is the very mark of a tyrant or a sociopath. Yet Trump is already on the record for wanting total control even as he utterly denies any responsibility in his self-declared “war” on the coronavirus.
But this deadly virus doesn’t care about Trump’s vast ego, his empty posturing, and his endless lying. Sorry, Mister President, you’ve already lost your self-declared “war.”
William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, has written for TomDispatch.com, Truthout, History News Network (HNN), Alternet, Salon, Antiwar.com, and Huffington Post among other sites. He is the author or co-author of three books and numerous articles focusing on military history as well as the history of science, technology, and religion. He earned a BS (with distinction) in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, an MA from the Johns Hopkins University (history of science and technology), and a D.Phil. (doctor of philosophy) from the University of Oxford (modern history).