Donald Trump Is A Test. Mark Milley Passed.
Please do not take the comparisons in this post literally.
In 1998, the British author Giles Foden published the critically acclaimed historical novel The Last King Of Scotland. Later turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Forrest Whitacker, the novel recounts the heinous regime of Idi Amin, the murderous tyrant whose regime killed hundreds of thousands of Ugandans in the 1970s.
But Scotland is not actually the story of Amin. It is the story of a Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan (played by James McAvoy in the movie) who goes to Africa seeking something other than the middle-class life his parents and the world have charted for him. He promptly enters Amin’s orbit and becomes his confidant. The narrative arc is about the scales falling from Garrigan’s eyes as he slowly—painfully slowly—realizes that this Idi Amin character maybe isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
“What, I wondered,” Folden wrote later, “were the moral implications of watching a man become monstrous?”
The atrocities recounted in the novel are all too real, but Garrigan is not. Introducing fictional characters into real events is standard practice in historical novels, but Garrigan has received some blowback over the years because he is not just made up. He is also a very obvious stand-in for the majority white audience the book was intended for. Many people rolled their eyes at the predictable way a story about Africa could only gain purchase in the US and UK if it was told through the fictional eyes of a white would-be adventurer.1
Idi Amin is a deeply fascinating monster. He came from unimaginable poverty, joined a colonial regiment of the British Army, rose in rank in war against the Maui Maui, executed a coup, then, after falling out with the Western powers that supported his coup, executed almost half a million of his own people. He went from supporting Israel to ordering Dora Bloch murdered in her hospital bed following the raid on Entebbe. When he was finally forced from power by a Tanzanian invasion force and sent into exile in Saudi Arabia, his 8-year regime was compared in scale and horror to that of Pol Pot.
Given all of this, do you really give a shit about some fictional character’s thoughts about it?
“You have accidents that occur, and innocent people get killed in warfare,” Mark Milley says in Jeffrey Goldberg’s new profile of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
“Then you have the intentional breaking of the rules of war that occurs in part because of the psychological and moral degradation that occurs to all human beings who participate in combat. It takes an awful lot of moral and physical discipline to prevent you or your unit from going down that path of degradation.”
He’s talking about a trio of US soldiers accused of war crimes whose cases Trump had intervened in.
I’ll use [Eddie] Gallagher as an example. He’s a tough guy, a tough, hard Navy SEAL. Saw a lot of combat. There’s a little bit of a ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ feeling in all of this. What happened to Gallagher can happen to many human beings.” Milley told me about a book given to him by a friend, Aviv Kochavi, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. The book, by an American academic named Christopher Browning, is called Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.
“It’s a great book,” Milley said. “It’s about these average police officers from Hamburg who get drafted, become a police battalion that follows the Wehrmacht into Poland, and wind up slaughtering Jews and committing genocide. They just devolve into barbaric acts. It’s about moral degradation.”
If Gallagher lost his soul, Golberg’s profile is about how Milley kept hold of his.
It’s a fascinating read, filled with all the reported anecdotes you’d expect about Trump. None of them are, at this point, terribly surprising, but they are as disconcerting as ever. Trump thinks of the military as a mug’s game. He’s always looking for a way to use it for his own political ends even when those ends are fundamentally contrary to the constitution the members of the military have sworn to defend.
In one appalling, if unsurprising anecdote, Trump chafes at the presence of a soldier who lost his leg in an IED attack:
Milley had chosen a severely wounded Army captain, Luis Avila, to sing “God Bless America.” Avila, who had completed five combat tours, had lost a leg in an IED attack in Afghanistan, and had suffered two heart attacks, two strokes, and brain damage as a result of his injuries. To Milley, and to four-star generals across the Army, Avila and his wife, Claudia, represented the heroism, sacrifice, and dignity of wounded soldiers.
It had rained that day, and the ground was soft; at one point Avila’s wheelchair threatened to topple over. Milley’s wife, Hollyanne, ran to help Avila, as did Vice President Mike Pence. After Avila’s performance, Trump walked over to congratulate him, but then said to Milley, within earshot of several witnesses, “Why do you bring people like that here? No one wants to see that, the wounded.” Never let Avila appear in public again, Trump told Milley. (Recently, Milley invited Avila to sing at his retirement ceremony.)
These sorts of stories are familiar by now. But it’s been a while since I’ve encountered them because Trump is no longer president. It can feel a bit surreal that they are relegated to asides in a story about someone else. Why aren’t they front-page news? But then you remember that none of this is really new. This is what Trump is like.
The sensation of reading this very good profile is one of disgust—and bafflement. How the hell do so many people want this guy in the White House?
Trump is a prick. A dangerous prick. A dangerous, heartless prick. But he isn’t Idi Amin.3 Nevertheless, while reading the profile, I wondered: given everything about Trump, do I really give a shit about the ability of people in his orbit to hold onto their souls?
The answer is yes. The answer has to be yes.
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