There is an incredible back-and-forth regarding the four deceased service members who were on a mission in Niger and were killed by an ambush attack from as many as 50 ISIS-linked combatants. Somehow, the story has been diverted from the nature of their mission and the purpose and reasons for their sacrifice, and has become a strange debate on the nature of how we recognize the ultimate sacrifice of our military personnel and the appropriate observances that should be made.
These were, by all accounts, excellent people from differing backgrounds, but united in a desire to exercise their skills with a sense of purpose. What we know of the expected White House response to their unfortunate end was that a good statement was made regarding their service and the importance of their mission (in Niger, both ISIS and Boko Haram have been known to operate, and Niger is also well-known for uranium). This well-crafted statement was never delivered.
“Melania and I are heartbroken at the news that three U.S. service members were killed in Niger on October 4 while providing guidance and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations. We offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of these brave American soldiers and patriots. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers.What we had instead was a nearly two-week period of silence from the White House regarding the deaths of these service members, despite news reports, until a reporter questioned President Trump about these men in a Rose Garden press conference on Monday. That was when Trump, apparently unguardedly, spoke offhand about the event.
"We are also praying for the two U.S. service members who were injured in the incident. We wish them a complete and swift recovery.
"The heroic Americans who lost their lives yesterday did so defending our freedom and fighting violent extremism in Niger. Our administration and our entire nation are deeply grateful for their sacrifice, for their service, and for their patriotism.”
QUESTION: Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? What do you have to say about (OFF-MIKE)? TRUMP: I've written them personal letters. They've been sent, or they're going out tonight, but they were written during the weekend. I will, at some point during the period of time, call the parents and the families, because I have done that traditionally.
I felt very, very badly about that. I always feel badly. It's the toughest -- the toughest calls I have to make are the calls where this happens. Soldiers are killed. It's a very difficult thing. Now, it gets to a point where, you know, you make four or five of them in one day -- it's a very, very tough day. For me, that's by far the toughest.
So the traditional way -- if you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls. I like to call when it's appropriate, when I think I am able to do it.
The problem with this statement is that as far as we know, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did call, or send letters. Often. But it's complicated. Sometimes people could not always be reached, or someone was reached and someone was not, and they felt some way, or whatever other purely human distraction caused a disruption between the intent of the occupant of the White House and the bereaved. Human interactions are often fraught, and those who have suffered losses often do experience a need to understand blame or fault or the reason for the catastrophe that had come into their lives. It isn't always even rational, however necessary that process might be to finding an end to the grieving.
And I don't know what simple human interaction can necessarily be the counter to that. I just don't.
So despite the strongest inclination I have to label Trump as beyond humanity--just fucking failing to know what to say to suffering humans regarding the loss of their dearest loves all by itself isn't unforgiveable. Ask yourself if you would know what to say, or what not to. I would say Trump fucked up not publically acknowledging their deaths in Niger, and the callousness of not speaking Sgt. La David Johnson's name, and speaking without some firm guidelines, was appalling, given the uniquely tragic and difficult situation of both his death (having been left behind for perhaps two days, with a body that would not permit an open casket service) and the lives of his survivors, a young woman with two children and one not yet born.
He created the spotlight on that call. He invited the additional scrutiny by trying to call out what previous presidents did. He made things worse by referencing the deceased son of his Chief of Staff, General John Kelly, who never seemed to want to make the death of his son into a public thing and whose service has been of the nature of holding duty over self.
I think Trump does himself disservice after disservice by talking without thinking, and I can't even imagine how his reference to Sgt Robert Kelly effects his relationship to his COS, because I don't believe they really discussed it. I don't think Trump is capable of sounding appropriate to all hearers regarding these condolence calls, and maybe his response needs to be less direct.
But, I find I have an interest in what Sen. McCain says about the White House not being forthcoming about what happened in Niger, at all. We might not be entitled to the President's empathy, after all--but we deserve the truth.