Some vets warn of politi­ciz­ing forces

Re­tired of­fi­cers crit­i­cize size, tim­ing of mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment to Mex­i­can bor­der

Post Tribune (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — Af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ordered more than 5,000 U.S. troops to the south­west bor­der days be­fore the midterm elec­tion to in­ter­cept what he called an “in­va­sion” of mi­grants, re­tired Ma­rine Col. David La­pan de­cided he could not stay silent.

“The idea that a group of poor peo­ple from Cen­tral Amer­ica, most of whom are women and chil­dren, pose some kind of threat to the na­tional se­cu­rity of the United States is ridicu­lous,” La­pan said in an in­ter­view. “It’s a mis­use of ac­tive duty forces.”

La­pan held se­nior jobs at the Pen­tagon while in the Marines and then served in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as a De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity po­lit­i­cal ap­pointee be­fore de­part­ing in late 2017.

He’s one of a grow­ing num­ber of for­mer se­nior mil­i­tary of­fi­cers who say Trump’s or­der to de­ploy troops to the bor­der on the cusp of an elec­tion com­pro­mises the mil­i­tary’s tra­di­tional po­si­tion as an in­sti­tu­tion shielded from elec­toral pol­i­tics.

Trump has had rocky re­la­tions with the mil­i­tary since tak­ing of­fice, clash­ing with Pen­tagon lead­ers over his bar on trans­gen­der re­cruit­ing, his pro­posed space force, and his abrupt can­cel­la­tion of train­ing ex­er­cises in South Korea.

But Trump has added un­usual strain by or­der­ing a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion whose tim­ing and scale seem un­jus­ti­fied to some of­fi­cers, and by sug­gest­ing mil­i­tary per­son­nel might use deadly force against un­armed mi­grants, in­stead of re­main­ing in a sup­port role, as re­quired by law.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis has is­sued only terse press state­ments but has not said why a force of more than 5,000 troops — which Trump said could rise to as many as 15,000 — is needed to stop sev­eral thou­sand men, women and chil­dren who are head­ing north in hopes of ap­ply­ing for asy­lum at the U.S. bor­der.

Asked Wed­nes­day if the de­ploy­ment on the eve of an elec­tion was a po­lit­i­cal stunt, Mat­tis replied: “We don’t do stunts in this de­part­ment, thank you.”

But the tor­rent of crit­i­cism has in­cluded re­tired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the for­mer chair­man of the joint chiefs. He broke his near-to­tal si­lence on Trump af­ter the com­man­der in chief sug­gested Thurs­day that U.S. troops might open fire on any­one who threw rocks at them along the bor­der.

“A waste­ful de­ploy­ment of over-stretched Sol­diers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force dis­pro­por­tional to the threat they face,” Dempsey tweeted Thurs­day. “They won’t,” he added.

The to­tal price of Trump’s mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment to the bor­der, in­clud­ing the cost of Na­tional Guard forces that have been there since April, could climb well above $200 mil­lion by the end of 2018 and grow sig­nif­i­cantly if the de­ploy­ments con­tinue into next year, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lyst es­ti­mates and Pen­tagon fig­ures.

Trump pulled back on Fri­day, say­ing mi­grants who threw rocks would be ar­rested and pros­e­cuted, not shot.

No ac­tive duty mil­i­tary per­son­nel are known to have pub­licly crit­i­cized the bor­der op­er­a­tion, though pri­vately some say that opin­ions about the de­ploy­ment within the mil­i­tary are di­vided, as among for­mer ser­vice mem­bers.

Mil­i­tary per­son­nel are in­structed in train­ing that they have a duty not to carry out il­le­gal or­ders that vi­o­late the laws of war. If they have a moral ob­jec­tion to a pol­icy de­ci­sion, they are ex­pected to re­sign from the armed forces.

Even Trump’s crit­ics say he is within his le­gal power to or­der the op­er­a­tion.

“It’s al­ways tough, espe­cially if you are still in uni­form,” La­pan said. “This isn’t an il­le­gal or­der from any­thing I can see. Then it be­comes much tougher. Is it politi­ciza­tion? Is it in­ap­pro­pri­ate?”

But the per­cep­tion that one of Trump’s mo­tives in send­ing troops to the bor­der is to help Repub­li­cans in the elec­tion hurts the mil­i­tary’s sta­tus as an in­sti­tu­tion that by tra­di­tion has been in­su­lated from elec­toral pol­i­tics, some of­fi­cers said.

“It’s politi­ciza­tion of one of the few re­main­ing non­po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions in the coun­try — the United States mil­i­tary,” Paul Yin­gling, a re­tired Army of­fi­cer, said in an in­ter­view.

The of­fi­cial Pen­tagon or­ders given to units de­ploy­ing to the bor­der de­scribe a dire sit­u­a­tion.

“The se­cu­rity of the United States is im­per­iled by a dras­tic surge of il­le­gal drugs, dan­ger­ous gang ac­tiv­ity and ex­ten­sive il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion,” it reads.

But mil­i­tary plan­ners an­tic­i­pate that only a small per­cent­age of the mi­grants will reach the U.S. bor­der.

Ac­cord­ing to mil­i­tary planning doc­u­ments, about 20 per­cent of the roughly 7,000 mi­grants trav­el­ing through Mex­ico are likely to com­plete the jour­ney. The un­clas­si­fied re­port was pub­lished by Newsweek on Thurs­day. If the mil­i­tary’s as­sess­ment is ac­cu­rate, it would mean the United States is po­si­tion­ing five sol­diers on the bor­der for every one car­a­van mem­ber ex­pected to ar­rive there.

Trump has de­picted the car­a­vans as a grave dan­ger to U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity, claim­ing they are com­posed of “un­known Mid­dle Eastern­ers,” hard­ened crim­i­nals and “very tough fighters.”

But the re­port, dated Oct. 27, notes that car­a­van mem­bers are un­likely to ar­rive for at least two to four weeks. Among those trav­el­ing are “lim­ited #s of Bangladeshi, Haitian and African in­di­vid­u­als,” it reads. It makes no men­tion of Mid­dle Eastern­ers.

JOHN MOORE/GETTY

U.S. Army ac­tive duty troops from Ft. Ri­ley, Kan., lay out ra­zor wire along the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der.

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