Donald Trump was an unprincipled commander in chief

At the crest of the wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, I devoured retired Admiral William McRaven’s book Sea Stories, relishing its numerous anecdotes. One of them concerned Abu Ghadiya, a terrorist mastermind responsible for the highest number of American and Iraqi deaths, notably at the hands of suicide bombers. At a crucial moment, the US Army received intelligence on his whereabouts in Syria, giving them the possibility of neutralizing him. President George W. Bush’s approval was necessary to conduct the operation.

To make a fascinating story short, Admiral McRaven was tasked with briefing President George W. Bush about the sensitive mission. During the briefing, the commander-in-chief, who didn’t have a strong reputation as an intellectual or a man of detail, asked a very pointed question about the ordnance proposed to conduct the mission. “He was so well versed on the missions and the nomenclature of the specific ordnance that he understood that using a precision-guided five-hundred-pound GBU-31 was in fact the right munition for the job. I was momentarily taken aback by the question.”

In Countdown bin Laden, Chris Wallace says much the same about President Barack Obama during the quest to neutralize Osama bin Laden. “He was a president who carefully analyzed everything before making a decision”, observed the veteran journalist.

Unsurprisingly, things took a turn for the worst when Donald Trump arrived in the Oval Office. In a very insightful – yet scary memoir – former Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper paints the portrait of “[…] an idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and unprincipled commander in chief” and a man as despicable as one can be.

Former US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (Defense News)

A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times (William Morrow) depicts a President loving the pump and circumstance of the Armed Forces to the point where he wanted to instrumentalize it on several occasions for political purposes. One only needs to remember the famous picture taken on June 1, 2020, when the President enlisted several people, including SecDef Esper himself and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, to walk with him to St. John’s Church, across from the White House. Both would come to regret having been manipulated in such an ungentlemanly way. Dr. Esper evokes that “Trump loved the strength and power of the armed forces, especially senior officers festooned in their uniforms […]”. Furthermore, “[…] he often turned to the military when things got tough” and even went as far as suggesting that they could shoot protesters in the legs.

There’s a passage in the book that would be amusing if it was not related to the man who oversaw the first military superpower on the globe. “On multiple occasions, the president complained that the U.S. Navy ships “look ugly” […], to which the Secretary of Defense replied that “our ships are built to fight and win, not win beauty contests; we prize function over form. […] He wanted to see ships that looked more like yachts.” Theodore Roosevelt – the father of the US Navy – must have turned in his grave.

The president often mistook Patriot missiles for Tomahawk missiles.

Circling back to what I evoked at the beginning of this review, the author makes it clear that Donald Trump was the antithesis of focus and certainly not a man of detail. For instance, “the president often mistook Patriot missiles for Tomahawk missiles.” My eight years old son, who’s already an impressive military buff, could recite the main characteristics of both in an instant.

Any principled person would have resigned and gone home rather than serve such a man. But Mark T. Esper – a traditional Republican in the George H. W. Bush mould – was adamant he had to stay at the helm. “I was so concerned […] that if I resigned my position, who would the president install behind me, and then what would they do? Would they act on […] crazy ideas [circulating in the White House]? […] I stayed because I didn’t want our military politicized, let alone shooting civilians or collecting ballot boxes.” Adopting such a damaging posture for himself demonstrates that the author was not a politician but rather a man attached to public service, deciding he would make lemonade out of the lemons he was served – which seems to be one of his favorite expressions.

A Sacred Oath, along with several other testimonies, and the alarming events of January 6, 2020, make abundantly clear that we can all be grateful for people like Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper, General Mark Milley and Vice President Mike Pence for ensuring that sane people were around to counter the impulses of a man who never cared about his responsibilities as President and commander in chief.

Beijing’s military budget is about 87% of America’s.

Some readers might find the book a bit tedious, but one needs to remember the wonkish nature of the author. And it serves us all well, notably in his appraisal of the state of forces between the United States and China. The US Armed forces are “tired, broken and old” and Washington’s military superiority has eroded dangerously. Many years of significant military “[…] spending [would be needed] to transform the military into the force required to deal with China in the future”, warns the author. But the most shocking information I took from this insightful memoir is that “[…] China’s defense budget looks far more comparable to ours. Indeed, some reports estimate that “Beijing’s military budget is about 87% of America’s.””

Suppose they want to keep abreast of the geopolitical challenges that lie ahead in the troubled waters of the future. In that case, Americans should turn their back on the nefarious, uninformed, and unprincipled leadership embodied by Donald Trump. Anyone wanting to validate this opinion should grab a copy of Mark T. Esper’s memoir hastily.


Mark T. Esper, A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times, New York, William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2022, 752 pages.

I want to express my profound gratitude to Nick Amphlett of HarperCollins for providing me with a review copy of this memoir.

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