In Bracing Terms, Trump Invokes War’s Human Toll to Defend His Policies
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In Bracing Terms, Trump Invokes War’s Human Toll to Defend His Policies

White House MemoDescribing his opposition to foreign interventions, the president has spoken with unusual candor about a sensitive subject.President Trump looking on as members of the military transferred the remains of Scott A. Wirtz, a Defense Department contractor who was killed in Syria, at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in January.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York TimesOct. 19, 2019WASHINGTON — It is the most solemn of rituals for American presidents: comforting the soldiers wounded under his command or the families of those who have died. For generations, presidents have typically discussed those encounters in the most delicate of tones. “The hardest thing I have to do, by far, much harder than the witch hunt, is signing letters to parents of soldiers that have been killed,” President Trump said at the White House this month.But in arguing that there must be an end to “endless wars” in Afghanistan and more recently in Syria, Mr. Trump has given graphic accounts of distraught widows and disfigured soldiers in terms rarely, if ever, heard from a president before. In one recent instance, he said he had seen grieving family members “make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before.”Mr. Trump has particularly focused on describing the ceremony of transferring the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed overseas from the military cargo planes that have brought their remains home to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. In his telling, it is a gut-wrenching ordeal, a scene of anguish from the families of the fallen that bolsters his determination to bring American soldiers home from overseas conflicts. The public shares that desire, according to one recent survey, which found that 46 percent of Americans believe that military intervention makes the country less safe, while just 27 percent believe the opposite.All recent presidents have struggled with the cost of war, and how to speak publicly about it, and to many of his supporters, Mr. Trump is talking in authentic and admirably frank terms about a reality many Americans and Washington policymakers never confront. But Mr. Trump’s comments also offend some veterans and military experts. They say that solemn words about fallen heroes ring hollow from a president who received a Vietnam draft deferment and who has managed a dangerously chaotic foreign policy. Others wince at the bluntness of Mr. Trump’s accounts.“I think it’s disrespectful,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel turned author and historian whose son was killed while serving in Iraq in 2007. “Those are infinitely private and painful moments. And to have anyone presume to comment on that, I think is beyond reprehensible.”“He’s politicizing casualties,” he said.Mr. Trump has paid two visits to Dover Air Force Base, according to a White House spokesman, but it is unclear whether he has actually witnessed such scenes himself, or is repeating accounts he has heard from the military officers he has encountered there.At a recent rally in Minnesota, the president referred to a widow jumping “on top of the flowers,” adding “I’ve seen this.” But the coffins unloaded at Dover, known as transfer cases, are not adorned with flowers. Visiting Dover is a “a very tough experience,” he said at the rally, describing grieving families awaiting the return of their deceased sons or daughters with remarkable poise. On his first visit, the president said, he told an unnamed colonel that the relatives he had met appeared to be “doing great.” The colonel warned that would change: “No sir, they’re not going to do great. You’ll see.” Then, Mr. Trump said, “this big incredible machine flies in, this tremendous cargo plane,” a door opens and lowers a ramp, down which several soldiers carry a coffin.“And I see parents make sounds, that were just 20 minutes ago absolutely fine, make sounds, scream and cry like you’ve never seen before,” he said.“Sometimes they’ll run to the coffin. They’ll break through military barriers,” he
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