A View Of Our Heart


I ask you to consider an analogy based on this photo of open-heart surgery. I’m not trying to shock or sensationalize. Let’s think about a political event last week that will quickly fade from the scene.

We had a moment when we looked into the beating heart of the American experience. For the equivalent of a few seconds, we saw one of the most powerful impulses that make us who we are as Americans and that make America what it was and, apparently, still is.

I’m referring to something that involves Donald Trump.

For some time now Trump has said that he would allow the families of Islamic terrorists to be targeted for killing, that is, women and children. He has also said that he would gladly approve of interrogation techniques far harsher than the waterboarding that was used for a time after 9-11.

When asked by Bill Maher last week about Trump’s statements, General Michael Hayden asserted that the US military would likely disobey these orders from a President Trump. Soldiers would have both a duty and self-interest in doing so.

Trump repeated his statements at the Michigan debate. Then, rather suddenly over the next day or so, Trump campaign officials released a formal statement avowing Trump’s willingness to abide by international treaties and laws and NOT order the US military to take actions that might result in outright disobedience of the commander-in-chief.

For now, that’s it. The campaign statement seems to have quieted things down. We’re on to other controversial aspects of the presidential election season.

Take a minute, however, to consider the deeper meaning. This brief episode revealed a fear of circumstances when the US military would defy formal orders by the president. The thought of such a situation conjures up the possibility of what next steps might be in such a scenario–the splitting of the military into organized factions of loyalty and disloyalty; the chance that men and women in uniform would simply stop following orders and disrupt civilian life and the chain of command; the cornering of a commander-in-chief into a situation where extreme actions are taken to ensure obedience of the civil authority; and not least of which the overall international circumstances that compelled the story to begin with. And on and on.

We’ve lived this reality before. These possibilities were at the heart of the crisis that produced the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s. They were among the most emotional and passionate impulses that energized open rebellion and armed resistance. They prompted blood to flow in fields and streets. They blew off the cap that kept law and order in cities, towns, villages, and farms.

The real danger to organized life isn’t only from anarchist groups or others devoted to promoting social disorder. It is from the incoherence and destabilization of American armed forces. We have veered toward the edge of such crises in 1862, 1951, and 1962.

In 2016 we got the briefest of glimpses into the beating of the American heart. It may be that the glimpse is over, not to be seen again. I caution you that if this is true, it will only be true for a while. The time will arrive when the US military will face a repeating of the crucial test: whether it will continue to observe the civil-military dynamic established in the Founding or determine that the dynamic must be altered.

That time will come.