The Atlantic reported last week that in 2018 the president referred to the Marines who were killed during the battle of Belleau Wood, and more generally to anyone who serves in the military, as "suckers" and "losers." I'm sure I'm not alone in asking myself this question: Was I a sucker and loser, too, for spending four years of my young life in uniform?
In fairness, the sources of these allegations are anonymous. But others, including Fox News, have corroborated the charges. They sound credible. A man capable of saying that John McCain isn't a hero might reveal in unfiltered moments how he really feels about our soldiers and sailors, as well. As Ivanka Trump said at the Republican National Convention, you always know what her dad is thinking. He says it out loud.
Besides, Trump's purported attitude reflects a popular canard, the idea that the military is a refuge for people not smart enough or ambitious enough to survive in civilian life. It's an idea that Trump, obsessed with winners and losers, might find congenial.
I encountered this attitude occasionally in the Navy. Tired of college and without bone spurs to plead, I volunteered at an interesting and atypical time: 1969. There was a draft, and part of boot camp Company 592 was comprised of educated, semi-resentful seaman recruits for whom the Navy was an undesirable obstacle to the career they had in mind.
My two-year college degree didn't stand out. Plenty of my boot camp shipmates had been to college; one had a bachelor's degree in philosophy; another, a PhD. in biology. The Navy put him in charge of the clothesline.
So sometimes you heard a little snickering condescension in the ranks when some grizzled old, modestly educated "lifer" stumbled over a few of the big words he was reading aloud from the Plan of the Day.
But I deny this canard. In my experience, the Navy was filled with smart, capable and dedicated people at all levels.
Going to sea is a complicated business; it takes competence and know-how — as well as considerable hard work — to make a complex modern warship move quickly and efficiently from one place to another. In fact, it takes a lot of skills that can't be learned in college.
And when I think of the "lifers" from those days, I recall our boot camp drill instructor. He was a Boatswain's Mate, First Class, which meant that he had spent a lot of time at sea and that after 20-plus years he had not risen very high in the naval hierarchy. He reminded me a little of Popeye.
But he was a committed, salty sailorman to whom the Navy, near the end of his career, had handed the task of mother-henning 56 young civilians into naval culture.
He taught us how to march, make up bunks and pack seabags. The Marines don't give a bleep about cleanliness, he asserted, but the Navy does. He was a hard taskmaster capable of delivering a severe tongue-lashing on a hapless recruit who got a tattoo on his first liberty.
One evening, after the company had shut down for the day, he and another drill instructor showed up unexpectedly. Clearly, they had been to several happy hours. The barriers were down; recruits gathered around and listened to war stories.
Real war stories. He was a 17-year-old seaman on the bridge of a destroyer when an airplane appeared suddenly from nowhere and dropped a bomb next to his ship, leaving "one very scared bluejacket" struggling to find his footing on a reeling deck. He described the hard, sweaty labor of unloading Navy transports in the heat of a Vietnam harbor, then immediately getting underway to cross the ocean for another shipment.
In an hour, we found out what he was doing while the rest of us were going to college and making money. Including you, Mr. Trump.
Loser? Sucker? No. Maybe not a hero, either. Just another sailor whose service to his country was arduous and sometimes dangerous. His name, Mr. Trump, was John Dilger, BM1, U.S.N. Could you have done what he did for our country?
John M. Crisp is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.