What was in it for them?
The American Cemetery at Normandy sits on a bluff overlooking the beach where, on June 6, 1944, American soldiers waded ashore to begin the invasion of France. The old battlefield is marked with shell craters and gun pits offering mute testimony to the fury of that day. In the cemetery itself stand endless rows of white crosses and the occasional Star of David — mute testimony to the sacrifice it required.
If you’ve ever been there, ever knelt to read names on marble markers or stood in contemplation of the gray waters of the English Channel, you understand why my thoughts flew back there last week. That, of course, is when The Atlantic posted a story alleging that Donald Trump described American military personnel captured or wounded in war as “losers” and “suckers.”
Reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, citing four anonymous sources, writes of how Trump canceled a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in 2018 to commemorate the centennial of the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood. The public explanation was that it was raining too hard for the presidential helicopter to fly, and the Secret Service nixed the idea of a motorcade.
“Neither claim,” writes Goldberg, “was true.”
He quotes Trump asking, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” Separately, according to Goldberg, he described the 1,811 marines who died in the battle — which stopped the Germans from reaching Paris — as “suckers” for getting killed. Plus, says Goldberg, he was concerned the rain might muss his hair.
Then there’s this: On a 2017 Memorial Day visit to Arlington National Cemetery accompanied by then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, Trump reportedly joined Kelly at the grave of Kelly’s son, a 29-year-old marine killed in Afghanistan.
“I don’t get it,” said Trump. “What was in it for them?”
And here, I am obligated to note that Trump has forcefully denied these reports. I also note that Kelly, who could easily clear his ex-boss with a simple denial, has maintained an eloquent silence. Meantime, a number of other news organizations, including the Associated Press, the Washington Post and, incredibly, Fox, have confirmed the story, in whole or in part. More to the point, given his very public denigration of Sen. John McCain’s wartime service, his attack on Gold Star father Khizr Khan, his oafish condolence call to the widow of army Sgt. La David Johnson (”He knew what he signed up for”) and his willingness to use the military as a political prop, is it so hard to believe Trump said those words?
No, it is not. So in response, I’ll simply say this: He’s right. American military personnel are losers.
They’ve lost limbs and eyesight, blood and guts, minds and lives in the jungles of Guadalcanal, the mountains of Afghanistan, the streets of Gettysburg.
And yes, they’re suckers, too. Sucker enough to venerate corny ideals like duty and valor and the responsibility to answer when country calls.
What was in it for them? Nothing much. Just mud, snow, terror, hunger, horror, jungle rot and a good chance of death.
It is no surprise Donald Trump understands none of this. He is the favored son of a rich man who never taught him to look beyond the horizon of his own self-interest. But on a bluff in France, in graveyards, fields, forests, deserts and jungles around the world, dead Americans lie in silent rebuke of his selfishness. These “losers” and “suckers” never thought to ask what was in it for them. They already knew, yet they did not shirk. Their country asked them to go forward into danger.
And they did.
(Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)