Words and Deeds and Our Commander in Chief


By George Ball

It has been said that actions speak louder than words.  Otherwise stated, the record of what a person has done in his life is often a meaningful window into who that person is. How do we know that? Like many enduring colloquialisms this one is rooted in, and describes, what many of us have experienced in our own lives.

Here, we compare the actions of four men with the words of our Commander-in-Chief, Donald Trump. Each of the four served in the U.S. Military, but none were chosen to glorify war; indeed, there seem to be few opportunities for glory in the clinical brutality of modern combat.

So why these four men?  Two reasons.  One is that not all actions are equal. Choosing to risk your life for your country reveals more about the person then accepting a job transfer from one city to another.  The other is that each of these four men were, in different ways, assigned a role in Trump World.

Over a thirty-seven year career with the United States Navy, Admiral William McRaven personally saw combat during Desert Storm and in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  He also commanded the troops that captured Saddam Hussein and rescued Captain Phillips. And McRaven developed and led the Osama bin Laden mission in 2011. https://www.salt.org/bio-mcraven-william.

After retiring from the Navy in 2014, McRaven went on serve as Chancellor of the University of Texas. In 2016 he was identified by Trump’s transition team as a likely pick for National Security Advisor.  Until the Admiral criticized Trump, leading Trump to claim that Bin Laden should have been killed sooner and dismissing McRaven as a Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama fan.  In response, McRaven noted that he ” did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents, regardless of their political party, who uphold the dignity of the office and who use that office to bring the nation together in challenging times.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_H._McRaven

James Mattis joined the United States Marine Corp in 1972, saw combat in the First Gulf War, and later commanded the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Afghanistan and the 1st Marine Division in Iraq, which played a key role in the bloody, hard fought US victory at Fallujah.  Mattis earned numerous medals, including the Bronze Star with Combat “V” (for valor demonstrated in combat) and the Combat Action Ribbon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Mattis

Between 2006 and 2010, Mattis led hundreds of thousands of men while serving as commander of the (i) I Marine Expeditionary Force, (ii) U.S. Joint Forces Command, (iii) Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (involving NATO troops), and (iv) United States Central Command (responsible for a region that includes Syria, Iran, and Yemen).

Known for speaking directly and leading from the front Mattis, while serving in Afghanistan as a brigadier general, was quoted as saying “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” A young Marine officer, Nathaniel Fick, said he witnessed Mattis in a fighting hole talking with a sergeant and lance corporal: “No one would have questioned Mattis if he’d slept eight hours each night in a private room, to be woken each morning by an aide who ironed his uniforms and heated his MREs. But there he was, in the middle of a freezing night, out on the lines with his Marines.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Mattis. During Obama’s presidency, Mattis pulled no punches. He “lobbied the Obama administration for a more aggressive response to Iran, including more covert operations and disruption of Iranian arms shipments to Syria and Yemen.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Mattis

After retiring from the Marine Corps in 2012, Mattis was called back to service by President Trump and confirmed 98-1 as Secretary of Defense by the United States Senate.  Mattis understood that in a brutal, violent world a country that walk away from allies who have bled and died with them will ultimately have no allies, and “America First” will inevitably become “America Alone.” To prevent that, Mattis tried to stop Trump from weakening NATO.  He tried to stop Trump from undermining our alliances with Japan and South Korea.  He tried to stop Trump from leaving the tens of thousands of Iraqi and Afghani soldiers (and their families) who had risked all to fight alongside us in those countries. And he tried to stop Trump from leaving Syria without consulting the US military or our NATO allies who were serving alongside us in that country.

Mattis was profusely praised by Trump.  Until he wasn’t.  In his resignation letter,  Mattis told  Trump: “Because you have the right to a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”  Mattis, Trump responded, was “the world’s most overrated general.” https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-former-generals-james-mattis-joseph-votel-sound-unprecedented-ncna1069771

Captain Humayan Khan, U.S. Army – Captain Khan joined the Army ROTC while attending the University of Virginia and joined the Army upon his graduation in 2000.  He rose to the rank of Captain and served in Iraq, where he was responsible for the lives of some 200 soldiers.  Captain Khan was killed in Iraq in 2004, at the age of 27, by two suicide bombers, who were approaching a guard post.  Ordering his subordinates to stay back, Captain Khan came forward to investigate.  The bombers detonated more than 200 pounds of explosives secreted in the vehicle, killing themselves and Captain Khan, who was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khizr_and_Ghazala_Khan.

There is, of course, no reason to believe that Captain Kahn wanted to die that day. But he did, by his actions, knowingly place himself in harm’s way.  Those actions were credited with saving the lives of more than 100 U.S. soldiers. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-sign-bill-post-office-son-gold-star/story?id=59805996.

Captain Khan entered our cultural discourse after his parents, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.  Khizr, who had born in Pakistan and moved to the United States with his family in 1980, waived a pocket size copy of the U.S. Constitution while speaking out against Trump for seeking a Muslim travel ban.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khizr_and_Ghazala_Khan.  Ghazala stood beside her husband on the stage, without speaking.

Trump seized on Mrs. Khan’s silence stating, in an interview on ABC, “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.”  Trump also claimed that Hillary Clinton‘s campaign staff had written the speech. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khizr_and_Ghazala_Khan

Trump’s campaign staff took a different tack, releasing a statement praising Captain Khan, but rejecting Mr. Khan’s criticism, noting;

“While I feel deeply for the loss of his son, Mr. Khan, who has never met me, has no right to stand in front of millions of people and claim I have never read the Constitution, (which is false) and say many other inaccurate things,” he said. https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-36935175

Notably, that same lack of intimacy did not prevent the President of the United States from claiming Mr. Khan parroted someone else’s speech and Mrs. Khan was not permitted to speak because she was a Muslim.

In the event, Mrs. Khan explained that “she did not speak during her husband’s speech because she was still overcome with grief and could not look at her son’s photos without crying.” https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2016-36935175

The speech Mr. Khan delivered on the national stage was his own.  Mr. Khan is a trained lawyer who had strongly supported Ronald Reagan. He became deeply interested in our country’s founding documents began when he was a law student and, in 2005 (the year after his son’s death), began carrying pocket constitutions with him, which he would read from and give to University of Virginia ROTC cadets.  This continuing involvement with his son’s ROTC chapter was welcomed by the members, who called Mr. and Mrs. Khan the “mom and pop” of that ROTC.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khizr_and_Ghazala_Khan

Senator John McCain observed that:

In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents. He has suggested that the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. https://www.npr.org/2016/08/01/488213964/gop-criticism-mounts-as-trump-continues-attacks-on-khan-family

McCain went on to say:

I claim no moral superiority over Donald Trump. I have a long and well-known public and private record for which I will have to answer at the Final Judgment, and I repose my hope in the promise of mercy and the moderation of age. I challenge the nominee to set the example for what our country can and should represent.

Arizona is watching. It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.

Lastly, I’d like to say to Mr. and Mrs. Khan: thank you for immigrating to America. We’re a better country because of you. And you are certainly right; your son was the best of America, and the memory of his sacrifice will make us a better nation — and he will never be forgotten.


John McCain

Senator John McCain’s family has served this country for generations.   His grandfather, Admiral John Sidney McCain, commanded our country’s largest and most lethal combat naval squadron in US naval history in the Pacific theater during World War II.  Senator McCain’s father, John S. McCain, Jr., also an Admiral, commanded all U.S. Naval forces in the Vietnam Theater.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCain#Early_life_and_education. Three of Senator McCain’s sons have themselves served in the U.S. military. https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a22840158/john-mccain-children/

Senator McCain’s own wartime service is detailed in Wikipedia, in part, as follows:

McCain’s combat duty as a naval aviator began when he was 30 years old in mid-1967. Before becoming a prisoner of war, he earned the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for missions flown over North Vietnam.[35]

McCain was taken prisoner  on October 26, 1967, while his 23rd bombing mission over North Vietnam. He fractured both arms and a leg when he ejected from the aircraft and nearly drowned after he parachuted into Trúc Bạch Lake. Some North Vietnamese pulled him ashore, then others crushed his shoulder with a rifle butt and bayoneted him. McCain was then transported to Hanoi’s main Hỏa Lò Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton”.

Although McCain was seriously wounded and injured, his captors refused to treat him. They beat and interrogated him to get information, and he was given medical care only when the North Vietnamese discovered that his father was an admiral. His status as a prisoner of war (POW) made the front pages of major American newspapers.

McCain spent six weeks in the hospital, where he received marginal care. He had lost 50 pounds (23 kg), he was in a chest cast, and his gray hair had turned white. McCain was sent to a different camp on the outskirts of Hanoi. In December 1967, McCain was placed in a cell with two other Americans who did not expect him to live more than a week. In March 1968, McCain was placed into solitary confinement, where he remained for two years.

In mid-1968, his father John S. McCain Jr. was named commander of all U.S. forces in the Vietnam theater, and the North Vietnamese offered McCain early release because they wanted to appear merciful for propaganda purposes and also to show other POWs that elite prisoners were willing to be treated preferentially. McCain refused repatriation unless every man taken in before him was also released. Such early release was prohibited by the POWs’ interpretation of the military Code of Conduct which states in Article III: “I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy”. To prevent the enemy from using prisoners for propaganda, officers were to agree to be released in the order in which they were captured.

Beginning in August 1968, McCain was subjected to a program of severe torture. He was bound and beaten every two hours; this punishment occurred at the same time that he was suffering from heat and dysentery. Further injuries brought McCain to “the point of suicide”, but his preparations were interrupted by guards. Eventually, McCain made an anti-U.S. propaganda “confession”. He had always felt that his statement was dishonorable, but as he later wrote, “I had learned what we all learned over there: every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.” Many U.S. POWs were tortured and maltreated in order to extract “confessions” and propaganda statements; virtually all of them eventually yielded something to their captors. McCain received two to three beatings weekly because of his continued refusal to sign additional statements.

McCain refused to meet various anti-war groups seeking peace in Hanoi, wanting to give neither them nor the North Vietnamese a propaganda victory. From late 1969, treatment of McCain and many of the other POWs became more tolerable, while McCain continued to resist the camp authorities. McCain and other prisoners cheered the U.S. “Christmas Bombing” campaign of December 1972, viewing it as a forceful measure to push North Vietnam to terms.

McCain was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years until his release on March 14, 1973, along with 108 other prisoners of war. His wartime injuries left him permanently incapable of raising his arms above his head.

Retiring from the Navy as a captain in 1981, Senator McCain  moved to Arizona, where he entered politics in 1982, serving two terms as a Congressman and just over 5 terms as a U.S. Senator, before succumbing to brain cancer.  In the Senate, McCain opposed most of the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda.  In 2015, he became Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He refused to support then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McCain.

Trump’s attack line in response was that McCain was only seen as was “a war hero because he was captured” and that he liked “people that weren’t captured.’” https://www.npr.org/2019/03/20/705279001/trump-carries-on-criticism-of-mccain-as-a-republican-calls-his-words-deplorable.

We do not respect our military because it is without blemish, or our service men and women because we all agree with every war they are sent to fight.  Rather, we respect those who risk all to serve in the military because we understand they are serving us.

Donald Trump is our 45th President.  Twenty-six of the forty-four Presidents who preceded him served. Trump did not.  He received five deferments from the draft for military service during the Vietnam War. Four were education deferments while he was a college student.  A fifth deferment in 1968 a medical exemption for bone spurs after he graduated.

As the President described it:

a doctor wrote him a letter for the draft board about the bone spurs – which Trump said were “temporary” and “minor” – but he could not recall the doctor’s name.

“I had a doctor that gave me a letter – a very strong letter on the heels,” Trump told the Times.


Actions matter, but words are not meaningless.  Particularly when spoken about those who served in the military by our Commander-in-Chief.

We have looked at the actions of these four men, and the words of President Trump. We need no advanced degrees to assess their relative merits.  Our life experience is enough.

Meaning that you have all the tools you need to decide what this reveals about our President. I ask that you do so.  For yourselves.  For your children. And for your country.

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