Reading the latest story about Donald Trump’s grievous insults to the military, I thought of a scene that was cut from the original version of The Godfather.
It comes right after the big wedding that opens the movie. Don Vito Corleone and his sons go to the hospital where his consigliere Genco Abbandando is dying (Robert Duvall’s character Tom Hagen will succeed him). As they walk down a corridor to Abbandando’s room, the Godfather stops his son Michael, who’s fully decked out in his Marine officer’s uniform.
He points to the many decorations on Michael’s chest. “What are all these Christmas ribbons for?” he asks.
“For bravery,” Michael says, and Vito Corleone disapprovingly replies, “What miracles you do for strangers.”
You can see that moment restored in The Godfather Saga, a special version of the first film and The Godfather Part II that was edited together with additional footage to make one, long chronological movie.
I wonder if Donald Trump’s ever seen it. Would make sense if he had. We all know that in many ways Trump fancies himself more crime boss than president, looking at his bathroom mirror in the morning and mistakenly seeing himself as the greatest Godfather of them all, capo di tutti capi. Knowing all we’ve learned from bitter experience, is it any wonder that his attitude would be any different than Vito Corleone’s? Why would a person enlist in the military and stick his neck out a stranger, for someone who wasn’t family—or for anyone, anywhere who couldn’t make him richer and more powerful?
So that recent article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic comes as no surprise, but as with everything Trump, it’s the specificity of the reporting that strikes home, so that when you hear about each occurrence it feels like one gut punch after another, leaving the body politic perpetually short of breath.
Goldberg writes that in 2018, Trump canceled a trip to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery:
“Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.’ In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as ‘suckers’ for getting killed.
“Belleau Wood is a consequential battle in American history, and the ground on which it was fought is venerated by the Marine Corps. America and its allies stopped the German advance toward Paris there in the spring of 1918. But Trump, on that same trip, asked aides, ‘Who were the good guys in this war?’ He also said that he didn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies.”
Didn’t they teach history at that military school Trump attended – you know, the one to which he was sent by his father for five years because he was such a rotten kid? Not that he was any prize there, either. In a New York Daily News op-ed this summer, Sandy McIntosh, a former classmate at the New York Military Academy, wrote of suspicions that Trump’s father had pulled strings to get his son unmerited promotions. He believes Donald has greatly exaggerated his academic and extracurricular record at the school and even added to his uniform large gold medals for excellence that a fellow student believes, “Donald bought… from another cadet who had quit the school.” (There’s nothing in the school yearbook about him earning them.)
In his article, Jeffrey Goldberg adds further anecdotal evidence to already well-known stories about Trump’s hatred of Navy veteran and POW John McCain. In fact:
“According to sources with knowledge of the president’s views, he seems to genuinely not understand why Americans treat former prisoners of war with respect. Nor does he understand why pilots who are shot down in combat are honored by the military. On at least two occasions since becoming president, according to three sources with direct knowledge of his views, Trump referred to former President George H. W. Bush as a ‘loser’ for being shot down by the Japanese as a Navy pilot in World War II.”
(All of which is interesting in light of Trump’s constant bragging—as recently as the Republican National Convention—of his success in freeing hostages.)
Goldberg also tells the story of a Memorial Day 2017 visit to Arlington National Cemetery that Trump made with his then-Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly to visit the grave of Kelly’s son Robert, who was killed in Afghanistan. Trump turned to Kelly at the graveside and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
There’s more. Read it for yourself. Much of it has been corroborated and expanded on by the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and even Fox News: Trump’s revulsion at the wounded, contempt for anyone who served in Vietnam (also “suckers”), incredulity that anyone would choose to serve their country rather than take a job making barrels of cash, his complete aversion to serving in the military himself and even threatening to cut his kids off if they ever considered enlisting.
The White House denies everything, a spokesperson telling Goldberg, “President Trump holds the military in the highest regard. He’s demonstrated his commitment to them at every turn: delivering on his promise to give our troops a much-needed pay raise, increasing military spending, signing critical veterans reforms, and supporting military spouses.”
I can’t speak as to what he’s done for military spouses, but as far as raises go, The Post points out, “Service members have received annual pay increases every year for decades, not just under Trump. The president has falsely claimed he produced the first pay raise for service members in a decade. However, Trump did produce the largest one-year increase in pay since 2010, according to Pentagon data.” And veteran reforms? “The first expansion of veterans’ health care to include private-sector doctors, often touted by Trump as the centerpiece of his veterans advocacy, began under President Barack Obama following the wait time scandal at the Phoenix VA hospital in 2014. (Legislation was sponsored by Bernie Sanders and yep, John McCain.)
As for increased military spending you have to wonder how much of that approximately $738 billion allocated for 2020 actually is benefiting military personnel and how much is the result of hugely bloated Pentagon contracts and the nearly 700 defense lobbyists in Washington who cajole, pressure and bribe government every day to buy more and more, to invest in better forms of mass destruction, each more grotesque than the next.
But Trump does enjoy a good military parade—remember the one he tried to have in DC last year? And in her new book, former 2017 inauguration planner and ex-Melania pal Stephanie Winston Wolkoff claims the president-elect told her that for his inaugural parade he wanted, “tanks and choppers. Make it look like North Korea.” Cooler heads prevailed. He only loves the military as all dictators do—for the pomp and power it provides here and abroad, and the imagery of armed might he lusts for to bolster his reelection and ego—to make him, metaphorically at least, a big shot.
In truth, Michael Kranish at The Washington Post writes that Trump has “a long track record of incendiary and disparaging remarks about veterans and military service.” On top of the recent stories, don’t forget his dismissal of the severity of traumatic brain injuries and concussions suffered in January by service personnel after Iran’s missile attack on a base in Iraq. Or his cheap cracks at the expense of Gold Star parents and Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in Iraq. Or his grant of clemency to Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL accused of war crimes, over the objections of other officers and the secretary of the navy—who Trump then fired. And that now notorious 2017 meeting at the Pentagon during which Trump called those assembled “a bunch of dopes and babies.”
I never served in the military. In fact during the Vietnam era, I had a student deferment. When it ran out, I was #1 in the draft lottery and called up for my pre-induction physical. Just days before, Richard Nixon abolished the draft.
But my pharmacist father was a medical supply officer in the US Army during World War II and other family members—uncles and cousins—also were in the armed forces. What’s more, I’ve had the opportunity to work on television projects that gave me the chance to witness firsthand the military at work.
I spent several days aboard the Navy’s USS Wasp as this amphibious assault vessel—the size of a World War II aircraft carrier—maneuvered in the Atlantic. On another documentary, I was in the Mojave with the US Army at Ft. Irwin, California, where soldiers train right before deployment to the Middle East. I’m still shaking the desert dust out of my socks.
I gained tremendous respect for the young men and women who serve, for the tireless and endless work they do day and night on behalf of the United States. I don’t agree with a lot of our defense policy, I deplore our involvement in useless wars and other conflicts, but admire the dedication to duty of those who have chosen the armed forces as a career or even as a stopgap choice for a few years as they determine what they want to do with their lives. Protestations to the contrary, Trump does not.
Okay, one more Godfather story. Maybe our Donald Corleone Trump never saw that hospital scene between Vito and Michael Corleone that’s in The Godfather Saga, but here’s a scene from The Godfather, Part II that I’ll bet he did see. It’s a flashback at the very end of the movie, the evening of December 7, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor and coincidentally, Don Vito Corleone’s birthday.
Dinner is ready and the entire family has gathered around the table awaiting The Godfather’s arrival. They’re talking about the Japanese assault in Hawaii. Tessio, a mob family associate says, “I understand thirty thousand men enlisted this morning.”
“A bunch of saps,” Sonny, Vito Corleone’s oldest replies. “They’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers.”
Michael Corleone replies, “Now that’s Pop talking.” Sonny: “You’re goddamn right that’s Pop talking… Your country’s not your blood—you remember that.”
I’m sure Donald J. Trump would be nodding in vigorous agreement and remembering his own pop Fred’s disregard for all the suckers and losers out there. But then Michael responds, “I don’t feel that way.” Unlike our current president, the one with the alleged bone spurs that kept him from Vietnam, Michael Corleone turns his back on the deferment for which his father has pulled a lot of strings and enlists in the Marines.
That’s right, a fictional character—and a future, highly successful gangster, no less—possesses more patriotism and selflessness than the buffoonish coward who thinks he’s our favorite commander-in-chief. What a world.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.