Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Monday offered a bleak and dismal assessment of today's military, saying the modern force is "depleted," "not capable" and facing its most dire crisis since World War II.
Trump blamed the Islamic State group's rise on "political correctness" in Washington, suggesting too that U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria are failing to avoid civilian targets. He spent more than an hour talking about the military and national security issues during a town-hall event in northern Virginia, about 25 miles west of Washington. His gloomy portrayal of today's force is at odds with the views held by many top military leaders and defense experts.
"Our forces are depleted — they're depleted. We have the greatest people on Earth, but they're depleted," Trump said. "We have an Army that hasn't been in this position since World War II, in terms of levels and in terms of readiness and in terms of everything else. We are not capable like we have to be.
"You look at what's happened with our Navy in terms of the number of ships and our armed forces generally, how they are so depleted, how they are at almost record-setting lows and in some cases absolute record-setting lows. It is very, very unfortunate and very, very dangerous for our country," he added.
Video by Kelly Norris/Medill News Service
Trump took questions from a friendly audience of mostly older veterans at the event sponsored by a conservative fundraising group called Retired American Warriors, a political action committee. The event was moderated by Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a Christian public policy group. Perkins was joined by one of the PAC's leaders, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin.
Trump's remarks about today’s military threw into stark relief a central issue in the presidential campaign regarding the question of whether the current state of the force amounts to a national crisis. Democrat Hillary Clinton consistently strikes a more optimistic view, stating that her plans are to "maintain the best-trained, best-equipped, and strongest military the world has ever known."
This is a familiar theme for Trump, who often casts a dark and pessimistic view of the nation he’s seeking to lead. Trump talks about soaring crime rates, yet most data suggests crime levels are near a 20-year-low. He talks about economic turmoil despite data that show the U.S. jobless rate has declined steadily since 2010, the U.S. gross domestic product has risen steadily since 2009 and stock markets are at record highs.
Trump said ISIS reflects a failure not only by today’s military but by the senior civilian leaders who refused to heed professional military advice.
"I don't think you've been allowed to fight ISIS, as an example, the way you wanted. I don't think you've been allowed to fight for Iraq the way you've wanted," Trump said.
"If they’d listen to the military people, we probably wouldn't be having an ISIS right now. I think I can say not 'probably.' I think we definitely wouldn't be having an ISIS right now. But we're running a war by politicians and we're running a war by political correctness," Trump said. "We have a politically correct military and it's getting more and more politically correct every day. ... Some of the things that they're asking you to do and be politically correct about are ridiculous."
Trump did not offer any military-specific examples of how "political correctness" was harming readiness, but he suggested that opposition to racial profiling was hindering law enforcement and voiced concern about a high school football coach in Washington state who was told to stop leading students in prayer on the field after games.
Trump suggested the military’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria was authorizing strikes indiscriminately and putting civilians at risk. "We're dropping things all over the place. Who knows what they're hitting.? Who knows how many people are being killed? And who knows if they're the right people?" Trump said.
Those comments are at odds with the military’s top brass who have repeatedly described the two-year-old air campaign targeting ISIS as the "most precise air campaign in history."
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has rejected the suggestion that today’s military is in crisis, often describing it as "the best-trained, most effective fighting force the world has ever known."
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said concerns about defense spending caps and their impact on military readiness should not be confused with overall military weakness.
"That point should not be lost on our enemies, our allies, or more importantly, on the men and women of the joint force," Dunford said on Sept. 21 when speaking to the Air Force Association’s annual conference in Maryland. "It's not about 'we're broke.' It's not about 'we don't have a competitive advantage.' It's about the standards that we've set for ourselves, which are incredibly high."
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.