A Sacred Oath, Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times (Review)

Mark T. Esper was the Defense Secretary under the Trump. His memoirs are quite interesting for several reasons.

Esper, a former Army officer, served as Secretary of the Army and held other jobs in and outside of the Pentagon. While Secretary of the Army, Esper writes that he began a series of actions to streamline and change some of the bureaucratic processes and culture that made life difficult for military personnel and their families. He would continue this fight with greater speed when he took over as DoD secretary. Esper spends a great deal of his lengthy book walking the reader through many internal battles, both with uniform and civilian organizations.

I don’t know what other defense secretaries did to improve the lives of military personnel and families, or to calm the growing defense budget, or to eliminate unnecessary programs, but Esper makes a strong case that he came to the job with a lengthy agenda of change. My sense is the DoD bureaucracy is so deeply entrenched that it slows down and waits out defense secretaries, effectively killing new initiatives. Bureaucracies are self-preserving by nature – I worked in them for 40 years. It’s tough to stop a speeding train or make a sharp turn with an aircraft carrier.

Esper also sought to restore civilian oversight of defense agencies, something he felt over the years became more controlled by those in uniform, lessening the requirement of civilian directed defense, as outlined in the foundation of our government. Esper describes his efforts to update the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and better align the various planning documents of the armed services and supporting agencies into the NDS, which is like the department’s strategic plan. Esper’s book is very detailed in regards to how the changing challenges facing the U.S. with China, Russia, the Middle East and North Korea impact deployment levels, locations of bases, weapon system placements, emerging war scenarios and new threats.

One of many battles was over the future priorities of the Navy was: Aircraft carriers or submarines? This is more than just a hypothetical question like Mary Ann or Ginger? These naval platforms are defining the capabilities and the sea warfare needs of the future, and commit a significant portion of future Naval budgets. Each deployment ready carrier costs about $20B (based on the USS Gerald R. Ford). Esper writes that fulfilling each service’s demands was unsustainable, the federal budget could not fund it. The Navy received the biggest part of the DoD budget, but was not offering up any costs to other programs to fund additional shipbuilding. Esper countered that submarines and other options instead of more carriers should be considered. The driving force behind the Naval Force Assessment was how they anticipated war with China. Over and over, the focus forward is China. Esper was not ready to buy off on their plan without extensive review and revising the Joint Warfighting Concept, meaning how each service would integrate into an integrated plan of conducting war. Instead, Esper directed the Navy, Marine Corps and Joint Chiefs to develop a plan for what the future Navy should look like, following some guidelines provided by Esper. Currently, the Navy was promoting a 350 ship need. Battle Force 2045 increased that total to around 500 ships, but many were unmanned and some smaller than current class vessels.

The other part of his book deals with military actions taken and his deteriorating relationship with Trump. Here’s an example. A drone strike was planned and executed against Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian military officer who was alleged to be responsible for the death of 17 percent of all U.S. military deaths in Iraq. After Soleimani”s assassination, Trump warned Iran that if Americans were killed by Iran in retaliation, the U.S. would strike 52 Iranian targets including historic and cultural sites. Esper was asked about this and said this was illegal under the laws of warfare. Trump was not happy with being rebuked and Esper immediately knew it.

In retaliation for the Soleimani assassination, Iran did fire missiles at American bases in Iraq. At first, the DoD reported no injuries, and Trump tweeted that in a chest-beating way. A week later, DoD learned some American military had been evacuated to Germany for treatment of head trauma, some serious, others not. A report was sent to Trump, who Tweeted that our injured only suffered from headaches. Needing to correct this misinterpretation, Esper briefed Trump on the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries, but Trump dismissed it as made up injuries. The president, Esper wrote, “should have demonstrated more empathy for our wounded warriors. Empathy was not his strong suit, however.”

The look of disapproval.

Esper states very clearly that Trump made “exaggerated” claims that could not be confirmed and often made “outright fabrications.” Esper had to repeatedly walk a thin line between telling the truth without openly disagreeing with a volatile Trump. This issue comes up over and over in the book. Esper often says, “…he (Trump) listened, but he did not hear.” Imagine, half of your job is walking back public comments of the president or making repeated attempts to explain what he refused to hear, because he’s on expert on everything.

Following an unsubstantiated claim by Trump, Esper was forced to respond on television, walking back what Trump implied. Trump was not happy.

“A trusted colleague told me that some of Trump’s friends called to report on me, complaining that I was ‘undermining’ him, and ‘not loyal,’ and even suggested he ‘fire Esper’…for being honest.”

Esper outlines the in-fighting in the administration, particularly with Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and National Security Advisor Richard O’ Brien. Esper said the White House was crammed with leakers, obstructionists and Trump loyalists, who put politics over professionalism. Esper had a good relationship with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which stumps me. A former Kansas Congressman, Pompeo is one of the most flawed, partisan egocentric Republicans, in my opinion. Esper and Pompeo attended West Point at the same time and seemed to form a very effective relationship between Defense and State.

Esper blamed leaks over policy disagreements among the Cabinet, to have a crippling effect on unity and trust within the administration. He said Trump was the worst leaker of all.

The decision to withdraw all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, tied to an agreement with the Taliban, was a Trump campaign plank. He wanted out of Afghanistan, but didn’t want to “sign a bad deal,” which obviously he did. And he wanted out before the November 2020 election. Esper says Trump’s focus was getting out of Afghanistan for political purposes, not successfully implementing the agreement.

Esper and Trump disagreed on COVID, although Esper gave Trump credit initially on actions, but soon saw how Trump’s words dramatically undercut the growing seriousness of the pandemic. DoD, and Health and Human Services (HHS), directed Operation Warp Speed together, away from the political involvement of the White House, with the exception of Jared Kushner, who Esper had great rapport. Esper’s description of Kushner, who “worked off facts and sound arguments,” and “understood politics”, is rather baffling to me considering all of the meddling Kushner did in matters where he had no expertise, and his hinky involvement with Saudi Arabia.

Development and distribution of the vaccine was spectacular, but not without issues. Overall, the task of rolling out the new vaccine in record time and getting it in shoulders of American is a massive success, especially for the DoD. Esper details the project, in addition to other important efforts in delivering medical supplies, the use of hospital ships and maintaining defense readiness during a global pandemic.

Esper wrote that he derailed a proposal by the National Security Agency to blockade Venezuela, something Esper said would be illegal and pose a threat to the security of our own commercial shipping. Trump also suggested to Esper that the military shoot missiles into Mexico to destroy drug labs and kill cartel members. Again, Esper said he told Trump this would be illegal and an act of war.

On another occasion, Esper was approached by White House staffer Stephen Miller to mobilize and send 250,000 troops to stop a caravan of immigrants heading to the U.S. border. Esper told him in no uncertain terms that was a nonstarter. Later, Esper found out the a team at the Pentagon had been working with Miller and DHS on such a plan. Esper stopped any further DoD involvement.

On May 31, 2020, Trump was furious about protestors in the nation’s capital, and requested 10,000 active-duty troops. Esper and William Barr talked him out of it, but Trump wasn’t done. He asked Joint Chiefs Chairman General Milley if the protesters couldn’t just be wounded.

It would appear that the nadir of Esper’s experience in the Trump administration was being tricked into being part of the group following Trump to the church in Lafayette Park, where the infamous Bible photo was taken. Esper said he felt duped by the White House and especially Trump for being forced to be there.

To illustrate Trump’s disrespect for the leadership of the military, after a dressing-down of the military in a Cabinet meeting by an angry Trump, in front of the Joint Chiefs, Esper was asked about the Twenty-fifth Amendment. “How stupid of the president, I thought, to do something like this. To make false claims and baseless complaints about the capabilities and readiness of the U.S. military to these officers-professionals who had spent their adult lives in uniform defending the country, risking them in many cases, and usually spending long periods away from their families in the process–was reprehensible. I couldn’t imagine a worse performance or poorer example by any commander in chief.”

Esper would disagree with Trump and others in the White House like chief of staff Mark Meadows on many topics like the quick reduction of U.S. troops in Germany, the grand military show on July 4th, and the treatment of Lt Col. Alexander Vindman among other issues. Vindman reported the call between Trump and Ukraine president Zelenski. Not only was Vindman (and his brother) fired from the NSC, but he was denied an earned promotion. The White House continued to fight the promotion, manufacturing “evidence” against Vindman. Even to an outsider, this appears to be retribution for reporting Trump’s “perfect phone call.

Another divisive issue between Esper and the White House (there were quite a few) was over banning Confederate symbols from military bases. In the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, and with Confederate symbol and military base name issue gaining traction, Esper, to his credit, went on a listening tour of bases to engage with service members over race, equality, gender and inclusion. The White House was against changing the names of bases and specifically banning Confederate flags, so Esper took another strategy by making the U.S. flag the only official flag.

“My personal views remained unchanged, however, fixed from my time at West Point and the many years of service that followed: remain true to your oath; put country first; do the right thing; and take care of your people. They were diametrically opposed to how the president operated, thus making continued clashes between us inevitable.”

The efforts to politicize the DoD was a constant action by the Trump White House. Esper pushed back at discussions that targeted retired military officers critical of Trump, general Stan McChrystal and admiral William McRaven, suggesting they be recalled to active-duty and then court-martialed. Other discussions suggested “loyalty” interviews for prospective generals in line for a fourth star.

“My frustration is I sit here and say, ‘Hm, 18 Cabinet members. Who’s pushed back more than anybody?’ Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” he said.

Esper was fired by Trump following the 2020 election for not being loyal enough and failing to be a stronger supporter of Trump. Esper expected the firing, as Trump replaced many dedicated professionals of the administration with Trump loyalists. Esper said his duty was to the Constitution and the country, not to be a yes man to Trump, as he made repeated attempts to politicize the military.

Esper’s book was a bit exhausting to read, though one cannot fault his attention to detail and backing his writing with facts and perspective. This book was not really his memoirs, as noted in the book’s title, the focus is his time as Secretary of the Army and his promotion to Secretary of Defense. One does learn of Esper’s leadership style and his values, developed from his long military career and various Pentagon jobs.

As DoD Secretary, Esper was close to Attorney General Barr, who also wrote a book and covered his time as AG. Barr is a political animal, unlike Esper. If you want a more balanced view of life in the Trump administration, skip Barr’s book, and that of Mark Meadows, and pick up Esper’s book.

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