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OPINION

Missing in action: The commander in chief

By MICHAEL R. LEHNERT AND RICHARD L. KELLY | Special to Tribune News Service | Published: October 12, 2020

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Missing in action, or to a lesser degree being unaccounted for, are profoundly disturbing situations in which military leaders are unable to account for their most precious asset and responsibility — their fighting men and women. The former is the most dreaded because you assume the worst — capture, death or incapacitation.

Sadly, now the term “missing in action” seems to fit the behavior and performance of the military’s commander in chief and our president. He has failed to acknowledge the severity of COVID-19 by taking meaningful steps to reduce death and infection rates. He has failed to protect the integrity of our electoral process from foreign adversaries. He has failed to denounce hate groups and emboldened them by his silence. He has failed to build longstanding alliances — to include global climate action. He has weakened our national security and the international world order.

And now, after nine months of minimizing the pandemic and flaunting proven protective measures, he and some of his closest advisers became sick with COVID-19. Most disturbing but not surprising is the president’s lack of transparency with regard to his health further undermining faith in government and stability of the economy and markets. The shock waves are beginning to be felt by our remaining friends and allies and will be seized upon by nations and nonstate actors who wish us harm.

A critical leadership principle of military culture is “leadership by example.” Leaders establish a “command climate.” A good command climate extends the influence of the leader who sets high standards where integrity is paramount, courage is revered, service always precedes self, dignity is the basis in all interactions and extending a helping hand to a shipmate who has stumbled is the rule of the day.

A president who does not lead by example, who doesn’t create a positive command climate, who sows distrust, who mocks fellow Americans and who dismisses science in the face of a suffering nation is indeed “missing in action.” Rather than addressing the crises, he has consistently dodged responsibility and deflected blame. The democracy that Americans have contributed to and fought for since our founding is indeed in jeopardy.

The authors of this column, both lifelong independent voters, do not come to this assessment lightly. Backed by more than 70 years’ active duty service, through years of post-active duty civic engagement, and because of our love for our country, we can no longer remain silent or stand idly by as this frightening scenario continues to divide our nation and erode the principles established by our founders.

We are not alone. An August Military Times poll shows a decline of support for the president by active duty service members. Only 37% polled reported they would vote to reelect in November. And this was before the president, through his own reckless behavior, caught COVID-19 and put in harm’s way those who would now care for him — Walter Reed’s medics, corpsmen, techs, custodians, nurses and docs — and many others. And this was also before the news that he reportedly called service members “losers” and “suckers.”

The vote that propelled the president and his enablers into office nearly four years ago opened the door to chaos, division and distrust. That vote must be reversed. We must allow our country to heal — physically, mentally and emotionally — and then begin to build a better, more inclusive and more just society in which everyone has the opportunity to share in the economic marvel that is the United States of America. Only a real leader can guide us through this terrible health crisis, reverse a beleaguered economy and begin to repair the enormous harm that has been done to our society ... a leader who leads by example, who establishes a positive command climate, who has a plan and high trust relationships and a leader who runs to the crises every president will face, not away from them.

We must vote to preserve our Constitution and our democracy. There is no greater power in our democracy than the voice of “we the people” and no greater duty or obligation for each citizen than to vote.

Michael R. Lehnert, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general, served 37 years. He retired as the Commander of Marine Corps Installations West. He lives in Williamsburg, Mich. Richard L. Kelly, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general, served 35 years. He retired as the Deputy Commandant for Installations and Logistics. He lives in Arlington, Va.