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It’s become another endless loop of the Trump administration: the constant refrain that the President won the election, the recurrent assertion that massive fraud occurred on November 3. Sources within the White House have compared the President’s refusal to concede to the ramblings of Mad King George.
Ironically, Trump’s refusal to concede the election is arguably the closest the Commander in Chief has come to following the military code of conduct during his time in office — at least when it comes to the terms of surrender.
Sixty-five years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order that required every member of the military — which would technically include the president — to “measure up to the standards in the Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity.” It’s been modified only twice, once by President Carter to take out language that made it seem like there was only one choice in certain situations, and then by President Reagan, to make the language gender neutral.
Since he never served his country, it’s not clear that Trump even knows the Code of Conduct exists. But some of his conduct seems to follow parts of the Code’s rules for surrender. As the code makes clear, surrender is never a step to be taken lightly.
An ill-considered surrender can cost a country a lot: land, lives, legacy. It’s designed to be a last resort and, throughout history, soldiers around the world have shown the lengths they will go to avoid surrender. One WWII Japanese officer has long been noted for his refusal to surrender, holding out on a Philippine island from 1944 until 1974, surrendering only after his former commander travelled to the island to confirm Japan’s defeat.
Since Eisenhower’s executive order, many American servicemen and women have been trained in what happens when a surrender or capture is inevitable. In the words of Article II of the Code of Conduct: “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.”
The modern military takes this seriously. Part of my training as a Marine was in what’s called SERE School — where we were taught how to Survive, Evade, Resist, and Escape. The curriculum — which involved many simulations — constituted learning how to survive as a POW if I were ever captured. (Throughout the 245 year history of the Corps, not a single Marine has ever surrendered.)
Though Trump’s reluctance to surrender is in line with what I was taught as a Marine, he so far seems to have forgotten some of the crucial details in the military’s Code of Conduct.
The first is that, if someone doesn’t win, and doesn’t surrender, the only options left are death or captivity. In some situations, those options may be preferable to surrender; but just because a soldier or sailor surrenders for capture doesn’t mean that they have sacrificed their faith in their country or fellow countrymen.
When he said of the late Senator John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured,” he implied the only option was winning, the President’s avowed obsession.
But part of responsible military conduct is acknowledging that defeat or capture may be in the offing, even for the best military in the world. Aircraft get shot down. Combat units get ambushed. Logistics convoys can get lost. Preparation for defeat is a crucial part of the Code of Conduct.
What the President didn’t understand was that McCain didn’t give up; being captured was a victory in that particular situation. McCain stayed alive for over five years and, when given the option to leave, he refused if he couldn’t take his men with him.
True surrender is multifaceted — it’s not merely a loss. It took more bravery and strength than Trump can comprehend for McCain to make that choice to remain in a Viet Cong prison camp.
The second indisputable truth is that surrender can be strategic. Even the countries most destined for — and most deserving of — defeat can squeeze something out of the deal.
In the aftermath of WWII, analysts at the RAND Corporation found that even Germany’s surrender was not entirely unconditional; they still had a few chips left to play. The selective surrender of certain parts of the country still conferred some political advantage as the war wound to a close.
Considering that the president considers himself an artist of sorts when it comes to deal making, one would expect him to attempt to secure favorable terms of surrender, even if this proves impossible with Biden as the victor, since Trump doesn’t have much leverage in cutting such a deal.
But the most important point is that Trump seems incapable of acknowledging a basic fact about surrender: there are in fact some times when it’s the honorable and responsible thing to do.
For example, leaders may surrender when it would save the lives of the people in their charge, who can no longer resist. One might think of the Japanese conceding after Hiroshima and Nagasaki when nuclear bombs incinerated those cities. Despite public opposition to it, Emperor Hirohito offered unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces to “pave the way to a grand peace for all the generations.”
Even battles that have been valiantly fought have had to end in surrender. Consider the French Foreign Legion in Mexico in 1863. They were outnumbered 33 to 1 and still managed to slay about 600 Mexican troops, an unheard-of feat. When only two French soldiers remained, they surrendered, provided they had safe passage back to France and the wounded among their men would also be treated and returned.
Trump’s order to White House staff that anyone who was caught looking for a job would be fired might have been defensible at the outset, when he couldn’t have his men and women giving up before he himself officially relented. But now that he’s lost more than 30 court battles, it’s in their best interest to let them go. Surrender in this case is probably their best option.
The contrast between the election fight and Trump’s personal life is curiously stark. Unyielding in his public refusal to concede defeat, he’s been more pragmatic in private. He has filed for bankruptcy more than once. He’s been divorced twice. And he apparently conceded a prenup renegotiation to Melania before she committed to moving into the White House.
Our current Commander in Chief is familiar with the towel, and how to toss it. So far, he just won’t.
Kelsey Baker is a former Marine who deployed to Kuwait and to Iraq. She holds a M.A. in diplomacy, with a concentration in international terrorism.