Since the campus anti-Vietnam war disturbances of the 1960s and 70s, Republicans have pretty much owned the whole patriotic magilla, including support of our troops. In the last four years, that reputation has come in for a few lumps, what with a Republican president calling American war dead losers and suckers. We could only have expected that it might culminate in a Republican ad extolling Donald Trump’s love of the troops, but which contained among its images a Russian MiG-29 fighter aircraft.
The ad was hastily withdrawn amid the usual mini-uproar over Trump’s stupidity and draft-dodging, but it reinforced the impression that the president and his operatives, whatever their hyperbole about loving the military, are completely ignorant of it, and don’t even bother to perform due diligence when referencing the subject. But the fact that his cronies chose an image representing the military of an unfriendly power that Trump has been accused of sympathizing with above the interests of the country he leads is just one of those Kafkaesque coincidences that marks his presidency, right?
As if to prove that in the Trump era the wildest parody never matches real life, a tweet proclaiming his patriotism from the very opening stages of his presidential candidacy in 2015 also included an image to identify himself with the flag and the military. What did it contain? U.S. soldiers on patrol? Iconic images of the D-Day landing? Audie Murphy receiving the Medal of Honor?
"Since the days well before his presidency and right up to the present, Donald Trump’s operatives, like Michael Caputo, or Roger Stone, or Sebastian Gorka, very likely have known what they were doing and which audience they were signaling."
The image is blurry, but unmistakable: soldiers of Hitler’s Waffen-SS. The helmets appear superficially like U.S. Kevlar headgear, but are actually the German Stahlhelm. A blowup of the photo reveals that the figure on the left is wearing the distinctive “Erbsenmuster” spotted camouflage smock, worn only by the SS. (U.S. soldiers in World War II Europe did not wear camouflage jackets precisely to avoid being mistaken for the enemy; U.S marines in the Pacific wore spotted camouflage, but only on their helmets). Their slung rifles are Mauser 98ks, the standard German infantry rifle. On the left shoulders of the middle and right-hand figures can faintly be seen the eagle-and-swastika insignia peculiar to the SS. The German army wore such a symbol, but only over the left breast pocket of the uniform jacket.
Well, so what? It must have been a mistake. But was it? There must be thousands of stock photos of US soldiers on patrol. Why randomly choose this particular photo? And these days, U.S. infantry typically carry their rifles in a different manner when on patrol than the tweet depicted, as a Google image search of “US soldiers on patrol Afghanistan Iraq” will reveal. Since the days well before his presidency and right up to the present, Donald Trump’s operatives, like Michael Caputo, or Roger Stone, or Sebastian Gorka, very likely have known what they were doing and which audience they were signaling.
Why does this matter? I’ve said many times in the past that you might be surprised how often many a Republican, once he’s had two or three beers in congenial company, waxes nostalgic about the Führer. In the Trump era, a number of demonstrations, including the lethal one in Charlottesville, specifically included Nazi themes. I doubt any of this is a coincidence, which could explain why the president referred to the Charlottesville neo-Nazis as “very fine people.”
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There has been a lot of postwar whitewashing of the German army’s conduct in World War II, some of it due to the perceived need by the U.S. and Britain to rehabilitate Germany as a prospective NATO partner. This contributed to “the myth of the clean Wehrmacht”—that whatever the criminal deeds of Hitler and his henchmen, the German army fought professionally and maintained its honor.
Mountains of historical research have exploded this myth. But even during the Nuremberg Tribunal, when the Allies’ desire for retribution was at its height, the army was not indicted as a criminal organization. Generals such as Erich von Manstein, whose conduct in Russia left a lot to answer for, managed to escape the hangman’s rope (he lived to publish his exculpatory memoirs, conveniently available on Amazon ).
But no such extenuation, threadbare though it might be, extended to the Waffen-SS. The Nuremberg Tribunal, forgiving as it was to chameleons like Albert Speer, declared the SS in its entirety a criminal organization whose very purpose was to perpetrate mass murder. And to those who think that its bloody escapades only occurred on the Russian front, which somehow “doesn’t count,” a Waffen-SS unit under Colonel Joachim Peiper murdered nearly one hundred disarmed U.S. prisoners during the Battle of the Bulge.
Way back in 2010—it seems like an eternity ago—I took notice when the press reported that a Republican candidate for Congress from Ohio liked to spend his leisure time as a re-enactor in a make-believe military formation simulating a Waffen-SS unit, the 5th “Viking” panzer division. A division which, incidentally, committed atrocities against civilians.
The subject of military reenactments brings us back to the original photo from which the image in the Trump tweet had to be derived. It is a modern stock photo of a Waffen-SS reenactment. This picture is so sharp, and the details so clear, that it could not be mistaken for anything else.
Fast forward to 2020. At a time when GOP operatives are calling for armed insurrection if things don’t go their way, it should hardly be surprising that the Ohio candidate’s peculiar hobby and the “mistake” of an inexperienced presidential candidate should have become mainstream Republican belief.