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In the name of military grunts everywhere, save Stars and Stripes

Nothing obvious explains why the Pentagon, in a memo revealed on Friday, has ordered that the storied military newspaper be closed.

An American soldier in Vietnam, Pfc. Gerald House, reads Stars and Stripes in 1968.
AP

Why would President Donald Trump want to kill Stars and Stripes, the largely editorially independent military newspaper that has been publishing since the Civil War?

Maybe, we thought upon hearing the news on Friday, Stars and Stripes had recently published a specific news story or opinion piece that had riled the president, as news stories and opinion pieces tend to do with this thin-skinned man.

But early reports about Stars and Stripes’ possible demise point to no particular piece of offending journalism. Nothing so obvious would seem to explain why the Pentagon, in a recent memo revealed on Friday by a contributor to USA Today, has ordered the publishers of Stars and Stripes to present a plan that “dissolves” the newspaper by Sept. 15.

“The last newspaper publication (in all forms) will be September 30, 2020,” the memo’s author, Col. Paul Haverstick Jr., writes.

This is disturbing news for the military, a free press and, we don’t mind saying, the Chicago Sun-Times personally. We can only hope the Republican-controlled Senate, which oversees and approves the Pentagon’s budget, will act unnaturally — you know, stand up to Trump — and intercede.

For every grunt soldier

For a century and a half, Stars and Stripes has been a constant reminder to every American service member posted anywhere in the world as to why they wear the uniform — because they serve the “land of the free,” where even soldiers in battle can get the news and say their piece.

As the USA Today contributor, Kathy Kiely, wrote, Stars and Stripes’ “independence from the Pentagon brass has been guaranteed by such distinguished military leaders at Gens. John G. Pershing, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower once reprimanded Gen. George Patton for trying to censor Mauldin cartoons he didn’t like.”

The Mauldin reference there is to Bill Mauldin, one of the great newspaper cartoonists of all time. Mauldin, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, got his start with Stars and Stripes, drawing cartoons from the perspective of the ordinary enlisted service member, much as the celebrated journalist Ernie Pyle did in his dispatches from World War II battlefronts. This is personal for us because Mauldin was a colleague at the Sun-Times, much to our boasting pride, from 1962 until his retirement in 1991.

So what gives? Why is the Pentagon out to kill Stars and Stripes?

Attack on a free press

Our best guess is that this is a continuation of Trump’s more general desire to squelch anything resembling a free press. He is appalled by the very concept, threatening unconstitutional laws and executive orders to handcuff news organizations that criticize him.

This is the same president who has tried to hit back at the owner of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, by punishing Amazon, of which Bezos is chief executive. The Pentagon earlier this year passed over Amazon, for reasons that are entirely suspicious, for a $10 billion cloud computing contract.

Stars and Stripes’ unpardonable sin, from the Trump administration’s perspective, might have been telling the news straight on a whole bunch of issues. It is remarkable how often just doing that — reporting the news honestly — can make this president and his administration look bad.

On Friday, Stars and Stripes published a photo of caskets of the remains of seven Marines and a Navy sailor at a Marine Corps station in Miramar, California. The service members were killed in an amphibious vehicle mishap in July.

Trump’s Pentagon does not like photos of flag-draped caskets of soldiers. Wrong message. Doesn’t say “winning.” The Atlantic reported just the day before — on Thursday evening — that Trump has called soldiers who are captured or died in battle “losers” and “suckers.”

Another Stars and Stripes story on Friday quoted the top official at NATO, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, to the effect that the poisoning of a Russian dissident, Alexei Navalny, “demands an international response.”

Trump does not like stories that cast his pal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a negative light.

Yet another Stars and Stripes story on Friday reported that a “small number” of sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan have tested positive for COVID-19. The sailors were taken off the ship and treated, the newspaper reported, but the question remains as to how the virus managed to spread so freely onboard.

Trump really must hate that story, don’t you think? It suggests that this coronavirus thing is still a big deal, threatening American lives even aboard a U.S. military ship.

A tiny Pentagon cost

The news of the Pentagon’s decision to shut down Stars and Stripes — trimming the Pentagon’s $700 billion annual budget by a tiny $15.5 million — is just breaking and we’ll be learning more. Maybe there’s a more specific explanation, yet to be revealed, for the Pentagon’s decision to close a journalistic institution that has warmed and informed American military personnel since the days they answered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Or maybe the full story is right in front of our eyes, making it that much harder to believe, as so often is the case with Trump.

Trump just can’t handle the truth — nowhere, no place, no how.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.