The Military (And Others) Respond

On Tuesday (June 2), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked with Donald Trump from the White House to St. John’s Church, where Trump posed for an awkward photo-op. To clear the way for Trump’s walk, law enforcement personnel used tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. Milley was dressed in a battle uniform. Esper later said that Trump had tricked him into the walk.

This opens a number of questions. One is the appropriate relationship between the civilian side of government and the military, including whether military personnel should allow themselves to be used for political purposes. Esper is not military, but he is the face of civilian primacy over the military.

Another is the arbitrary use of force against protesters, which overlaps with civilian-military issues as Trump and others, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, call for the military to be brought in to put down demonstrations.

The military are in a difficult position. They cannot be seen to resist civilian control. Even saying directly that Trump is wrong is a line that they do not want to cross. But they have taken an oath to the Constitution, not to the President of the United States, and not to any particular person holding that office.

Active military leaders are threading that needle by issuing statements that remind their service members of their oath to the Constitution. Retired military leaders are freer to speak but often cautious to preserve the civilian-military balance. Others associated with the military in some way are also speaking out. Politicians, on the other hand, have an obligation to speak out against offenses to democracy. The Republicans among them have been the most silent.

From his history in office, we can expect none of this to affect Donald Trump very much, although some of his actions in the past may have been modified somewhat by outside opinions. And most of the public will never see most of these statements. Their importance is that they give permission to others to speak out.

More statements appear every day. Republicans have enabled Trump through his presidency, specifically Republican senators. They are ultimately the ones who can make a difference in Trump’s behavior. They chose not to do so in the impeachment trial. Perhaps the military can remind them of their oath of office.

Here’s a list of those who have spoken out and a short excerpt from their statement. Task and Purpose has a nice list, which I’ve added to.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville

Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen. To Army leaders of all ranks, listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example. We are listening. And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday:

First right now, I think we need to listen. We have black Americans in our Navy and in our communities that are in deep pain right now. They are hurting. I’ve received emails, and I know it’s not a good situation. I know that for many of them, they may not have somebody to talk to. I ask you to consider reaching out, have a cup of coffee, have lunch, and just listen.

The second thing I would ask you to consider in the Navy we talk a lot about treating people with dignity and respect – in fact, we demand it. It’s one of the things that makes us a great Navy and one of the things that makes me so proud of all of you every single day. But over the past week, after we’ve watched what is going on, we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country. And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein:

Every American should be outraged that the conduct exhibited by police in Minneapolis can still happen in 2020. We all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America … but it does, and we are at a moment where we must confront what is.”

[W]hat happens on America’s streets is also resident in our Air Force … Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice.

We will not shy away from this … As leaders and as Airmen, we will own our part and confront it head on.

National Guard Bureau Chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel:

I am sickened by the death of George Floyd. I am horrified his six year old daughter will grow up without a father. And I am enraged that this story—of George Floyd, of Philando Castile, of Trayvon Martin, and too many others—keeps happening in our country, where unarmed men and women of color are the victims of police brutality and extrajudicial violence.

Everyone who wears the uniform of our country takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and everything for which it stands. If we are to fulfill our obligation as service members, as Americans, and as decent human beings, we have to take our oath seriously. We cannot tolerate racism, discrimination, or casual violence. We cannot abide divisiveness and hate. We cannot stand by and watch. We ask for the intercession of what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Join me.

Commander of the Pacific Air Forces Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley:

We all committed our lives to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper:

With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department. Racism is real in America and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it.

I say this not only as secretary of defense but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard: The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort – and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis:

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.

This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen

It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.

Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.

Retired Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis:

Our active duty military must remain above the fray of domestic politics, and the best way to do that is to keep that force focused on its rightful mission outside the United States. Our senior active duty military leaders must make that case forcefully and directly to national leadership, speaking truth to power in uncomfortable ways. They must do this at the risk of their career. I hope they will do so, and not allow the military to be dragged into the maelstrom that is ahead of us, and which will likely only accelerate between now and November. If they do not stand and deliver on this vital core value, I fear for the soul of our military and all of the attendant consequences. We cannot afford to have a future Lafayette Square end up looking like Tiananmen Square.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey:

America’s military, our sons and daughters, will place themselves at risk to protect their fellow citizens. Their job is unimaginably hard overseas; harder at home. Respect them, for they respect you. America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.

Former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller:

I cannot get out my mind the lack of emotion on the faces of the officers as Mr. Floyd said repeatedly, ‘I can’t breathe.’ And all this transpiring while others called out for the officers to let him up, though none physically intervened.

At the same time, it is with some understanding but again sadness I watch the destruction of neighborhoods in our Nation as demonstrators, most local citizens, but including some professional agitators, express their anger and frustration over another killing of a black man by police that, to the great majority of Americans it was clear, did not have to die. At the same time some violate the law by attacking police, looting and burning businesses in their communities, many of which are unlikely to return or rebuild. You are justifiably angry.

Former U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Raymond A. Thomas:

The “battle space” of America??? Not what America needs to hear…ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure…ie a Civil War…

Former U.S. Forces-Afghanistan commander Gen. John Allen:

The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.

Retired Navy Adm. William McRaven:

You’re not going to use, whether it is the military or the National Guard or law enforcement, to clear peaceful American citizens for the president of the United States to do a photo op. There is nothing morally right about that.

Within the administration, other generals and military leaders have spoken out both against racism and policy brutality and to reaffirm their commitment to upholding the constitutional rights of citizens regardless of their orders.

Former Commander of ROK-US Combined Forces Gen. Vincent K. Brooks

The recent actions by the President of the United States, in threatening the commitment of active duty troops for law enforcement if governors were not tough and did not “dominate the streets,” and in maneuvering the two most senior leaders of the U.S. military – the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – into a position that politicized them by their presence during a time of active demonstrating and contested crowd control, breached this sacred trust.

UPDATE: More than 280 former senior diplomats and military leaders

Many of us served across the globe, including in war zones, diplomats and military officers working side by side to advance American interests and values. We called out violations of human rights and the authoritarian regimes that deployed their military against their own citizens. We condemn all criminal acts against persons and property, but cannot agree that responding to these acts is beyond the capabilities of local and state authorities.

UPDATE: Another 89 Former Defense Officials

President Trump has given governors a stark choice: either end the protests that continue to demand equal justice under our laws, or expect that he will send active-duty military units into their states. While the Insurrection Act gives the president the legal authority to do so, this authority has been invoked only in the most extreme conditions when state or local authorities were overwhelmed and were unable to safeguard the rule of law. Historically, as Secretary Esper has pointed out, it has rightly been seen as a tool of last resort.

William Perry, Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton

I support the right of protesters to demonstrate peacefully, and deplore the suggestion that our military should be used to suppress them. The U.S. military is a powerful force that has served our nation well, in war and in peace. But it was never intended to be used against American citizens, and it was never intended to be used for partisan political purposes.

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly

Says he agrees with Mattis and “I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?”

US Ambassador to the UK, Robert Wood Johnson

Appointed by Trump. Issued a letter of support to those peacefully protesting in solidarity with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in the UK, expressing his grief over the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in May.

Robert Kagan, neoconservative historian at Brookings Institution

 Dictators rule by controlling the “power ministries”: the domestic police and intelligence services, foreign intelligence services, and armed forces. U.S. democracy has been sustained by a strong tradition of ensuring that the power ministries serve the Constitution and the broader interests of the American people, not the political and personal interests of the individual in the White House.

This has been a tradition, however, not an ironclad guarantee.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Alaska

“When I saw General Mattis’ comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up.” Although she says she is still “struggling” with whether to support Trump.

Senator Chuck Grassley, Iowa

Im placing holds on 2 Trump Admin noms until I get reasons 4firing 2 agency watchdogs as required by law. [From Twitter]

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

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