And I Hate Doing It
What It Means to Be an American Military Officer
I spent much of my adult life in the US Army. It is an institution I love and respect, and by extension, I feel the same about all the armed services and the civilians that support them. One of the things that has always been most meaningful to me is that every member of every armed force, no matter their rank, takes the same oath of allegiance. It is to the constitution. Not to the government, certainly not to the president, not even to the country. It is to the constitution and all it stands for as America’s potential.
As young officers, we were taught, and reinforced at every level through the years, that this is where our loyalty belongs. Officers were expected to refuse illegal or unconstitutional orders, even if doing so carried great personal cost. A military without such a code is trouble waiting to happen. On Monday night of this week, we saw what a failure to meet that code looked like, up close and at the highest echelon.
And Here We Are – Misusing our Troops
Let me be clear that calling out of the National Guard by state governors is a completely legitimate exercise of power and authority. From what I can ascertain, the many calls of this sort that went out this week made sense and helped stabilize dangerous situations. They also helped secure places for legitimate protest. One could even make the case, perhaps, for calling out the Guard to protect national sites like the Lincoln Memorial, which was vandalized earlier.
None of that bears any relation to what happened on Lafayette Square on Monday night. Peaceful demonstrators, who had every right to be in this place where protests always come, were forcibly removed. They had committed no crime, posed no threat, and were well inside the curfew timeline. But Donald Trump wanted a photo op and so his sorry excuse for an Attorney General organized a forcible removal of those citizens. That was bad enough.
What made it unbearable for me was to realize that military troops were used in this shameful operation and that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff not only signed off on this moral failure, he accompanied the president on his walk of shame. Almost in comic relief, the Chairman did so in combat fatigues, as though he was a field commander. To say I was heartsick at what I saw would be the understatement of all time.
A Betrayal of the Most Terrible Form
The relationship between the American military and its citizens is an essential element of our democracy. The rules and protocols we have developed over centuries were based on abuses by the British military during the American Revolution. Only in the most extreme and rare circumstances will American military might be deployed against our own citizens. We don’t do that, because the damage is so severe and the walk back so tenuous. Well, we didn’t used to do that. Until Monday night.
I felt something of a kinship with the current Chairman. He is an Army guy, which in my completely unbiased view is a good thing. We share common histories of service in some of America’s greatest military units, including the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 25th Division, and Special Forces. We both earned the Combat Infantryman Badge. So, to watch him betray his troops and his oath, as I feel he did Monday night, hurt on an almost personal level. We all had every right to expect better. I was ashamed that a senior solider would do that.
Time to Stand Up and Be Counted
I was pleased to hear that senior voices are – finally – speaking out. You have to understand how unnatural this is for senior American military officers. Don’t get into politics; don’t criticize civilian leaders. Period. This is why so many knew the danger but have not spoken out. But Trump has finally broken the mold. To not speak out now is to fail the nation.
Admiral Mike Mullen, one of the best Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ever (even if he was a Navy guy [joke] and the 4th choice for the job. There is an interesting story.) was quick to publicly condemn using troops in this way (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/american-cities-are-not-battlespaces/612553/ ).
So too has James Mattis, an almost revered former Marine 4 star general and former Secretary of Defense. (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/james-mattis-denounces-trump-protests-militarization/612640/) .
No less a prominent defense scholar than Eliot Cohen has called for our generals to stand up and speak out. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/crisis-civil-military-relations/612589/.
Even more sobering and thoughtful are the reflections of Robert Kagan, a man who understands the military perhaps better than anyone else not wearing a uniform. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-mark-milley-striding-behind-trump-through-lafayette-square-was-so-troubling/2020/06/02/81ef5388-a503-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html
It would take about 15 minutes to read the above 4 articles. Invest the time. This is about our survival as a democracy.
Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has already spoken out, as has Gen. Tony Thomas, the former head of the Special Operations Command. I am kind of wondering where the hell Colin Powell is now. His former Chief of Staff, COL Larry Wilkerson – a genuine American patriot and a national resource – has already spoken out. He mentioned how we as career officers often saw this kind of conduct in other countries. That it is happening here seems almost inconceivable. Take about 5 minutes to listen to what he has to say. This says it all. https://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/chris-hayes-trump-is-acting-like-a-bumbling-autocrat-not-a-democratic-leader-84269637534
Senator Tammy Duckworth has been the most articulate and powerful speaker among politicians on this. She surely has earned the right, as a combat injured veteran. She noted the Chairman had a distinguished service record, but soiled it irrevocably by walking behind Trump like a lap dog. Her presence this week reminds me why she keeps popping up on Vice President consideration lists.
There will be, must be, others to speak out. I never thought I would want senior military leaders to speak out in a political theater. Trump makes it essential that they do.
America Sends an SOS to Its Uniformed Leaders
Maybe it was fate, but when I was trying to sort out in my head and my heart what happened Monday night, I got Chinese take-out for dinner. Guess what my fortune cookie read? “Character matters; leadership descends from character.
Would that I could send that fortune cookie to every officer serving today. Ladies and Gentlemen, you have a new mission and your country needs you. Take a stand.
If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do two things:
(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here. If you wish to share COMMENTS anonymously, make the last word in your comment “PRIVATE.” I will assure your privacy via anonymity.
(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts (https://agentsofreason.com). Let’s grow our circle.