Who in the Pentagon, or the leadership of the National Guard of the District of Columbia, thought this was a good look? Who thought what America needs now is a viral image of the American military in camouflage and body armor occupying a memorial that symbolizes the hope of reconciliation, that has drawn to its steps Marian Anderson to sing for a mixed-race crowd during a time of segregation and Martin Luther King to proclaim “I have a dream,” and millions of nameless souls, of all races, who believe there is some meaning in words like “the better angels of our nature”?

A photograph of members of the District’s National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial began racing around Twitter and other social media Tuesday, as the country was still digesting a violent assault by Secret Service, police and guard troops on peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday. The photo showed troops standing resolutely, perhaps provocatively, on the memorial’s wide and inviting steps, as if they owned it. To many, it symbolized the militarization of Washington, of our government and country, and the terrifying dissolution of old boundaries between partisan politics and the independent, professional military.

A spokesman for the D.C. National Guard, Senior Master Sgt. Craig Clapper, said the troops seen there were called in to protect the memorial after some minor damage over the weekend, and in response to potential new threats. The D.C. National Guard serves under the authority of the secretary of the Army, and the order to protect the memorial is ongoing. But despite earlier closure of the memorial and the appearance that it is being occupied by soldiers, said Clapper, the public still has access, and the soldiers were not carrying riot shields.

It was a chilling image nonetheless, and it speaks to the difficult position the military is now in, and how carefully it must think about the nuance and optics of its behavior.

Anyone who has photographed the Lincoln Memorial knows that it is hard to find a spot sufficiently distant to include the whole thing in the frame. That, in part, may explain some of the of ominous power of one of the images that circulated widely Wednesday, taken by Getty Images photographer Win McNamee.

That picture was taken from the side of the steps, such that the cornice and frieze of the memorial, emblazoned with the names of the states that Lincoln helped stitch back to political unity, plunge precipitously at an angle to the lower left of the frame. A soldier looms large in the foreground, his face covered by a mask, his eyes hidden by sunglasses, his thoughts and his humanity obscured by a carapace of military resolve and inscrutability.

Throughout the crisis of the past week, there have been images, scattered but reassuring, of National Guard troops and some law enforcement officers joining in expressions of common purpose with protesters, speaking respectfully, even taking a knee with people who have flocked to the streets to protest police brutality and George Floyd’s death under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. But there have been far more disturbing images, including a chaotic and violent assault on peaceful protesters, by police and Guard troops on Monday evening, an assault ordered before a curfew expired, to clear a public park with rubber bullets, smoke canisters and noxious chemicals so that the president could traverse it, with a Bible, for a photo op at a historic District church.

The image of troops arrayed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial only added to the sense of crisis and civil disintegration. No matter their intent and purpose, the D.C. Guard looked not like protecting sentinels, but possessive custodians. Ultimately, their orders came from the president, and so it is inevitable that many people will see their presence there not as protective, but aggressive, as if they are facing off with the city and its residents, whom they are meant to serve.

The District, which is not a state, has long been at the mercy of the federal government and opportunistic politicians, despite having no voting representatives in Congress. The guards, who were local troops, looked like outsiders, like a colonial force.

Given the volatility of the current moment, images like this suggest that a worrying trend — of the military being co-opted into partisan politics — is accelerating, from the president signing Make America Great Again hats on an Army base in Iraq, to last summer’s display of military hardware during a traditionally nonpartisan Fourth of July celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, to new concerns about Trump’s plans for another display of the military during a pandemic, this coming Independence Day.

The decision of Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to march with the president across Lafayette Square, which had been violently purged of peaceful demonstrators, and the participation of Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in a religious-themed photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church, is yet more worrisome.

The power of the image is also directly connected to the fraught power of the Lincoln Memorial, which is architecturally one of the most beautiful in the country. The meaning of this edifice is only partially articulated by the words of Lincoln, by Daniel Chester French’s statue of the 16th president — commanding in size, humble in posture — and by the complex symbolism of postwar reconciliation, which includes a military memorial to Ulysses S. Grant at one end of the Mall’s axis, an enormous military cemetery across the Potomac River, and Lincoln’s temple mediating between them.

The bulk of the memorial’s substance and content is about who goes there, the history of who has stood on its steps, facing the Capitol in the distance, and the obelisk devoted to George Washington, simultaneously the founder of the country, the American Cincinnatus and a slaveholder. The memorial is about the concerts and speeches and protests that have transpired there, about the continuing impulse of ordinary Americans to make it a pilgrimage site.

Thousands of peaceful protesters marched through Washington D.C. on June 2 as nationwide protests continued after George Floyd's death. (The Washington Post)

But one dark truth of the memorial, accidentally amplified by this image of soldiers on its steps, is: For many white Americans, it symbolizes a fantasy of society made whole by Lincoln, of a country that skipped from the trauma of civil war straight to the reconciliation and healing that was adumbrated but not achieved by him, nor any of his successors. I fight my own emotional reaction to this memorial, to YouTube videos of Anderson’s silvery contralto singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” as if the dream embodied in the lyrics, and sanctified in King’s great speech, weren’t just hopes — squandered, again and again — but reality.

Now we have an image that suggests that raw, naked power — old-guard, old-style, patriarchal military power — has taken possession of something that is already a fragile cultural symbol. To many people looking at this photograph, it seemed to say, “they own it,” not us, not we, not the people.

And that raises an even deeper fear, one that recalls memories of the National Guard at Kent State and atrocities committed by U.S. troops in its wars overseas, in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. It exacerbates a fear that Washingtonians feel keenly, as more troops pour in, military hardware rattles through the streets, helicopters shatter the calm of night, and as the president’s bellicose rhetoric continues to spew like a fire hose. It’s a simple fear, and a question every soldier, no matter his or her rank, must answer: If the president tells you to shoot us, will you do it?