The response on Monday evening went viral, with veterans and service members alike commenting on its rawness and candor. But it also was cast into stark relief as most senior military officials remained silent on Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis after being handcuffed and the nationwide protests that have followed.
At least twice in the past week, senior Trump administration officials in the Defense Department directed service chiefs to keep quiet on the issue, even though some expressed an interest in responding to a painful moment in the nation, said three defense officials with familiarity with the discussion.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper wanted to address the issue first. However, he did not do so until Tuesday night, more than a week later.
“I, like you, am steadfast in my belief that Americans who are frustrated, angry, and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity,” Esper wrote in a memo to U.S. troops. “And like you, I am committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting life and liberty, so the violent actions of a few do not undermine the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens.”
Esper asked service members to “stay apolitical in these turbulent days” — a theme he has stressed since becoming defense secretary. A senior defense official said before Esper’s memo was released that the Pentagon was considering how to address the issue.
“I think there is a question about how and when, and at what level, the department should weigh into what has become a highly charged emotional and political issue,” the senior official said.
The directive to the service chiefs to remain quiet came as President Trump increasingly reaches for the military as a tool of choice to quell unrest as its commander in chief and calls people involved in rioting “thugs.”
The Pentagon is also wrestling with questions about its own insensitivity, including a desire to keep numerous Army bases across southern states named after Confederate generals.
On Tuesday night, the Trump administration again dispatched National Guard troops across Washington to complement police. The military forces participated in the operation after law enforcement authorities deployed pepper spray and other nonlethal weapons against protesters outside the White House, and National Guard helicopters hovered in numerous locations at rooftop level, in an apparent attempt to disperse crowds with sustained, gusty rotor wash.
Wright’s series of tweets was posted shortly before authorities began dispersing crowds in Washington on Monday and Trump announced he was expanding the military’s role in the response. Wright first told the service’s top officer, Gen. David L. Goldfein, what he wanted to do, and Goldfein supported it, one defense official said.
The general also released a memo to commanders internally on Monday calling Floyd's death a “national tragedy” and stating that “every American should be outraged” by the police conduct demonstrated in the case.
Goldfein wrote that while “we all wish it were not possible for racism to occur in America,” commanders need to confront it, according to the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.
“As the Air Force’s leadership, we reflect on and acknowledge that what happens on America’s streets is also resident in our Air Force,” Goldfein wrote. “Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination, and unconscious bias.”
The Navy’s top enlisted sailor, Russell Smith, also addressed the unrest, writing in a message online that “the tragic headlines and subsequent turbulent events” affect “every citizen of our great Nation.”
“As Sailors, we cannot tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Smith wrote. “We must actively speak out and work to fight it, as it works against the very tenets of ‘team’ that make us successful in combat.”
A handful of other generals also have addressed the unrest, including Lt. Gen. James Slife, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command.
“I’m bothered by the events in Minneapolis and what it means about our society,” Slife wrote in a Facebook post on Friday. “And our Air Force is a reflection of our society, so, by extension, this is an Air Force issue. We’d be naive to think issues of institutional racism and unconscious bias don’t affect us. We can’t ignore it. We have to face it. And to face it, we have to talk about it.”
But the chiefs mostly had not. Asked why on Monday night, military officials either declined to comment or referred questions to the defense secretary’s office.
In a video released Tuesday night, Goldfein and Wright discuss the unrest, with Wright saying he worries whether he will be safe if he is pulled over by police and Goldfein sharing that he realized he “probably doesn’t completely understand.”
“I’ve been really outraged for not just the last week,” Wright said. “It drew up a lot of rage and a lot of anger from the past because I’ve just watched this over and over and over again.”
The posture stood in contrast to 2017, when each of the chiefs condemned violence and racism that was on display by white supremacists at a rally in Charlottesville while the Pentagon was run by former defense secretary Jim Mattis.
The Pentagon has struggled to reflect America’s diversity at its highest levels. While 43 percent of the military’s 1.3 million active-duty members are people of color, only two of the about 40 four-star officers are black.
Eric Flowers, a recently retired Army colonel, said that when the Pentagon doesn’t express outrage over something like the manner in which Floyd died, there “kind of is an unspoken message” to potential service members of color that they are not recognized.
“We miss an opportunity by not providing some type of solidarity through comments,” said Flowers, who is black. “We miss an opportunity when we do not reassert that this is not the America that we are asking people to fight for and support.”
Dana Pittard, a retired two-star Army general, said he doesn’t believe that the service chiefs will follow any unlawful orders in the response to the unrest. But he said he is not surprised to hear about political concerns among Defense Department appointees.
“I hate to use the term ultra-loyalist, but they’re appointees,” said Pittard, who is black. “They’re not going to stray very far from the president.”
Pittard said he wishes that Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had not participated in a photo opportunity Monday in which Trump visited St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is near the White House, after police dispersed the crowd with rubber bullets and other weapons. Milley, dressed in his camouflage uniform, and Esper were among the officials who walked with the president to the house of worship, which has been partially burned during protests.
“It was just a bad optic for the military to be there at all,” Pittard said.
Esper and Milley went with Trump to the church believing that they were going to see some of their troops, said a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. They did so afterward.
Kyle Bibby, a former Marine captain, said he has been disappointed by the silence of senior military officials after Floyd’s death, especially in light of reports of white nationalism in the military.
“Condemning racism and police brutality is not really a partisan issue, right?” said Bibby, who is black and now works on social-justice issues for Common Defense, a progressive veterans group.
“The generals and admirals, they can’t put their heads in the sand,” he said. “They’re leaders, and they’re responsible for one of the most important institutions in this country.”