One by one, the U.S. military’s most senior leaders have publicly — and bluntly — repudiated the racist violence that plunged Charlottesville into chaos Saturday, declaring the nation’s armed forces as being unequivocally against hatred.
By midmorning Wednesday, the military’s four service chiefs had issued firm, forceful statements that stand apart from remarks made by President Trump, who faces deepening criticism for his repeated attempts to evenly distribute blame for clashes between white nationalists and the anti-fascist protesters who showed up to oppose them. One woman died and 19 were injured when a car, which police said was driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, slammed into people demonstrating along a crowded, narrow street near the University of Virginia.
The military’s first reaction came from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, who on Saturday night issued a news release calling the bloodshed in Charlottesville “shameful.” The Navy, he added, must be “the safest possible place — a team as strong and tough as we can be, saving violence only for our enemies.”
Top officers from the Army and the Marines have made similarly sharp statements. Both services face scrutiny after it was discovered that two men with military ties were connected to the mayhem that engulfed Charlottesville.
Fields, who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, was recruited by the Army and sent to basic training in August 2015. He was dumped from the service after four months for failing to meet the service’s standards, Army officials say.
It was later revealed that a Marine Corps veteran, Dillon Ulysses Hopper, is the leader of Vanguard America, an organization of self-proclaimed fascists, whose members were present at Charlottesville. There was some question as to whether Fields belonged to Vanguard America, as he was seen in photographs from the rally standing among its members and wearing similar clothing. The group has denied that he is a member.
In a tweet posted early Wednesday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said racist hatred runs counter to the military’s values.
Milley’s counterpart in the Marines, Gen. Robert Neller, offered a similar rebuke Tuesday night. Neller’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Eric Dent, told The Washington Post that as the top Marine, Neller felt compelled to reaffirm “who we are and what we stand for.”
“It was not,” Dent said via email, “meant as a stab at the president.”
On Wednesday, the Air Force’s chief, Gen. David Goldfein, said via Twitter that he is of like mind.
A statement soon followed from the National Guard’s chief, Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel.
The military’s top general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., has so far not weighed in publicly, his spokesman said. Dunford is in China as part of the administration’s effort to box in North Korea as punishment for its nuclear provocations.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Monday that he was “very saddened” by what unfolded in Charlottesville. He was asked about Fields and how the young man’s apparent racist sympathies could have gone undetected by military recruiters.
Mattis declined to say much.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “you know we don’t sign people up for four-month tours of duty. So once the full reality is out, I’m sure you’ll have an explanation how he came in and out.”
This flurry of activity prompted some observers to question whether the Pentagon aimed to create distance between the service chiefs and the commander in chief, whose response to Charlottesville has been met with confusion and frustration outside and inside the White House.
Loren DeJonge Schulman, with the bipartisan Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, offered a more-nuanced assessment, saying the generals’ intent was first and foremost to remind the force of policy and ethics.
“They are messaging the men and women who serve under them about morally repugnant conduct” that violates military law, Schulman told The Post. “They are reminding them that the military does not shift according to the low conduct and rants of politicians.” And to the extent the service chiefs realize they’re also messaging the president, she said that “they are probably reminding Trump of that, as well.”