A small fraction of a large number can be a significant number. So, although the fact that there are a significant number of ninnies among the 329 million people in this country is embarrassing, it is not surprising. What is puzzling is that specimens such as Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have reached positions of considerable responsibility in today’s government.

It might be a fact of today’s political physics that these two have floated upward because they are lighter than air. That, however, is an insufficient explanation of their eminence. Neither is it satisfactory to merely note that such people can be expected to be found in high offices when the dispenser of offices, civilian and military, probably would explicitly reject basic civic norms if he knew they existed.

They will not exist for long if the nation does not recoil against an administration that includes a defense secretary who refers to this Republic as a “battlespace.” And also includes a four-star Army general who reports to the Oval Office in combat fatigues, dressed appropriately for an evening of police and military engagements that involved clearing a public park of peaceful demonstrators, and intimidating protesters elsewhere. The purpose of the clearing, achieved with flash-bang grenades and chemicals, was to enable the Bible-brandishing commander in chief to stand in front of a church for the purpose of stroking the portion of his political base that is composed of Evangelical Christians who relish rendering their souls unto this particular Caesar. Unfurl the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

On Tuesday, Esper’s evolving explanation was that he did not know details about the event his commander was conscripting him into. Monday night’s Battle of Lafayette Square, which took place in a traditional venue of protests, and operations elsewhere in Washington, were inglorious engagements for the U.S. military, comparable to the events of July 28, 1932. President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to disperse the members of the self-named Bonus Expeditionary Force, generally remembered as the Bonus Army or Bonus March, which at one point that sweltering summer numbered approximately 20,000.

It was made up of World War I veterans drawn to Washington to exhort Congress to pass bonuses for veterans. They were encamped in a sprawling jumble of tents and shanties on the Anacostia River south of Washington.

After the House narrowly passed but the Senate overwhelmingly rejected the bonus legislation, many marchers began to leave Washington. Hoover’s soon-to-be-successor, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, offered to pay for train tickets home for New York marchers.

But Hoover was reeling toward paranoia under the pressure of the Depression, the worst economic calamity in U.S. history until the one that has today’s president floundering. Hoover ordered the dispersal of the remaining marchers.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Army chief of staff, who had been sniffing what he considered the stench of revolution, suspected there were more communists than real veterans. (Arthur Herman, in his 2016 biography, “Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior,” writes: “No one doubts today that the Bonus March was a spontaneous, unplanned movement born of frustration and — in many cases — desperation.”) MacArthur had ordered tanks brought from Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground and had alerted mounted cavalry under the command of Col. George S. Patton.

When MacArthur decided to witness the operation, one member of his staff warned him, unsuccessfully, that this would be “highly inappropriate.” So spoke Major Dwight D. Eisenhower.

MacArthur changed from his summer suit into, Herman writes, a uniform that his Filipino valet fetched, the one that MacArthur’s “mother usually picked out for formal occasions and dinners, and decorated with every ribbon and medal, including his marksmanship badges,” with “breeches and gleaming riding boots and spurs.” Herman says, “Mac put it on without thinking twice.”

The cavalry came down Pennsylvania Avenue with drawn sabers, the infantry threw tear-gas grenades, D.C. police pitched in, and the mission was accomplished. Sometimes it does seem that history is not one damn thing after another, it is the same damn thing over and over.

Monday’s military and police engagements in downtown Washington were in the service of the president’s promise to “dominate” protesters. It is perhaps a mistake to be angry at Esper or Milley, or, for that matter, at the officers who ordered military helicopters to hover menacingly at rooftop level to intimidate protesters exercising a First Amendment right in proximity to monuments commemorating those who founded and preserved this Republic. The military officers involved, like their civilian leaders, have all been promoted to the level of their incompetence.

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