Military leaders don’t like using troops for domestic purposes. It violates every rule they’re taught. You could see that wariness in the face of Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Monday night after President Trump told governors that he’d just put Milley “in charge” of cracking down on protesters.

Following Trump’s exhortation to the governors to “dominate” those in the streets, Trump walked across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he was photographed holding a Bible in an area that had just been cleared by police. Milley wasn’t in the group picture with Trump in front of the church. Like previous chairmen, he tries to keep the military out of such photo opportunities.

Then Milley did something unusual, which ought to reassure a nation whose nerves are badly frayed by a season of pandemic, police brutality and sometimes violent protest. In the lowering dusk, dressed in a baggy camouflage uniform, Milley separated himself from the president’s entourage to talk with some of the National Guard troops here. A television reporter asked what he would say to the demonstrators.

The White House video of Trump's visit to St. John's Episcopal Church in D.C. erases the violent attack on protesters by authorities that preceded it. (The Washington Post)

“Everybody’s got a right to protest,” Milley answered. The “First Amendment is sacrosanct. It’s a right of the American people to protest. But protest peacefully.” Amen to that.

Milley is a throwback to an earlier age of military leadership. He’s a beefy, sharp-tongued commander who looks more like a gruff master sergeant than a buffed four-star general. As the president’s chief military adviser, he has the delicate task of telling Trump things the president doesn’t want to hear, especially now, in a moment of turmoil and division.

The chairman’s advice this past week has been that, despite the fires raging in some cities, the situation doesn’t warrant federalizing the use of military force, according to several of Milley’s associates. Instead, Milley has argued, governors should continue to oversee the use of National Guard troops, where necessary.

“Gen. Milley is caught in a very difficult spot,” argues Jeffrey H. Smith, a West Point graduate who served as CIA general counsel. “If he stands up for what has been ingrained in him since he was commissioned, he risks being fired.” Hopefully, it won’t come to that. But Milley’s oath was to uphold the Constitution, and he’s not a man who would carry out illegal or improper orders.

Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, is the person who should check Trump’s desire to militarize the response to protests. But Esper’s approach has been low-key and, at least in public, deferential to the president.

Esper’s comments to the governors in Monday afternoon’s conference call seemed almost as inflammatory as Trump’s. After Trump had said of the protesters and looters, “These are terrorists. And they’re looking to do bad things to our country,” Esper said: “We need to dominate the battlespace.”

You could almost hear the groans of dismay from the corridors of the Pentagon. People in uniform want the defense secretary to protect the military from being drawn into political free-fire zones, not encourage it.

A senior Pentagon official said that Esper, like Milley, hopes to avoid calling out the troops. “We have the resources — local and national law enforcement and National Guard — to restore peace in these communities, without having to use active-duty forces. At this time, it’s not necessary,” the official said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is a close confidant of Trump’s, but he’s also a longtime lawyer in the Air Force Reserve who understands the military’s skittishness about domestic conflict. He explained in an interview Tuesday: “It’s in our DNA as a nation not to use the military for domestic purposes until we absolutely have to. . . . Countries that use their militaries for domestic law and order, those militaries are seen by the public as more an enemy than a friend.”

The military should be deployed under the Insurrection Act of 1807 only as a “last resort,” Graham said. “The best way to avoid that is to get control of the situation” using the authority of state governors.

The United States has been living a fever dream these past months. The pandemic has threatened our social cohesion, as well as our bodies. The brutality of George Floyd’s killing has shocked the consciences of citizens, black and white. And now our cities are burning, as people express their rage and frustration.

It may not feel that way, but the United States isn’t as hapless or pitiful as it sometimes seems these days. One reason is the power and professionalism of our armed forces. The military is a precious asset that can’t be squandered in a misguided effort to “dominate” public protest.

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