President Trump has made little effort to mask his contempt for the norms guiding the relationship between military and society in the United States, leaving a long trail of events that have risked politicizing the military’s ranks and damaging the relationship between the military and society. As protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd and racial injustice continue, the Trump administration’s alarming choices concerning the military pose the biggest threat to the institution’s standing among the public since the Vietnam War. A war does not exist between our military and American citizens, and the Trump administration should stop attempting to manufacture one.
Consider several previous attempts by Trump to exploit the military for blatantly political purposes. Trump — who has incorrectly boasted of “my generals and my military” — started his term on the wrong foot, using a Pentagon setting dedicated to Medal of Honor recipients to sign a highly controversial immigration-related executive order. He has brazenly pushed domestic messages unrelated to the military while speaking to service members. In a striking political stunt leading up to the 2018 midterm election, Trump deployed thousands of active-duty service members to the U.S.-Mexico border to address a group of migrants who posed no national security threat.
But the Trump administration’s choices in response to the protests have politicized the military in a way that dangerously pits it against American communities, inflaming the current racial injustice crisis and severely jeopardizing the military’s relationship with society. Even though active-duty military units have left the Washington, D.C., area (and National Guard troops from other states are withdrawing), Trump may have already done significant damage. He suggested shooting U.S. citizens and threatened that if state and city officials didn’t put down protests to his satisfaction, he would “deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper echoed Trump’s call for governors to use military elements to “dominate” American communities, which Esper referred to as a “battle space.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, whom Trump claimed to put “in charge” of the response to protests, became the visible face of the protest response effort last week, appearing in his camouflage uniform in the Rose Garden and then parading with Trump and Esper through Lafayette Square, which police had just aggressively cleared of peaceful protesters, on the way to their photo op in front of St. John’s Church. Esper has since vacillated between admirably making public his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act to send active-duty forces to America’s streets for law enforcement purposes and expressing regret for his “battle space” comment and seemingly bending to Trump’s apparent intent.
Both Esper and Milley reportedly confronted Trump over the prospect of deploying active-duty forces throughout the country. But it might be too late. They did not just allow Trump to smash through civil-military norms; Trump made them accessories to his misdeeds. The military risks becoming the lasting image of Trump’s response to protests in service of his narrow, divisive political interests. This should never be the case. The active-duty military — a professional and nonpartisan institution — has earned an esteemed place in society, with a remarkably high level of public trust. But the Trump administration’s rhetoric and decisions could squander that good will.
Of course, it remains to be seen how Trump will respond to continued protests. (He tweeted on Sunday that the District was in “perfect control,” thus allowing him to agree to D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s demand he withdraw Guard units from outside D.C.) Though the threat of active-duty deployments seems to have abated for now, the White House stated as recently as Thursday that “all options are on the table.” Any such deployments would only further inflame tensions at a time when law enforcement elements — often overly militarized in equipment and disposition — have already been seen targeting journalists and using heavy-handed tactics with peaceful protesters. In addition, while military professionals are highly competent and trained to not follow illegal orders, the unfamiliar law enforcement setting carries a high risk of mistakes. If anything were to go wrong — for instance, soldiers harming journalists or protesters — it would resemble regrettable events such as the 1970 Kent State massacre by Ohio National Guard troops and damage the military’s reputation in society even more.
The lingering threat of active-duty deployments to address protesters, the warlike rhetoric that the Trump administration has peddled and the broken civil-military norms sear a troubling imprint on the minds of American citizens across the country — as well as allies and adversaries alike around the world. Americans are wary of deploying the military to police cities for good reason. Indeed, the image of soldiers controlling America’s streets and engaging in law enforcement activity is evocative of the conduct of authoritarian countries from whom the United States takes pride in maintaining a distinction. Human rights abusers worldwide — traditionally admonished by the United States — must be reveling in America’s eroded credibility.
National Guard participation in response efforts, directed by governors, may be appropriate. To be sure, the active-duty military has, at times, been used domestically in positive ways. For example, it was dispatched to protect civil rights — including when President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent members of the 101st Airborne Division to guard the Little Rock Nine. But here, the context would be quite different — using the military to intimidate or disperse peaceful protesters who are calling attention to racial injustice is not the same as using it to safeguard minorities whose civil rights and safety are threatened. Nonetheless, this current civil-military crisis demonstrates that, as part of the changes needed as we repair our country, Congress ought to treat as a priority a correction of the vast authorities that the Insurrection Act affords to the president.
Given the cumulative effect of Trump’s damage to civil-military relations and the pronounced nature of this particular episode, it should come as no surprise that these most recent attempts to associate our military with incendiary policies have occasioned sharp rebukes from prominent veterans and civil society. Former defense secretaries William Perry, William Cohen, Ashton B. Carter, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, and Jim Mattis, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, Adm. (Ret.) Michael Mullen and Gen. (Ret.) Martin Dempsey and many others have raised their voices.
Nor have active-duty military leaders been quiet, despite direction from the White House to remain silent. We shouldn’t want an active-duty military leadership that sits in judgment of the political choices of their elected civilian superiors, nor does our military want that role. It would be a danger in a system with a military that has as influential a policymaking role as does ours. But military leaders have found ways to emphasize they take their oath to the Constitution, not to the president, and also to speak to the issues of racism and police brutality. Perhaps most impressively, the chief master sergeant of the Air Force, Kaleth Wright, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein have both individually and together modeled leadership and integrity unseen at higher echelons in the Department of Defense or from Trump.
The turmoil in the Trump administration — between the president and the secretary of defense, and concurrently, his former secretary of defense — is emblematic of the fraught relationships Trump has with those who have dared to challenge his darkest instincts. This time, beset with yet another crisis, Trump’s leadership failure has created a void that he has attempted to fill with military posturing, jarring combat-related language and a narrative of a war between active-duty soldiers and the citizens they serve. This, of course, is a distraction from the real issues in society, including racial injustice, that demand attention. And it is a diversion that could prove catastrophic — for the military, for society and for American norms and credibility.