Military Leaders Have an Extraordinary Choice to Make as the Nation Protests

Military Leaders Have an Extraordinary Choice to Make as the Nation Protests

Military Leaders Have an Extraordinary Choice to Make as the Nation Protests

Officers swear an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. Trump’s threat to deploy the military domestically challenges that.


Modern warfare runs on PowerPoint. Even those in the military who roll their eyes at slides demand them, because their bosses demand them, as do their bosses above them. As an intelligence officer deployed abroad with special operations units, I was grudgingly responsible for more than my share of PowerPoint slides, always depicting in grainy imagery and bulleted text the situation on the ground in some remote village or compound somewhere. That’s how we understood places like Afghanistan: in pictures copied and pasted from Google Earth and finicky text boxes that never quite aligned with each other.

Which is to say, of course, that many of us had little understanding at all.

I thought of those slides when I saw their facsimiles in this magazine on Saturday, in a report that the military was producing intelligence reports on the protest movements in at least seven states. The slides, leaked to The Nation by a Defense Department official concerned that soldiers were ill-prepared for the task at hand, looked much like the ones I used in Afghanistan and later East Africa. Replace words like “Kabul” and “Baraawe” with “Louisville,” my hometown, and “Columbus.”

When Trump stood in the Rose Garden Monday evening and threatened to deploy the US military into American cities—if governors, whom he called “weak,” refused to crack down—National Guardsmen were already deployed in the nation’s capital, clad in mismatched camouflage and gripping clumsy wooden batons. It was a frightening scene, tempered slightly for me by the fact that I have known many of the young men and women behind the uniforms and felt certain that most would rather be home playing video games. More terrifying, as police helicopters traced circles over Washington, D.C., where I live, was the image of active-duty troops convoying into the streets and all the misunderstandings, miscalculations, and tragedy that could follow.

Social media erupted with speculation in response to Trump’s remarks: Could he do that? Many suggested the Posse Comitatus Act forbids it. It does, in fact, not.

Posse Comitatus—passed originally in 1872, ending the Army’s occupation of formerly Confederate Southern states—does limit domestic use of federal troops. But the Insurrection Act of 1807 provides a workaround, authorizing the president to employ federal troops to suppress “rebellion” and leaving him significant discretion to determine the circumstances under which this would be necessary. The Insurrection Act was last invoked in 1992 by George H.W. Bush, when Army and Marine units were deployed to Los Angeles at the request of California’s then-Governor Pete Wilson to help quell the Rodney King riots. Nobody was killed as a result of their deployment—but Marines did unload over 200 M-16 rounds into a family home in Compton, thanks to a minor miscommunication with police, despite strict conditions governing the Marines’ use of force.

It should go without saying that just because a president can use the military doesn’t mean he should. Knowing this president, it’s unlikely he’ll hesitate to further escalate. And so, it falls to those beneath him to make their own decisions to obey or defy Trump.

In the United States, when military officers are commissioned, they take different oaths than enlisted men and women. Whereas enlisted servicemembers swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me,” officers swear their oath only to the Constitution. Though all military members may disobey unlawful orders, the idea is that officers are not only empowered but obligated to refuse them.

A significant body of military thinking goes farther to say that officers should also disobey unjust or immoral orders. (That is, an order may be both lawful and unjust or immoral.) The oath, however, does not specify where the line falls; officers must judge for themselves.

As a young officer, fresh out of Navy ROTC classes that encouraged reflection on this question, I often wondered if a moment would one day arrive when my conscience might obligate me to say “no.” But overwhelmingly I found myself in the company of senior officers whom I liked and trusted to lead my peers and me in the right direction—and perhaps to shield us from political tumult higher in the chain of command.

The moral decision may seem simple on paper. Less so, if you consider that a lost job for many service members could mean missed meals for their families, or that a court-martial or dishonorable discharge could carry lasting stigma. But if ever there were a time to contemplate the personal sacrifices that disobeying orders might entail, it is now, when the very identities of America and the military that serves it are at question.

Any logical conversation about “just” use of force, laying aside the facts on the ground, might begin with these questions: Is it necessary and proportional, and have all nonviolent options been exhausted? In this case, the president has not even attempted peaceful reconciliation, so we cannot know if force is necessary. For this reason, it was grotesque to watch Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, walk alongside the president yesterday after peaceful protesters were beaten back with tear gas to make way for a vainglorious photo op. The leaders’ presence suggested loudly that the military necessarily stands against the protesters who Trump so easily swatted out of his way. Perhaps they agreed with the president’s tactics. Perhaps they felt it wasn’t the right moment to challenge him. Either way, they were wrong. (To contrast, the Air Force’s senior-most enlisted leader offered an altogether more inspired take.)

I’ll suggest another reason disobedience might be warranted, which any military officer with more than a decade of service under their belt should understand well: flawed and politically motivated intelligence.

Throughout the weekend, as cities all over the country grappled with unrest, Trump varyingly blamed, in sporadic tweets from the White House bunker, “THUGS,” “ANTIFA,” and the “radical left.” Yesterday, he labeled the protests and their accompanying violence “domestic terror.” But even a glancing review of the past days’ events belies these claims. In fact, the majority of protesters have been peaceful, with no part in the looting that unfortunately dominates media coverage and the national conversation. Credible reports also suggest that right-wing instigators are to blame for some of the violence—when the cops aren’t attacking first. For anyone willing to see it, it is clear that the federal government has no idea what’s going on in America’s streets—or, just as likely, that the men in charge are unwilling to see it.

Flawed intelligence means a flawed view of the “battlespace,” as Esper described America over the weekend. And already, this moment finds a military woefully disconnected from the public it serves. (“We’re at war while America is at the mall,” the saying goes of the civilian-military divide that enables forever wars abroad.) But American servicemen and women are not separate from the public. They are part of it.

That is to say that today’s military is not made for the streets of America, if the American military ever has been. It is a military with PowerPoints and scant training in dynamic domestic environments—and therefore a force, possibly, with little understanding at all.

That is not to the military’s discredit; I left the military in 2017 and have deep respect for many of the men and women I met along the way. It is to say instead that every officer in between the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the lowest private who might be called up to serve in America’s streets has a grave decision on their hands should the president point them at the American people. Disobedience doesn’t have to mean wholly refusing to show up; it works in smaller acts of resistance, too: insisting on de-escalation over escalation, for instance, even when police fail to do the same. But then, there’s no manual for military disobedience.

The greatest responsibility, of course, sits with senior leaders. Esper and Milley seem unlikely to rise to the occasion, so the cadre of leaders beneath them, the general staff that collectively might have the power to halt an order as soon as it is uttered, must find the courage to draw the line. It’s one thing to be fired after 30-some years of service, another to be fired in your 20s. But regardless of rank and no matter the consequences, officers in want of a reason to refuse the president in this historic moment needn’t look further than the false narratives justifying their mobilization.

I often heard in the Navy a truism that the military is best when it reflects the country it serves. The words were two sides of a coin: cause for celebration when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, for example, and cause for shame in observing the persistent lack of diversity in the upper ranks. The military is not perfect, and neither is America. But when the order is given by this president to deploy to our cities, leaders will have a clear choice. Will they reflect the real and diverse and grieving America, or something else?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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