I imagine that these are difficult days to be a professional soldier serving in the armed forces of the United States. As a long-ago soldier myself, I hope they are.
That is, for the sake of our republic and for the military professional ethic, I hope that members of the officer corps are deeply troubled by the apparent willingness of the Trump administration and Trump’s acolytes in Congress to insert US military regulars into situations where they don’t belong.
President Trump has put our troops in a terrible bind. Their highest obligation is to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Yet they are also sworn to obey the orders of their commander in chief. Trump appears intent on forcing our men and women in uniform to choose one or the other: Do as I say, or honor the Constitution. This is both deeply unfair and profoundly dangerous.
More disturbing still, neither the defense secretary nor chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appears to grasp the predicament in which the troops are being placed. Or, if they understand it, they have chosen to become complicit in the problem. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the JCS chairman, show every sign of indulging President Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for employing regulars to impose order in American cities, even if that means, in effect, waging war against American citizens.
Sounding more like a field marshal than the civilian charged with presiding over the Pentagon, Esper has opined that “the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates.” The “battlespace” in which Esper proposes to “mass” US forces consists of neighborhoods where Americans live. Why the defense secretary feels called upon to make such pronouncements remains a mystery. Commanding troops in the field does not fall within his statutory mandate.
Yet, truth be told, Esper’s inflammatory and more than slightly idiosyncratic views on this matter are not of any particular interest. Defense secretaries come and go, and few of them leave a lasting mark. The memorable ones, like Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, are remembered chiefly as architects of disaster. Whether Esper is a knave or a fool remains a matter of dispute. Already by June 3, he was sounding a less belligerent note, arguing for the commitment of US troops only as a “last resort.” Whatever Esper’s actual views, it’s a safe bet that when he leaves office, no doubt returning to the upper echelons of the military-industrial complex from whence he came, he will be instantly forgotten.
As defense secretary, Esper does at least have this excuse: He is a political appointee. In that sense, his supine attitude toward the president, something of a signature in the age of Trump, is hardly surprising. In contrast, senior military officers are not political appointees. They are expected to be above politics. For this reason, the outrageously unprofessional misconduct of General Milley is far more troubling.
Now, permit me to stipulate that anyone with a functioning moral compass will find working for Trump to be a challenge. The president appears to consider himself a sort of omnipotent god-emperor unbound by law or precedent or even human decency. That said, no one forced Milley to accept the appointment as JCS chairman. He had to have had at least some inkling of what he was signing on to.
So when Milley learned that Trump had “put him in charge” of suppressing dissent in American streets, he should have heard alarm bells going off. During that subsequently leaked June 1 phone call with state governors, Trump had touted Milley as “a fighter, a warrior, and a lot of victories and no losses.” Neither germane nor accurate (what victories?), Trump’s characterization of Milley further signaled that something was fundamentally amiss: No longer a senior military adviser to the president, Milley was becoming, at least in Trump’s eyes, an instrument of presidentially ordered coercion targeting US citizens. Not only was Trump engaged in traducing the American tradition of a studiously apolitical officer corps; he was also recruiting the US military’s top-ranking officer as a co-conspirator.
Wittingly or not, Milley had become an accomplice in subverting the profession that was his life’s calling. Did he understand the dangerous waters into which he was being lured? Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps not.
Yet, later that same day, Milley’s conscious complicity became evident to all. Outfitted in battle dress, the rotund general accompanied the equally rotund commander in chief on Trump’s infamous Bible-toting photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House. By participating in this blasphemous stunt, Milley not only disgraced his XL-sized uniform but also crossed an important line: Faced with the choice of adhering to professional standards or of publicly joining the bulging ranks of presidential lackeys, he chose the latter.
Together, Trump and Milley have brought the nation precariously close to a Bonus March moment, which ought to give pause to anyone who cares about the integrity of the armed forces. The Bonus Marchers were destitute veterans of World War I who in 1932 descended in droves on the capital, hoping to persuade Congress to advance the payment date on bonuses scheduled for disbursement in 1945. The Great Depression persuaded veterans that they ought to receive the money now, not later. When President Herbert Hoover and the Congress disagreed, some 10,000 Bonus Marchers and family members stayed on, establishing an encampment alongside the Anacostia River.
While peaceful, they were not peaceful enough for the president. Persuaded that a Bolshevik-inspired insurrection was brewing, a panicked Hoover ordered regular army units stationed near Washington to suppress the uprising before it could materialize. Under the personal direction of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the army did just that, employing tanks and tear gas and putting the torch to the “Hooverville” that the Bonus Marchers had erected. The “Battle of Anacostia Flats” thereby ended in a decisive victory. It also badly sullied the reputation of the United States Army.
With General Milley playing a less svelte version of MacArthur, the “Battle of Lafayette Square”—the use of force to clear the way for Trump to visit St. John’s Episcopal—replayed that supposed victory from 1932. Thus has Marx’s dictum of history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce received further affirmation.
Yet the preposterously farcical nature of this episode—Trump striding across Lafayette Square to display sacred scriptures with which he is demonstrably unfamiliar—should not detract attention from the seriousness of the context in which this event unfolded.
Trump and his latest favorite general have collaborated in instigating a crisis in civil-military relations, now piled on top of several other ongoing crises. The origins of the others, involving race relations, the economy, and public health, are complex. The civil-military crisis differs in that Milley himself could easily have averted it.
Granted, doing so would have required demonstrating some backbone. “No, Mr. President, we don’t do that. With all due respect, sir, I won’t do that.” Uttering those words might have cost Milley his job. But he would have preserved his professional reputation, which has now been obliterated.
To their credit, some retired senior officers have spoken up to denounce the way that Trump, with Milley as his uniformed sycophant, is dragging the US military into matters where it has no place. Among those registering their dissent is former JCS chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, a most honorable officer. In words that Milley ought to have directed to Trump, Dempsey has written, “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.” As befits a distinguished former Marine, Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, was notably blunt, charging the sitting president with making “a mockery of our Constitution.”
Yet inside the Beltway, retired senior officers—too many of them preoccupied with monetizing their military careers—retain minimal influence. My guess is that General Milley doesn’t much care what Dempsey or Mattis have to say. It’s certain that their views carry no weight whatsoever with Trump.
The problem Milley has created by allowing himself to become a presidential stooge is one that Milley himself and his fellow four-stars can resolve. Taking responsibility for his mistakes, Milley could—and should—resign from his office and retire. Granted, little in Milley’s prior conduct suggests that he possesses the moral fiber needed to take that self-sacrificing step.
Alternatively, Milley’s colleagues on the Joint Chiefs can render his continued service as JCS chairman untenable. They can do this making it clear—first privately and then, if need be, publicly—that they have lost confidence in his leadership. Again, sadly, this is unlikely to happen. The stewards of the military profession are not known for policing their own ranks.
One day, in the not so distant future, military students attending staff colleges may well read about Milley as a case study of a senior officer failing in his responsibilities, at best through cravenness and at worst through sheer cowardice. That would at least be something. Yet, as a practical matter, the best we can hope for in the near term is that when Milley’s two-year appointment expires in September 2021, the Senate will choose not to renew his contract. While this would constitute no more than a minor rebuke, it would be better than ignoring his failings altogether. The message to the officer corps would be salutary.
For the moment, however, let us concede that Milley will likely retain his place within Trump’s retinue of loyal apparatchiks. Of course, for Trump, loyalty only goes one way. General Milley would do well to keep his bags packed.