It was just over three years ago that Politico published "The Generals Guarding American Democracy: It Has Fallen to Military Men to Keep Our Institutions Safe."
A little more than a month into his presidency, a fundamental shift in civil-military relations is taking hold. Rather than civilian leaders checking military power, it is now military leaders, who represent one of the strongest checks against the overreach of a civilian executive.
Take President Trump’s comments on Thursday, in which he said the deportations of undocumented immigrants would be a “military operation.” Several hours later, the retired Marine general who serves as his secretary of homeland Security, John Kelly, spoke to the press. There would be, “No, I repeat no, use of military forces in immigration operations,” Secretary Kelly said. The White House later said, rather unconvincingly, that the president was merely using the word “military” as an “adjective.”Enter McRaven.
Retired Adm. William McRaven, leveled his own critique of Donald Trump’s leadership this week. McRaven, speaking at the University of Texas, where he now serves as chancellor, commented on the president’s recent vilification of the media. “We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people,” McRaven said, according to the Daily Texan. “This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”This was a matter that had been weighing on my mind since Trump's inauguration. I had doubts about the integrity of America's general staff. There had been incidents. Stan McChrystal's smear of Obama for which he lost his command of American forces in Afghanistan was one. Then there was Jerry Boykin, a highly decorated army general who addressed a gathering of evangelicals boasting that his Christian god would defeat Islam's god because his god "was real." David Petraeus, before his affair with Paula Broadwell sent him packing in disgrace, was long thought to be a contender for the Republican presidential nomination. There were more.
Then there was Trump's practice of firing those he didn't consider loyal, something he gauged by their willingness to do whatever they were told. If you weren't sufficiently compliant he would find someone who was until the White House was staffed with sycophants. Could Trump pull off the same coup de main with the military?
Were America's generals still loyal to the oath they swore to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic"? Had that become optional, conditions permitting? How would they stand up to the most degraded and corrupt individual ever to occupy the Oval Office? I penned a post, "The Night of the Generals" in March, 2017.
Former and serving generals with names such as Petraeus, Thomas, Allen, Mattis, McRaven, Stavridis have pushed back against Trump's maniacal excesses almost from the outset. When, in Febuary, 2017, Trump mused about defunding the State Department, it prompted 120 retired three and four star generals to issue a public letter of dissent.
Still the question lingered what the military leadership would do if/when Trump pressured/ordered them to take extra-constitutional measures such as deploying regular forces to American cities to confront citizens exercising their right to protest.
"The State Department, USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, Peace Corps and other development agencies are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way," the generals wrote.
They went on to quote a 2013 remark by Defense Secretary James Mattis while commander of US Central Command: "If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition."
The straw that may have broken the camel's back was when Trump cajoled the nation's governors to get tough on protesters taking to their streets. Trump's defense secretary, Mark Esper, joined in calling on the assembled governors to "dominate the battle space" to quell civil unrest so that, "we can get back to the right normal."
"Battle space," what an ominous term. Fallujah was a battle space. A battle space is a place of total military domination, a place of annihilation. What madness was this?
Today another former Trump aide, ex-Chief of Staff and retired general John Kelly, came out in support of James Mattis' statement on Wednesday.
Mattis wrote a scathing indictment of Trump "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. ...We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership."
To that, Kelly said, "I agree with him."
"I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?"Earlier this week the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley, wrote a memo to the commanders of every branch of America's armed forces.
Every member of the U.S.military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it. This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. We in all branches, all components, and all ranks remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution.Milley added a hand-written footnote
"We all committed our lives to the idea that is America - We will stay true to that oath and the American people."The events of the week leave the defense secretary's integrity in doubt. He seemed to break with Trump over the deployment of regular forces to America's cities, Esper's "battle space", but his change of heart happened after it became clear that his generals were having none of it.
How will the Great Corrupter respond to what he's bound to see as disloyalty, defiance of his will by his military commanders? How will he cope with a general staff that puts loyalty to the Constitution ahead of obedience to the president? Right now Trump resembles nothing so much as a bear with a raw ass in horsefly season.