President Trump threatened to deploy the military against U.S. citizens last week. Previous posts here noted the wide-spread condemnation President Trump’s threat received, and the argument military members should engage in “disciplined disobedience” to orders they believe harmful to the United States. These developments show the modern erosion of civil-military relations has accelerated under President Trump. We are in unprecedented times, when serious voices call for disobeying lawful orders, and multiple former high-ranking military members are calling the president a threat to democracy.
That is not to say these voices don't have a point. President Trump has repeatedly signaled he does not respect the traditional norms on civil-military relations. While running to be commander-in-chief, he denigrated war heroes who did not show sufficient fealty to him. Once elected, he undermined the political neutrality of troops, signing campaign hats and attacking political opponents by name on a military installation. His “request for a grand military parade in Washington was widely viewed as a political stunt.” In a mission he authorized, he blamed military leaders for the death of a servicemember. The White House also ordered a Navy destroyer named after a political rival to have its named obscured in order to remain out of President Trump’s sight, an action he refused to repudiate.
And then last week, the chief federal law enforcement officer ordered peaceful protestors to be dispersed with tear gas, while the top military member stood by in his combat uniform. The dispersal of protestors appears to have been a political calculation orchestrated by the president, who wanted to project strength after reports he earlier hid in a bunker. After that incident, General Milley faced wide-spread criticism for wearing his combat uniform to the White House, then patrolling the streets in in those same OCPs. Stars and Stripes reported General Mattis finally condemned President Trump in his Atlantic article, due to Defense Secretary Esper’s and General Milley’s roles in participating in this display of power.
Serving a president who does not respect the constitutional order, and sees all things from the selfish perspective of his own profit and power, puts pressure on military and civilian alike. That pressure can lead to lapses in judgement, as one balances professional and personal ethics against rash but lawful orders. But the lawfulness of the orders cannot be ignored. The president has the authority under the Insurrection Act to deploy U.S. active duty troops domestically, using his own judgement to determine when that deployment is necessary. The failure for him to exercise sound judgement is a political problem, and expecting those in the chain-of-command to countermand his orders opens up too many long-term problems.
It appears that active duty troops did not deploy to American streets June 1 because of Secretary of Defense Esper’s and General Milley’s resistance. It is unclear how much of that was the give-and-take of a healthy superior/subordinate relationship, or how much it was a refusal to carry out a lawful order. But on June 3, Secretary Esper publicly broke with the president, announcing his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act. There were also reports that General Mattis, while the Secretary of Defense, simply refused to carry out certain of the president’s orders. Is this disciplined disobedience less problematic because it is civilians ignoring the president? This defiance still sends mixed signals to the troops on the sacrosanctity of lawful orders and the chain-of-command.
To put it another way, the short-term success in avoiding the military’s use in domestic law enforcement last week suggests serious problems for the future. The military will have extreme difficulty staying apolitical if there is an expectation that individual members decide the U.S.’s best interests before obeying facially lawful orders. As noted above, General Mattis is not the only high profile former military member to argue President Trump poses a threat to democracy. One can only hope this unprecedented outcry from former military members wakes up the members and elites of the president’s political party. But even if it won’t, as almost nothing over the last four years has, we must look for political solutions, and not expect the military to save our democracy. For such an expectation from the military is a recipe to destroy our current democratic order, with a military no longer subordinate to civilian control.