‘The line between tough and stupid’: Better thinking to deal with the protests

President Trump has put General Mark Milley “in charge” of responding to the nationwide protests in reaction to George Floyd’s murder. Quoting from a transcript of a call between the president and the nation’s governors, the president said that Gen. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is “a fighter, a warrior, and a lot of victories and no losses.”

Let’s put aside for a moment that Gen. Milley’s victories were against enemies of the United States, not citizens of the United States, and that Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s use of the term “battlespace” is not the right framework to understand protests on American streets. Let’s also put aside and let the lawyers figure out whether a federal military response to the current situation is even legal. Instead, let’s acknowledge that military victories usually begin with proper analysis and understanding of the situation. Then, let’s ask a basic question: What would be a proper analysis of the protesters and lawlessness we see across our country?

The first thing that a professional analysis would show is that, right now, we are lumping protesters – who not only have a legitimate reason to protest, but also have a right to do so – together with rioters and looters. They are not a homogeneous group. Lumping them together represents sloppy thinking that will result in sloppy and likely counter-productive as well as dangerous action. Gen. Milley knows this from his combat experience.

Using Iraq as an example, the leaders of the 2007 “surge” of U.S. troops there recognized that those who opposed coalition forces were not a homogenous group. Rather, there was a spectrum of actors, from hard-core Sunni terrorists at one end to hard-core Shia terrorists at the other. In the center of the spectrum were the destitute, who had no political motivation; they performed violent actions for money. Also toward the center were those acting not from ideology but out of revenge for a death of a family member or a friend.

Between the center and the extremes were a variety of groups with an equal variety of motivations. This sophisticated understanding of the situation allowed for a sophisticated set of responses that ranged from constant kinetic targeting to negotiation, arrest or some combination. Lumping all Iraqis who perpetrated violence into one amorphous group would have resulted in one kind of response to all violence — which, in turn, would have sustained the cycle of violence and been counterproductive to the overall objective.

Will Gen. Milley continue the sloppy thinking we have now? Or will he encourage or introduce better thinking? My bet is the latter.

Better thinking in this situation would acknowledge the difference between legitimate, peaceful protests and the lawlessness of rioting and looting. Better thinking would figure out a way to protect the protesters and their rights in such a way as to isolate them from the lawless. Better thinking may even enlist protester support in identifying the lawless. In fact, there’s ample evidence that some protesters have tried to quell the violence, identify the lawless and hand them over to police. Better thinking would capitalize on this effort – as well as information from those arrested – and blend it with the well-developed law enforcement intelligence capacity at the national, state and local levels to identify those individuals and groups stoking or leading the lawlessness and target them with precision to shut them down. Better thinking would not speak vaguely about “outside agitators” in terms that encourage conspiracy theories but, instead, adduce evidence of specific individuals and groups that law enforcement can then engage. 

Better thinking – the kind from which success comes – may end up with solutions that include less federal military involvement rather than more; or federal military support in ways that do not include combat forces facing off with citizens. Indeed, by Wednesday morning the president was privately backing off his warnings of deploying troops, according to the Associated Press. Military force should be the choice of “last resort.” We are not at that point yet. In the infantry, where I spent most of my career, there’s a saying: “The line between tough and stupid is easily crossed.” Let’s not cross it now; let’s demand better thinking.

Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik (Ret.) served more than 37 years on active duty as a U.S. Army infantryman, paratrooper and Ranger. He commanded U.S. and coalition troops in Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq. During the 2007-2008 surge in Iraq, he commanded the Multinational Security and Transition Command and the NATO Training Command. He is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the author of “Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory” (2016).

Tags American-led intervention in Iraq Donald Trump George Floyd George Floyd protests Iraq Iraq–United States relations Mark Esper Mark Milley War in Iraq

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