Opinion | National Security

Why military leaders reacted so strongly to Trump's use of troops

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

It was not only Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley who publicly distanced themselves from President Trump's intention to employ the military to disperse protests rocking the country over the past week. Each of the military's chiefs of staff, at least one service secretary and a senior enlisted military official all weighed in as well. 

Indeed, despite having been told twice not to comment on the situation before Esper made a statement of his own, a senior military leader spoke out anyway on June 1, the very day that force was used to clear a path for the president to walk from the White House to St. John's Church.

Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright, the Air Force's top enlisted official and an African American, tweeted that his "greatest fear" is "that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer." The following day, again before Esper held his press conference, Wright's chief of staff, the highly popular Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, sat alongside Wright in a video taken in the chief master sergeant's office. Wright again did not mince words: "I've been really outraged, not just for the last week. It drew up a lot of rage and a lot of anger from the past because I've just watched this over and over and over again." 

Ironically, Goldfein is about to retire and the nomination of the officer designated to succeed him, Gen. Charles Brown, has been held up in the Senate for weeks. Brown is black; now that his nomination is at last going to the Senate floor, he will become the first African American to be chief of a military service.

Wright and Goldfein were not alone in flouting White House intent by issuing a statement the day after the chaos around Lafayette Park. Joint Chiefs Chairman MIlley not only issued a formal "Message to the Joint Force" to "please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the ideals of our Constitution." He also added a handwritten note at the bottom of his message. It read, "We all committed our lives to the idea that is America - we will stay true to that oath and to the American people."

This is not the first time the president has disrupted the military's desire, in the words of a senior defense official, to "keep our heads down and go about our business." Yet, it differs in kind from Trump's intervention in support of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who he pardoned in December 2019, or his effort to prevent Amazon from winning a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract because of his animosity toward Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. To senior officers and the civilians who work with them, Trump's threats to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act smack of pure politics; partisanship is anathema to top military commanders. 

When Secretary Esper pointed out that the military was nonpartisan, he was reflecting a view that has long held inside the Department of Defense. Indeed, previous Defense secretaries have ordered their politically appointed senior staffs not to support any political campaigns, even though they were not subject to the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil servants from political activity while on the job. Moreover, defense leaders are deeply worried that politicizing the military would undermine the respect it fought so hard to attain in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. To this must be added their equally serious concern that racism should have no place within the armed forces, and their fear of the impact that the president's actions might have on military morale. 

Thus far, the president has shown little sign of backing away from his hard-line stance. There is growing speculation that, for that reason, he may fire Esper. Should he do so, he likely would further damage military morale and undermine what Milley rightly has identified as a critical pillar of the Constitution. And the nation, not just the military, would be worse off for it.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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