Retired general: ‘I must speak out’ on Trump and the military
By now, the entire world likely has seen the horrific video of a Minneapolis police officer with his knee crushing the life out of George Floyd as three other police officers appeared to watch and do nothing. As I watched that video, my first prayer was for Mr. Floyd and his family. My second prayer was that if I ever witnessed something like that, I would have the courage to speak out or intervene.
On Monday, I witnessed another scene that disturbed me — the President of the United States crushing the U.S. Constitution. As he exhorted our nation’s governors to “dominate” protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, threatened to use the military to stifle Americans’ cries against injustice and forcibly dispersed a lawful assembly outside the White House so he could stroll over to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a “photo op,” I prayed for America … and then remembered my second prayer.
Thus, I must speak out now.
I am a retired Air Force officer. In my 35 years of military service, I served seven commanders in chief. Like most of my brothers and sisters in arms, I served them without regard to their political views or their views of the military. I was subject to their orders and followed them without complaint, regardless of my thoughts about their wisdom. However, as a judge advocate — a military attorney — I also understood that orders have limits: Lawful orders must be followed; unlawful orders must not.
From the sidelines, I’ve watched as this commander in chief employed our armed forces in unfamiliar ways. To me, some of his orders seemed unwise but, until now, I never questioned his authority to give them. Like all good airmen, albeit retired, I saluted smartly and carried on.
Monday was different. The president’s threats to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 as justification for employing active-duty military forces against Americans peacefully exercising their constitutional rights crossed the line. Although the Insurrection Act is an exception to other laws and precedents that generally preclude the use of federal military forces for domestic law enforcement purposes, its dark history — one that included its use in suppressing slave rebellions prior to the Civil War — has since been replaced by norms limiting its use to situations where state governors request federal support to quell violence or where constitutional rights require protection in the face of a state’s inability or unwillingness to provide it. It has never been — and should never be — used to prevent the peaceful exercise of constitutional rights.
Forty-five years ago this month, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to “protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” It’s the same oath every man and woman who joins the military takes. It’s unique among oaths because it breaks a tradition that existed prior to the birth of our nation, one in which the military swore allegiance to a monarch. Our founders did not want to serve a king; they wanted to serve the democratic ideals and principles they enshrined in our Constitution.
Donald Trump never served in the military and, to my knowledge, has only taken one oath to the United States — the oath he took as president. By any objective measure, it’s clear that he faced a very steep learning curve when he took office. It typically takes years for a military member to fully understand what it means to “protect and defend the Constitution.” Young troops begin their service learning that every order given by a superior must be followed without question; that is the essence of basic training. Only after they graduate from training do they begin to understand the nuances of lawful and unlawful orders. Ultimately, when they become leaders, they know the boundaries of their authority; they know that they will be held accountable — perhaps under penalty of their lives, or the lives of the men and women they lead — for issuing or following illegal orders.
Monday’s events clearly demonstrated that President Trump has not learned this lesson. They also revealed that, after three years as commander in chief, he does not understand what the military is or how it should operate in a democratic society. Even before Monday, he has spent much of his time lavishing praise on the military, hailing himself as its savior, or pandering to it in ways that many have found embarrassing and, in some cases, abhorrent. Rather than treating the military as the professional organization it is and the element of national power it was intended to be, he seems to want it to be his friend. How else can anyone explain why he pardoned three accused American war criminals? By his own admission, he sought to shield these men — and, by extension, the rest of the military — from accountability on the battlefield. His “I got your back” message was actually a slap in the face of every military professional who knows that right and wrong exist in combat.
Everyone who saw the video of George Floyd’s murder understands that what the police officers did was very wrong. What many Americans have difficulty understanding is that what President Trump threatened, in response to the protests that event evoked, is also wrong. Threatening to use the military to stifle peaceful protest is wrong. Employing the military in a law enforcement capacity under these circumstances is, at worst, a violation of federal law and, at best, very unwise.
I hope the president’s military and legal advisers will educate him on the boundaries of his authority. I hope his political advisers will help him understand the severe damage he would do to this nation if he carried out his threats. I hope he understands that, despite how friendly he has been toward the military during his time in office, the military is not his “friend.” He cannot rely on it to obey orders that are unlawful simply because he thinks its members “like” him. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Finally, I hope my voice, no longer silent, will inspire other voices to join in a message which the president cannot avoid hearing: If you try to use the military against Americans in a misguided effort to stifle cries against injustice, or if you try to hide behind the military in an effort to deflect criticism from yourself, you will fail and you will bring dishonor upon our armed forces, our Constitution, and our nation.
Steven J. Lepper is a retired Air Force major general. He served from 2010 to 2014 as Deputy Judge Advocate General of the Air Force. He was also Deputy Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior “crisis communicator” for the Department of the Air Force.