I am very concerned about a trend I am seeing in the senior ranks of my beloved Army, and in the other services, too. Statements and actions by these senior officers are coming perilously close to insubordination. Those comments and actions are also undermining the authority of a sitting President and possibly doing the same to public respect for our Military. Americans rate the United States Military as the most respected of our institutions—and it’s not even close. General Mark Milley’s totally unnecessary apology, I fear, has harmed this evaluation.
The recent (non) incident in Lafayette Park and reaction to it, helped jell some of this for me. On Monday the 1st of June, immediately following a Rose Garden speech, President Trump gathered up several key staff members and walked towards Lafayette Park. Among these staffers were the Attorney General, the White House Chief of Staff, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of Defense, and his immediate subordinate, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley.
The President’s ultimate destination was the front of St John’s Church, a National Historic Landmark known as the “Church of the Presidents.” Parts of the church itself had been previously burned by rioters. The President’s clear intent was to show the nation that he is on top of things and is willing to use the full might of the United States Government, including the office of the Attorney General and, if necessary and legal, the Armed Forces to protect American Citizens and their property.
Almost immediately, there was not only a response from the usual suspects on the left but also a cacophony of retired Flag Officers decrying “political use of the military” and the unconstitutionality of using Active Duty Troops to deal with rioters. I’ve gone over the second part previously.
To recap that effort, the President of these United States, according to the Constitution and the Insurrection Act (as amended), may use Active Duty Military Forces to deal with rioters in a number of circumstances. One of those circumstances clearly stated in the statute is when he determines that a Governor has lost control of the situation. So not only was the public criticism by Flag Officers out of turn, it was also wrong on substance. Moreover, Active Duty Military or Federalized National Guard troops have been used by several Presidents, of both parties and both with and without Governor request or permission, in order to restore order.
Now, to the second point, General Milley’s apology for allegedly giving the impression that he was involving the Military in politics. In the opinion of this old, beat down Infantry Officer, General Milley was way off base. Yes, it is true that the Military may not be part of partisan politics. Our job is to execute the orders of the lawful civilian authority as expressed by the Constitution of these United States and Title 10 U.S Code. Thus, it is totally wrong to show up at a political rally or protest in uniform. But at the Service and Joint level, it becomes a little more nuanced.
First, let’s start with the fact that everything POTUS does is “political,” although not necessarily “partisan.” Photo ops are part of that. Photo ops are one of the methods the President gets his message across on any given subject. For instance, as I am writing this, I recall the imagery of President Trump at the graduation of West Point’s class of 2020 today. In his remarks, he not only congratulated the graduating class but also pointed out how important they were in the Long Gray Line of West Point graduates.
It wasn’t just a congratulatory speech, the President was giving his guidance to the Officers he had just personally commissioned in accordance with the Constitution. But it was still a political speech, sending various messages to various people and nations about our Armed Forces. One of those political messages was our tradition of civilian control of the military. Over 500 times, President Trump returned the salutes of newly commissioned Lieutenants as they approached the podium and saluted their Commander in Chief, two at a time—and there were Flag Officers actively participating.
But wait! Isn’t being the Commander in Chief at a service academy graduation part of the job? Indeed it is. And there were photographers there to memorialize the occasion and to pass his political message of American strength far and wide. However, it’s no different and certainly no more political than President Trump’s visit to the front of St. John’s Church.
The easily discerned purpose of that trip was to send a message of determination. By walking through a riot scene and standing in front of a recently burned church, “the Presidents’ Church,” President Trump was sending a message to all Americans. He was, by the presence of the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense and the in-uniform, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling all and sundry that the full might of the U.S. Government would be brought to bear. Law Enforcement and, where legal and proper, the Military, would be used to protect U.S. Citizens and their property.
In that venue, General Milley’s presence was perfectly proper. It was not partisan whatsoever, and no more political than him being present with the President at a Service Academy Graduation or the commissioning of a new Aircraft Carrier. What made this event improperly political, was General Milley’s apology. His “avoid the appearance of impropriety” excuse doesn’t wash. He had every business standing with the President as he projected firm resolve in the face of criminally-driven rioting. If perchance some malcontent had drawn a nefarious conclusion by his presence, General Milley’s apology made it far worse, totally undermining the message his President was attempting to send to a concerned American Public. With all the “controversy” his intemperate and unnecessary apology has caused, General Milley has created what he purports to abjure, his own participation in politics while in uniform. I believe he owes his Commander in Chief an apology.
PS: I also find the timing of numerous Flag Officer published statements about this event somewhat suspicious. Almost as if they were providing top cover. More on this in a subsequent OpEd. Stay tuned
Here are some background pieces:
Read: The Slow-Boil Revolt