When James Mattis, a distinguished U.S. Marine Corps general, denounces the U.S. president for misusing the nation’s Armed Forces and dangerously dividing the country, Americans should listen.
When other military leaders, retired and active duty, issue statements that either directly or implicitly take positions opposite from those of the commander in chief, Americans should be concerned.
Mattis, who was President Donald Trump’s defense secretary until he resigned in December 2018, does not take military discipline lightly. He left the Trump administration because he disagreed with Trump’s policies, but he did not go public with his opinions. It was important, he said, to keep the military out of politics.
But after Trump has repeatedly used the military for his political purposes, Mattis has spoken out. Trump issued repeated threats to send large numbers of troops to suppress civilian protesters in cities across the U.S. And his administration used troops to force peaceful protesters out of the way so Trump, accompanied by military leaders, could “march” to a church near the White House for a photo op. Those were the last straws for Mattis.
Mattis wrote that protesters have the right to demand “Equal justice under law,” and that all Americans should unite behind their cause. He said that the “small number of lawbreakers” resorting to violence should not distract us from living up to our shared values. Troops, he said, take an oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution — including the right to peaceful assembly. He blasted Trump for purposely dividing the nation and called on Americans to unite even though we lack “mature leadership.”
Meanwhile, leaders across the armed forces have issued statements denouncing racism within the ranks and reminding those under their command of their duty to uphold the Constitution and to protect and serve all Americans.
Other presidents have deployed troops during domestic crises, but usually the number of troops is small and sent at the request of a state’s governor. It’s alarming to hear Trump talk about using mighty forces to suppress demonstrations.
Trump seems obsessed with the military even as he lacks understanding of its proper role. He has sent the wrong messages by glorifying a few military members who were disciplined for improper actions. He speaks of troops as people who want to kill, while military leaders emphasize their role as a global force for good.
Deploying troops in any significant way to go head to head with civilian protesters would be dangerous for the country and for the armed forces. As Mattis pointed out, the troops are also a part of our society. Most of them are not trained in enforcing the law among their fellow citizens.
With our all-volunteer military, there is already a divide between those who serve and those who have little understanding of their service. Pitting troops against civilians risks undermining the trust Americans need to have in their military. It also risks putting troops in the position of having to decide whether to carry out unlawful orders.
Trump is commander in chief because the framers of the Constitution believed it was important to have elected civilians control our military’s broad policy goals. Otherwise, we run the risk of a military dictatorship. But keeping the military and politics separate has been a key part of that.
When Trump uses the military for his political purposes, he strikes at the heart of our democracy.
Mattis and the other military leaders know that.