The military establishment reasserts it is apolitical ahead of West Point graduation


On Thursday, Joint Chiefs chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley apologized for the “Battle of Lafayette Square” to clear this public space of peaceful protestors for Donald Trump’s famous “crossing of Lafayette Square,” for a cheap photo-op at St. Marks Church on the other side of the square, and B-roll video of routing protestors to use in his campaign commercials.

Esper and Milley’s presence at an overtly political event drew fire from civilians and several recently retired generals, compounding the harsh criticism that followed remarks Esper made earlier in the day comparing U.S. cities to a “battle space.”

This was unprecedented an inappropriate role for either the Joint Chiefs chairman or the Secretary of Defense, both of whom have now since walked back their embarrassing participation in this shameful stunt.

The AP reports Military chief: Wrong to walk with Trump past park protest:

Gen. Milley said his presence in combat fatigues amid protests over racial injustice “created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

“I should not have been there,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said in remarks to a National Defense University commencement ceremony.

“As many of you saw the results of the photograph of me in Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society,” Milley said. “I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”

Milley’s statement risked the wrath of a president sensitive to anything hinting of criticism of events he has staged. Pentagon leaders’ relations with the White House already were tense after a disagreement last week over Trump’s threat to use federal troops to quell civil unrest triggered by George Floyd’s death in police custody.

Earlier, Defense Secretary Mark Esper knocked down the idea of using active-duty troops against American citizens. Esper Opposes Active Duty Troop Use As Military Decry Racism, Floyd’s Death:

In a surprising scene, Esper stood before the press at a hastily arranged press conference and said “the option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort – and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”

His comments raised the question of whether President Trump, who had pledged to use active duty troops if necessary, would fire Esper or demand his resignation.

Donald Trump is trying to turn the U.S. Military into his praetorian guard, with sole loyalty to him, not their oath to defend the Constitution and the country. This is a clear abuse of power that no other president in American history has dared to cross the line of an apolitical military.

The Washington Post reports, Quarrel between Trump and military leaders intensifies as Milley apologizes for photo op:

The extraordinary quarrel between President Trump and the nation’s military leadership intensified Thursday as the Pentagon’s top general publicly apologized for appearing alongside the president in a church photo opportunity minutes after federal authorities forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the area.

The rare admission of regret from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, capped nearly two weeks of public discomfort with and outright condemnation of Trump’s leadership amid nationwide protests of racial injustice from some of the nation’s most revered military figures.

The perception that Pentagon leaders went along with Trump’s desire to use military force against domestic protesters has caused the biggest civil-military crisis in more than a decade. The disagreement continued this week when Trump tried to shut down a push by some military leaders to address the legacy of racism by removing the names of Confederate leaders from some bases.

This will be the backdrop for Trump’s visit Saturday to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he will deliver a commencement address to 1,105 graduating cadets.

Gen. Milley is not expected to accompany the president — nor is Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, a West Point graduate in 1986.

A letter to the West Point graduates from “Concerned Members of the Long Gray Line, a coalition of over 500 West Point alumni from six decades of graduating classes who collectively served across ten presidential administrations,” was posted at Medium. A Letter to the West Point Class of 2020, from fellow members of the Long Gray Line (excerpt):

Like the classes before you, the Class of 2020 comes with varied life experiences from across America and beyond. You represent the country’s diversity of race, ethnicity, identity and beliefs. Your West Point journey has led you to this moment when, with right hands raised, you take an oath “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath has no expiration date. The burden of responsibility and accountability will both weigh on and inspire you for your entire life. Oaths are solemn, public promises with significant meaning and moral gravity. When they are broken, the nation suffers.

The oath taken by those who choose to serve in America’s military is aspirational. We pledge service to no monarch; no government; no political party; no tyrant. Your oath is to a set of principles and an ideal expressed in the Constitution and its amendments. Our Constitution establishes freedom of the press, of assembly, of religion, of equal protection under the law regardless of race, color, or creed — we cannot take for granted these freedoms that are but dreams in too many nations around the world.

* * *

The abhorrent murder of George Floyd has inspired millions to protest police brutality and the persistence of racism. Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests.

Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience. Politicization of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society. Should this trust be ruptured, the damage to the nation would be incalculable. America needs your leadership.

Your commitment to your oath will be tested throughout your career. Your loyalty will be questioned, and some will attempt to use it against you. Loyalty is the most abused attribute of leadership. Weak or self-serving leaders will emphasize loyalty over duty under the guise of “good order and discipline.” Unfortunately, some will make a Faustian bargain and endeavor to please their commanders and advance their own careers rather than take care of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in combat — which is not just a problem, it is a disgrace. America needs your leadership.

We, a diverse group of West Point graduates, are concerned. We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military. We ask you to join us in working to right the wrongs and to hold each other accountable to the ideals instilled by our alma mater and affirmed by each of us at graduation.

* * *

On the eve of your graduation and joining the Long Gray Line and the Army officer corps, we, the undersigned, are resolute in our efforts to hold ourselves accountable to the principles of Duty, Honor, Country in selfless service to the Nation. We will not tolerate those who “lie, cheat or steal.” We pledge to stand for the sacred democratic principle that all are treated equally, and each person has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This is not about party; it is about principle. Our lifetime commitment is to the enduring responsibility expressed in the Cadet Prayer: “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”

The full list of alumni who have signed this letter can be seen here.

I cannot emphasize enough just how extraordinary this letter is – the more than 500 West Point graduates, six decades of officers in the U.S. Army – are openly expressing their concern over the abuse of the military by Donald Trump, and their concern that the Joint Chiefs chairman Defense Secretary Mark Esper, class of 1986, appeared willing to cross this line with the “Battle of Lafayette Square.” These senior officers are reminding West Point graduates that their oath is to the Constitution and to country, not to a political party or a president.

The Post continues:

Trump’s words at West Point will be parsed for signs of how closely they reflect West Point’s leadership values. Will he further politicize the military by delivering a self-indulgent, campaign-style speech, like the one he gave before a Boy Scout Jamboree in 2017? Or will he deliver a more traditionally presidential address that honors the military’s long-protected independence from political affairs?

“It’s going to be an especially fraught moment,” said Kori Schake, a scholar in civil-military relations at the American Enterprise Institute. “If the president chooses to use the West Point commencement as yet another way to try and wrap himself in the uniforms of the American military in order to build political support, it will demonstrate that there really is no limit to what the president is willing to do, no damage he will avoid doing to the respect the American public has for our military.”

If the president, or your commanding officers, order you to fire on unarmed peaceful protestors exercising their First Amendment rights on the streets of America, so that Donald Trump can have his own Tiananmen Square Massacre, something Donald Trump has endorsed in the past (In 1990, Trump told Playboy magazine: “The Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak.”), it is an illegal order that you have a duty to disobey.

Members of the military have a dual obligation to both obey “lawful” orders and disobey “manifestly” or “patently” illegal ones. What the Law of Military Obedience Can (and Can’t) Do–What Happens if a President’s Orders are Unlawful?

UPDATE: Protestors File Lawsuit Against Trump Over Clearing of Lafayette Square:

Three protesters accused members of the Trump administration of violating their First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, as well as the Posse Comitatus Act, in a complaint filed in D.C. federal court On June 11, 2020. Seeking relief under Bivens and the Posse Comitatus Act, the protesters allege that while demonstrating peacefully in Lafayette Square they were sprayed with tear gar and hit with rubber bullets so the president could clear the crowd and attend a photo-op at a nearby church.

You can read the complaint here.

UPDATE: Dahlia Lithwick explains Trump’s Use of the Military Does Not Create the “Appearance” of Abuse. It Is Abuse. (excerpt):

The fact that Gen. Milley has come to regret and deplore his role in the chilling set piece doesn’t change the fact that for a few hours on June 1, Donald Trump sought to have the National Guard, the 82nd Airborne Division, a Black Hawk, and a Lakota helicopter quell a peaceful protest, and that some of those actions actually came to pass as the military scrambled to mollify him.

I raise this not to vilify Gen. Milley, now one of many military leaders who has found himself in the unenviable position of having to explain why so very many military leaders have succumbed to Trump’s most violent, unconstitutional, and malevolent impulses, and ended up having to apologize for them later. After all, we witnessed in the days after the brinksmanship at Lafayette Square the spectacle of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calling out the use of the military for domestic political purposes. Mattis implicitly accused Milley of allowing troops “to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

* * *

But I would go one further: It’s not simply that Trump keeps taking us to the very brink of constitutional crisis at which point the people around him manage to mitigate the worst of it while destroying their own careers and reputations in the process. It’s that time and time again we actually cross the brink into constitutional crisis, and then comfort ourselves with claims that it never actually happened, or that it just appeared to have happened.

The fact that Gen. Milley now feels bad about striding around a public space where peaceful protesters were attacked by law enforcement officials doesn’t mean he merely created an appearance of a crisis. It means he helped provoke a crisis and now feels badly about it.

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