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Why Military Leaders Like Me Are Speaking Out: Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO

Civil-military relations. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images


A retired four-star admiral explains how a troubling trend is becoming a constitutional crisis.

By James Stavridis for Bloomberg – The demonstrations set off by the death of George Floyd are creating remarkable crosscurrents in American society, from new ideas about police reform to an increased focus on the disparate health and economic damage African-Americans have suffered from Covid-19. There is increasing turmoil in terms of the use of the military as well.

A number of retired generals and admirals have spoken out with alarm over the last week about adding active-duty military to law enforcement, and using the Insurrection Act to do so. The appearance of National Guard troops to make the area around the White House safe for a presidential photo-op was very troubling as well.

The consistency of the commentary across the four-star retired community was remarkable. I’ve never seen such unanimity on any issue, particularly on what is essentially a domestic situation. Many recently retired officers who have been reticent to speak publicly were suddenly very vocal. This group included retired Marine Corps Generals Jim Mattis and John Kelly, who served, respectively, as secretary of defense and White House chief of staff under President Donald Trump.

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell. People in uniform.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell has strongly criticised President Donald Trump’s handling of anti-racism protests, saying he has “drifted away” from the constitution.

On Sunday, Colin Powell, the former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, called out Republican lawmakers for having “nothing to say” about Trump’s militarization of protest security.

Some retired officers who have been consistently critical of Trump also spoke up, including Air Force General Michael Hayden and Navy Admiral William McRaven, who commented that “every man and woman in uniform recognizes that we are all Americans and that the last thing they want to do as military men and women is to stand in the way of a peaceful protest.”

Other voices included Army Generals Wesley Clark and Barry McCaffrey (the most highly decorated four-star officer in recent military history), and another former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen. I know all of these men well and count several as mentors. (After much consideration, I spoke out as well about what I see as a threat to the soul of the military.)

Every member of the military swears a simple oath each time he or she is promoted: “To support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

But the word “domestic” does not mean that military personnel are an arm of law enforcement. The generals and admirals I cited are concerned about damage to the Constitution if active-duty troops are used to suppress protests protected by the First Amendment. None of us wants to see them pulled into an increasingly vitriolic political season in the run-up to the November election.

The active-duty military should be used domestically only when state governors request its assistance specifically if they feel unable to handle challenges with local law enforcement and the National Guard. The founders dreaded the idea of a large standing army that could be employed within the nation’s borders. This was in part a result of their experiences with British troops in the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, leading specifically to the Third Amendment of the Constitution, forbidding the forced quartering of troops in private homes.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 further limited the use of the military inside the country, and ought to be respected in all but the most extreme of circumstances — certainly not to squelch unarmed and largely peaceful protests such as those at Lafayette Square outside the White House.

As Admiral Mullen put it: “We have a military to fight our enemies, not our own people.”

Former high-ranking officers are also concerned about the mix of the military and politics. This includes General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, accompanying the president in Lafayette Square. And the troublesome refusal by Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to testify before the House Armed Services Committee. Going back, there was Trump’s intervention in the cases of accused war criminals, and the covering of the name of the destroyer John S. McCain during what was essentially a campaign rally in Yokosuka, Japan.

Yes, other administrations have tried to wrap themselves in the prestige of the military — remember George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”? But it is far more worrisome with the country now so deeply divided under a president with no shame.

Our 1.2 million men and women in uniform have a solemn duty not to any one individual, but to the Constitution. In the coming months, they should not be seen wearing MAGA hats, or for that matter “No Malarkey” buttons in support of Democrat Joe Biden. Retired officers should continue to speak out — not for or against any candidate or party, but about the immense danger of pulling the military ever further into politics.

Who is James Stavridis?

James Stavridis is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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