One of the most remarkable aspects of American constitutional democracy is the role of the armed forces within it. Consider what an extraordinary thing it is that this country has long maintained a vast military establishment without the slightest concern that this same military might pose a threat to civilian rule and democracy itself. This has remained the case even as several former generals have transitioned to the presidency — a list that includes Washington, Jackson, Grant, Eisenhower and several others. Also noteworthy is the list of former military commanders, including Sherman and Powell, who could have become president if they had wanted to.
Reading the U.S. Constitution and the debates in Philadelphia, it is clear that the Founders were not worried about the possibility of a military takeover. The Army and Navy would be an instrument of the state, not a threat to it. That remained true even during the Civil War. It’s easy to forget just how singular this all is. In 1992, Bill Clinton took the presidential oath of office on the steps of the Capitol. Following long-established tradition, he then walked through the rotunda to the east side of the building, where he conducted a ceremonial review of the armed forces. Here was a former governor of a small state who had avoided military service, confronting the fact that he was now commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force the world had ever known. Clinton looked stunned. The fact that many within the military services did not like or trust Clinton made no difference. Their loyalty to their constitutional duty was total.
This writer spent nearly 20 years as a professor at the National War College. For many of America’s most senior military leaders, NWC serves as their final preparation before achieving general officer rank. Jim Mattis, then Marine Col. Mattis, was one of my students. Those unfamiliar with the college might be surprised to learn how much of its curriculum is devoted to constitutional history and law. In sum, the ethos of civilian authority under the Constitution is deeply embedded in the U.S. armed services; it is part of their collective DNA. When a military officer swears his oath of loyalty, it is to the Constitution, not the president or anyone or anything else. There is a quid pro quo for this ethos. The civilian authority will never attempt to corrupt the armed forces by using them for partisan or personal political purposes. This red line has never been crossed. Even Richard Nixon, who was prepared to misuse and corrupt the FBI, never crossed it. But now …
Donald Trump came into the presidency without any experience serving in government. He was part of the Vietnam War generation and attended a private military secondary school. However, he dodged the draft with a transparently phony medical exemption. This did not deter him from embracing the military in his political campaign. He pledged to restore and repair an allegedly weakened and underfunded [not true] Defense Department. Still, for the Pentagon, Trump was very much an unknown quantity. Defense officials were reassured when he selected the highly respected, and recently retired, Gen. Jim Mattis, as his secretary of defense. He selected another general as his national security advisor and then another as his chief of staff.
Nevertheless, there were quickly signs of serious trouble. Mattis invited Trump to attend a briefing at the Pentagon by the assembled Service Chiefs, focusing on America’s global system of defense alliances. The briefing had hardly started before Trump interrupted — and was soon shouting insults at four-star generals around the table. “You’re all a bunch of dopes and babies . … You’re all losers. You don’t know how to win!” Vice President Pence and Mattis sat in stony silence. Trump cut short the meeting and stormed out. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose son was in the military, turned to one of the generals and declared, “Trump is a [expletive] moron!” From the Pentagon’s perspective, everything became about damage control. Mattis was tasked with trying to provide some adult leadership and intellectual coherence to Trump’s approach to national security. It was mission impossible. First, the national security advisor left, then Mattis, and then the White House chief of staff.
By this time, the senior leaders at the Pentagon knew they had a big problem. They had a president who knew nothing, and cared less, about constitutional law and values. He had not the slightest interest in a professional, nonpolitical armed forces. He wanted and demanded a military that was loyal to him personally — a latter-day praetorian guard. This was a president who also insisted publicly that the Constitution gave him unlimited authority to do whatever he wanted.
All this came to a head on June 1 with Trump’s infamous walk and photo op across Lafayette Square — accompanied by Secretary of Defense Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Milley — after protesters had been gassed and forcibly shoved aside. Following that event, things got really interesting. Senior retired military officers reacted with a firestorm of public criticism aimed at Esper and Milley for allowing the armed forces to be used as a political prop. Milley responded with a public mea culpa to the troops [“I should not have been there”] — probably the most humiliating moment in the history of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But the most searing words came from a long silent Mattis:
“I have watched this week’s events, angry and appalled … When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstances 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 … Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”