Bob Garfield: Alongside the social upheaval in American streets, a significant movement has percolated in the halls of our government's most rigid institution. A fundamental tension between executive authority and allegiance to the Constitution has prompted unprecedented soul searching within the military, traditionally, a stalwart for conservative values. It began with the president's notorious Bible photo-op proceeded by a military crackdown north of the White House clearing protestors from Lafayette Square. Several days later, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly renounced his role in enabling the June 1st incident.
Mark Milley: As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. It was a mistake.
Bob: Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper also renounced the photo op and undercut the president's threat against protesters.
Mark Esper: Saying that he did not support the use of the Insurrection Act to put down civilian peaceful protests that were taking place across the country shortly after that photo op as well at St. John's Church.
Speaker 1: That's right and we know that the president was really unhappy with Secretary Esper for over those comments, the public nature of them.
Bob: Just before Trump's commencement speech at West Point, hundreds of alumni of the Military Academy signed an open letter urging new West Point graduates to approach future orders from the president, especially those concerning military force against civilians with caution. According to Slate writer, Fred Kaplan, such public insubordination from the general class down to the rank and file is highly unusual. Fred, welcome back to the show.
Fred: Thanks. Good to be there.
Bob: Okay. This is not Barbra Streisand chastising the president. This is the military, which is nearly alone among American institutions, still accorded the respect of the broad public. This is serious business.
Fred: Yes, this is really a very big deal. I can't think of another case where the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that is to say the senior US military officer has publicly apologized for standing next to the president of the United States in any forum or for any purpose, much less one that was stage-directed by the president. I can't think of another case where something like a thousand West Point graduates have sent an open letter to the current graduating class where the president is about to give a commencement speech, urging them to keep their mind on constitutional principles and not what any particular president might say that's contrary to them.
Nor can I even think of an example where of pretty heavy hitting group of senior retired officers has criticized the president in public for certain policies and in a couple of cases, the president himself for his character. This is a very big deal and the generals who have done this know that it's a very big deal and for that reason did it very reluctantly.
Bob: Why? There have been times in our history, I think probably many, where the military has had to bite its lip while deferring to civilian authority. What is it about military culture that pushes so hard against this resistance and rhetoric from its general officers?
Fred: When you're an officer, you have two principles pounded into your head from the moment since you were a cadet. One is to obey lawful orders by civilian authorities. Don't get involved in politics. Your job is to carry out the lawful orders of the commander-in-chief. The second principle is to abide by the Constitution. You are loyal more to the Constitution than to any particular leader.
What's rare, maybe unique in this instance is that the behavior of a president has created a tension between these two directives; one to follow lawful orders by the president, two, obey constitutional principles. We have a situation where the president's talking about lawful orders which he may give, contradict constitutional principles.
Bob: Now, there was one famous episode where a senior officer flouted the wishes of the president, Harry S. Truman, that was Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War and he wound up recalled for having been insubordinate. Are there any other examples of a general or an admiral just saying no?
Fred: There have been cases of officers resigning rather than carrying out orders. There have been cases of officers being fired either by the president or the secretary of defense for not doing their job well, but it's worth keeping in mind MacArthur in 1951 when this happened was a national hero. He was incredibly popular and this gave him a sense of power in his own mind.
He defied Harry Truman's orders. He wanted to invade China. Truman said no, MacArthur insisted, Truman fired him, which was an incredibly risky thing to do because, as I say, MacArthur was probably more popular than Truman was at the time, but it was this episode that in fact, instilled in the officer core from then till now the principle that you should stay out of politics, don't pull a MacArthur.
Bob: I'm wondering about a mechanism beyond after the fact statements of opprobrium that we've seen in the past week that's available to military leaders, the law of war manual addresses how to handle illegal orders for decisions made on the battlefield and periodically there are prosecutions of soldiers and Marines from making the wrong choice, but is there anything codified to guide the military brass and the abuse of the military for political purposes?
Fred: No, and they're probably shouldn't be. You don't want some military officer throwing a coup against the president because he's not obeying the Constitution as that officer sees it, there are elected officials and elections for that. It is interesting one sign of bravery and peace time that a military officer should stick to is being brave enough to do something that might get him fired.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when after days of saying nothing and coming under intense criticism from within and from without over standing next to the president at his photo op outside of St. John's Church finally said, "No, I shouldn't have done this. This was wrong." He must have known at that point that he risked being fired. He's only been chairman for a year. It's a four-year term.
I suspect that if Trump is reelected, he probably will fire Milley. He'll probably fire Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper too, who finally found the spine in his back and came out and said that he disagreed with the president's statement that the situation in Washington, DC, at that time justified invoking the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed president Trump to send active-duty troops into the streets of Washington.
Up to that time, the joke about Esper is that he should be called Yesper because he said yes to anything that Trump wanted them to do. Here he went to the podium and said no, I don't agree with this and then told the 82nd Airborne, whose soldiers was sitting in at a base right outside Washington to pack up and go home. He risked getting fired for that and as I say, after Trump is reelected I don't think he'll be around for much longer either.
Bob: Do you think then that Lafayette Square is a one-off expression of resistance or is it a line drawn in the sand that Trump is on notice that he dare not cross that line as he stumbles towards the November election trailing in the polls apparently by a lot?
Fred: I think the officers hope that it's a one-off. Again, a well-trained officer wades into political controversy, outright confrontation with the president with extreme reluctance. I don't think any of them want to see this as a turning point in civil military relations. At the same time it is good to know, especially some of the scenarios that some people have drawn up which I think are mainly paranoid, but nonetheless, that if he does try to pull something else that's extra constitutional, he does now know that he won't necessarily have the senior officers of the military at his back.
Bob: On the other hand, another thing that the military is accustomed to doing is war planning for sometimes the most remote eventualities. Let's do some supposing, Trump obviously has a history of provocative actions, flouting the law and norms of the presidency, and just generally posturing as a tough guy. That often coincides with him needing to politically change the subject from the last outrageous. It gets one thinking about the wag the dog scenario where he is in some political hot water and acts extraconstitutionally. Is there anything other than invading Seattle, that would trigger this anguished response from the military, like invading Venezuela, or bombing Iran?
Fred: One thing that the military often does when they don't want to do something, is that they raise the roof on how much it's going to cost or how many troops it would take. I remember one time when he wanted to have a big military parade for Fourth of July and the Pentagon put out a statement that I forget, it would cost $70 million to do this, which is complete nonsense. It was done deliberately to get Trump off of doing this. They could create a scenario, "Mr. President, we'd have to send half a million troops to Venezuela or something." Maybe he wouldn't, but no, I don't think they're going to say, "Sir, I'm sorry, no, I don't want to invade Venezuela so I'm going to resist."
That wouldn't happen. What did it was putting active-duty troops in Washington, DC, and other cities and invoking the Insurrection Act, where there is not an insurrection going on. Going beyond what they saw as his general authority, whereas unless Congress prohibits him from doing so, or something, if the president wants to bomb Iran or send troops into Mexico, he can do that.
Bob: Fred, I want to ask you one more thing, and it brings us around close to where we started. That is the notion that the military as an institution is one of the few that is almost universally admired across the political spectrum. How does the military community actually reflect the public? Is this move by Miley and the graduates of West Point, a political canary in a coal mine that tells us something about how the broader public is reacting to the President's shenanigans?
Fred: Generally, especially given that we have an all-volunteer army, the political proclivities of military people tend to be more conservative, and in fact, more Republican than the general population. That's one reason why they aim to be a political. However, I would say that there might very well be a segment of conservatives or republicans within the population, maybe some of them veterans themselves, who looking at this array of public dissension by much-admired military leaders against the President of the United States who might look at this and say, "Maybe Trump isn't as good as I think he is.
Maybe there is something wrong here, the fact that Milley and Malone, and Madison, Petraeus, and these people are saying something against him, maybe there is something wrong with this guy." I think it might have an impact to that degree.
Bob: Fred, thank you.
Fred: Thank you.
Bob: Fred Kaplan writes the war stories column for Slate. He's also the author of The Bomb, President's Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War. Also, most heroically, he's married to Brooke.
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