On Tuesday (June 2), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked with Donald Trump from the White House to St. John’s Church, where Trump posed for an awkward photo-op. To clear the way for Trump’s walk, law enforcement personnel used tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters. Milley was dressed in a battle uniform. Esper later said that Trump had tricked him into the walk.
This opens a number of questions. One is the appropriate relationship between the civilian side of government and the military, including whether military personnel should allow themselves to be used for political purposes. Esper is not military, but he is the face of civilian primacy over the military.
Another is the arbitrary use of force against protesters, which overlaps with civilian-military issues as Trump and others, like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, call for the military to be brought in to put down demonstrations.
The military are in a difficult position. They cannot be seen to resist civilian control. Even saying directly that Trump is wrong is a line that they do not want to cross. But they have taken an oath to the Constitution, not to the President of the United States, and not to any particular person holding that office.
Active military leaders are threading that needle by issuing statements that remind their service members of their oath to the Constitution. Retired military leaders are freer to speak but often cautious to preserve the civilian-military balance. Others associated with the military in some way are also speaking out. Politicians, on the other hand, have an obligation to speak out against offenses to democracy. The Republicans among them have been the most silent.
From his history in office, we can expect none of this to affect Donald Trump very much, although some of his actions in the past may have been modified somewhat by outside opinions. And most of the public will never see most of these statements. Their importance is that they give permission to others to speak out.
More statements appear every day. Republicans have enabled Trump through his presidency, specifically Republican senators. They are ultimately the ones who can make a difference in Trump’s behavior. They chose not to do so in the impeachment trial. Perhaps the military can remind them of their oath of office.
Here’s a list of those who have spoken out and a short excerpt from their statement. Task and Purpose has a nice list, which a jackal sent me, and I added to.