Defense Leaders Maintain the Civil-Military Divide

Leadership from across the American military have reaffirmed their commitment this week to upholding their oath to the Constitution, including protecting the right of the people to peaceably assemble.

The move comes at the end of a week of widespread unrest as violent agitators attempted to hijack protests against police brutality for their own ends. Following the outbreak, President Trump declared his intent to use the American military to pursue looters and other miscreants should state and municipal authorities fail in the task.

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents,” Trump said, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

The president’s plan to deploy the military on American soil, however, appears to have not sat well with senior military leadership.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a memo to the Department of Defense (DOD) regarding its continued support to civil authorities Tuesday. In the dispatch, Esper praised the role that the United States military has played in fostering good throughout the nation’s history.

“The United States military has been the greatest force for good in our Nation’s history. While we often see the impact of our efforts overseas, every President has at times deployed military forces for domestic missions as well,” Esper said. “In the last few months, for example, America’s men and women in uniform — active duty, reserve, and National Guard — have worked day and night across our communities to confront the COVID-19 crisis.”

That legacy of good, Esper concluded, includes the military’s commitment to defend no particular individual, but the rights of all American citizens according to the constitution as stipulated in every soldier’s oath of enlistment.

“As part of that oath, we commit to protecting the American people’s right to freedom of speech and to peaceful assembly. I, like you, am steadfast in my belief that Americans who are frustrated, angry, and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity,” Esper said. “And like you, I am committed to upholding the rule of law and protecting life and liberty, so that the violent actions of a few do not undermine the rights and freedoms of law-abiding citizens.”

The statement also came at the heels of a number of troop movements within the country that caused violence-weary Americans to question whether Trump had already issued an order for military support. Some 1600 active duty troops were deployed to the National Capital Region, including an infantry battalion from Task Force 504 in North Carolina, the 16th Military Police Brigade HQ (also from North Carolina), and the 91st Military Police Battalion from New York.

Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan Rath Hoffman issued a statement regarding the movements, saying that the posture was one of heightened alertness, but that the troops would not be place in conflict with American citizens.

“Active duty elements are postured on military bases in the National Capital Region but are not in Washington DC,” Hoffman said. “They are on heightened alert status but remain under Title X authority and are not participating in defense support to civil authority operations.”

Title 10 of the United States Code, more commonly called simply Title X, outlines the appropriate legal role of the US military with regard to the legal status of the missions and organization of the military, including the separate responsibilities of the Army and the National Guard.

Hoffman’s comments referred to the fact that the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 and the Insurrection Act of 1807 limit the ability of the president to deploy active-duty military personnel for the sake of policy enforcement except in certain circumstances. Normally such a responsibility is delegated to the states’ individual National Guard units.

The president can, however, utilize the armed forces for the sake of policy enforcement on American soil if authorized by an act of Congress or if the president determines that the use of the military is necessary to fulfilling his own obligations under the Constitution in time of war, insurrection, or emergency.

President Trump’s desire to use military force on American soil has clearly had an impact on the minds of senior military leadership, and with good reason. It is, indeed, the president’s right to issue such an order if within the legal limits of his office, but American society and the American military have a very long and particular history regarding the division of civil and military authority. It is that history which is likely tugging at the backs of their brains now.

That separation of the military and the civil goes all the way back to the contractual nature of enlistment under George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and it is the reason why the Secretary of Defense cannot normally have served in a non-reserve military unit for at least seven years prior to taking the position.

The separation of the civil and the military is embedded in the very essence of the constitution and is enshrined in the ideal that the governance of the people must always be a civic endeavor, and never a military one. American society, according to the constitution, is a shared conversation, not a barked order.

Perhaps this is the reason why even former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis chose this week to break his well-known desire to not undermine the president, condemning President Trump’s divisive use of the military.

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis wrote in an open letter. “Never did I dream that troops taking the same oath would be ordered under any circumstance 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.”

“Only by adopting a new path — which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals — ,” Mattis concluded, “will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.”

The words of Mattis, few as they are, carry great weight, particularly in military circles. It may be that the need to speak thus, by the embodiment of speaking softly and carrying a big stick, will help to wave a flag at the rallying point so desperately needed by the American people at this dark junction in their history. Indeed, it may just be one of many such efforts.

Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston, General James McConville, and Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy issued their own message to the army regarding the support of civil authorities and the ongoing social strife appearing throughout the nation. Their message was the same: Support the constitution. Defend the American people.

“Our ability to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, is founded upon a sacred trust with the American people. Racial division erodes that trust,” the trio said. “Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

“We are listening,” the message concluded. “And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength.”

Time will tell if President Trump decides to actively pursue the use of the US military for the purposes of pacifying the American public. But American martial law is not something to fear so long as the leadership of that military remember their sacred oath.

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