President Trump’s idea to deploy active-duty military forces to quell increasingly violent riots in cities across the country has sparked a sharp legal and constitutional clash.
But an even more explosive debate has broken out on a question once believed unthinkable: Should — and will — rank-and-file troops obey the commander in chief if they are ordered to round up American citizens on the streets of New York, Louisville or Chicago?
Some prominent veterans and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are calling on service members to “lay down your arms” and defy Mr. Trump’s orders should he invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and seek to move tanks and personnel to major metropolitan areas as civil unrest grows after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd during a confrontation with Minneapolis police.
That in turn has sparked an angry rebuttal from top retired military officials, who say U.S. soldiers and seamen would of course follow orders and that even to raise the question is irresponsible.
“Though there are always outliers, I would expect almost all U.S. troops to obey any lawful order to quell rioting in cities, even where the instigators or participants are American citizens, and even if they disagreed with the order,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap Jr. told The Washington Times.
But in this, as in so many other ways, Mr. Trump represents a distinct break with his predecessors. The racial tensions inflamed by the Floyd killing are matched by unresolved racial tensions within the U.S. military as well.
Questions about the troops’ affinity for Mr. Trump are well-founded. The president’s approval rating among active-duty forces hit the lowest point of his tenure in December, according to a Military Times poll, and troops have been tasked with patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, aiding the national medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic and other missions outside the Pentagon’s more traditional scope.
Critics say that asking troops to act as domestic riot police would be a bridge too far and should spur young men and women to openly revolt.
“The president has made it clear that the fight for these constitutional principles is a fight against himself,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts Democrat and Marine Corps veteran who made a brief run for the Democratic president nomination. “We must therefore, with every ounce of conviction, every commitment to peace and every glimmer of hope, join in lawful protest to overcome his tyranny.
“And if he chooses to abuse the military as a tyrant would do — to stifle dissent, suppress freedom and cement inequality — then I call on all our proud young men and women in uniform, as a veteran and a patriot, to lay down your arms, uphold your oath and join this new march for freedom,” Mr. Moulton added.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, said he had “serious concerns about using military forces to respond to protesters” and that he plans to call Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley to explain Mr. Trump’s policy.
Military leaders, of course, insist that men and women of the armed forces will obey the chain of command and follow any lawful orders given by their superiors, including Mr. Trump. Urging troops to lay down their arms en masse, officials and retired military officers say, is ludicrous and dangerous.
Gen. Dunlap, now executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, said he always opposed using U.S. troops for domestic law enforcement, “absent truly extraordinary circumstances.”
“But it would be dangerous for any politician to suggest that any member of the military to ‘lay down their arms’ in defiance of a lawful order,” he said. “We don’t want those in the armed forces to think they have the right to pick and choose which lawful orders they’ll obey.”
At the same time, the Pentagon has been clear that operating as a domestic law enforcement force is far from the ideal scenario for American forces, including National Guard personnel.
A military official told reporters at the Pentagon it is “the mission we like doing the least.” The Pentagon’s clear preference is to let the National Guard lead the response.
Calling in the troops?
Dozens of states have activated National Guard forces to assist police in the effort to deal with growing unrest. Active-duty forces have been put on “short alert status” outside Washington but have not been deployed. The president has unique authorities to deploy forces in the District of Columbia, though his power is much more limited in the 50 states.
The Insurrection Act requires that a governor request the deployment of active-duty forces except in the most extreme circumstances — and even some of the president’s most ardent supporters say they won’t go down that road.
“We know that Texans can take care of Texas,” Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in explaining why he won’t ask for active-duty military help.
The last time a president invoked the Insurrection Act was in 1992, when military personnel helped stem riots in Los Angeles after the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, a black man, during an arrest.
For Mr. Trump, who has made rebuilding the military a cornerstone of his presidency, enlisting the help of rank-and-file troops to help with the crisis may be more complicated.
When the president came into office, 46% of troops said they had a favorable opinion of him, compared with 37% who had a negative view.
By December, those numbers had flipped. Just 42% of troops said they approved of Mr. Trump, while 50% did not, according to a survey conducted by the Military Times.
Ordering troops into U.S. cities to arrest their neighbors could frustrate men and women of the armed forces, drive approval numbers lower and compromise a key constituency for the president ahead of the November election.
In an extraordinarily personal message, the Air Force’s senior enlisted leader posted on social media a meditation on race, the military and his own experiences navigating his way as a black man in both civilian and military life.
“As I struggle with the Air Force’s own demons that include the disparities in military justice and discipline among our young black male airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks … I can look in the mirror for the solution,” Kaleth O. Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, said in a Twitter post. “Do what you think is right for the country, for the community, for your sons, daughters, friends and colleagues — for every black man in this country who could end up like George Floyd.”
Retired military officials argue that while troops surely would follow through on the president’s orders, invoking the Insurrection Act would be a mistake.
“I don’t recommend the president invoke the Insurrection Act and send active-duty military to Minneapolis [or any other city], but that would be within his authority,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Federal military forces are put in lots of different situations that may not have been their first choice,” Mr. Spoehr said. “I’m not sure everyone would have wanted to go to the southern border. … But there was nothing illegal or immoral about that. I’d be astonished if any military person was asked to do anything illegal or immoral.”
Top military leaders have said they would refuse any orders they believe to be illegal or unethical. During his Senate confirmation hearings last year, Gen. Milley pledged that he would “not be intimidated into making stupid decisions” as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also said he would step down if he was deeply troubled by an order.
“I think it would be a function of something that was illegal, unethical or immoral. That’s what I’ve been brought up with since I was 2nd lieutenant, and that would probably be cause for resignation,” he told lawmakers.