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Civil-Military Relations Against the Backdrop of U.S. Protests

Civil-Military Relations Against the Backdrop of U.S. Protests
 Olivier-Rémy Bel
Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council

On Monday, June 1, Donald Trump gave his first official speech on the protests sweeping the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Speaking from the White House’s Rose Garden, and standing before journalists complying with social distancing guidelines, he stated a clear agenda:

"I am your President of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters, (...) I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets (...). If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them."

This threat of military force sparked intense debate and widespread outcry from across the country. Against the backdrop of the George Floyd protests, the issue of civil-military relations looms large from the other side of the Atlantic. What we’re talking about here is not the militarization of the police, yet another contentious issue, but rather the relationship between Americans and their armed forces and, more specifically, the use of those armed forces domestically in a country with a political tradition characterized by the strong assertion of civilian control and the fear of its usurping by the federal government.

The National Guard, the U.S. Army and the Insurrection Act

Some further clarification may be useful in understanding the issues at stake in this situation.

In the United States, the National Guard is a reserve component of the Armed Forces. While it is organized on a federal basis by each individual state and under the authority of the state governors, although it can also be called to active duty by the federal government. As Michael Shurkin from the RAND Corporation explains (a must-read), even though the National Guard in its current form did not appear until the 20th century, it originates from the desire to professionalize colonial militias without forming a permanent professional army.

Without the apparent threat of a geographically close enemy, the United States has historically feared the misappropriation of its own Army more than an invasion. Building a system with a relatively small federal army to be reinforced in wartime by militias – and later national guards – controlled by state governors therefore appeared to be a compromise that ensured a certain level of professionalization, while as far as possible avoiding concentrating power.

The United States has historically feared the misappropriation of its own Army more than an invasion.

The National Guard can be mobilized for domestic missions, whereas the use of active forces on U.S. soil is heavily regulated by the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (the date is not insignificant: the act was primarily a reaction to the use of the federal Army in the southern States during Reconstruction, aimed in particular to guarantee voting rights for African-Americans). Nevertheless, there have been cases where active forces have been deployed domestically. That includes 1957, when President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal court ruling on desegregation.

Today, debate is centered on a particular case enabling domestic deployment, that is the Insurrection Act of 1807. This allows for the "federalized" National Guard and regular forces to be mobilized upon request by the legislature or governor of a State overwhelmed by an insurrection (§251), at the discretion of the President when an insurrection makes it impracticable to enforce the law (§252), or when an insurrection or civil unrest threatens constitutionally secured rights, if a State is unable, or unwilling, to enforce them (§253).

In the federal capital, the District of Columbia, things are somewhat different. Washington D.C. is not a State but rather a sui generis entity provided for by the U.S. Constitution. Despite its 700,000 inhabitants, it has neither a governor nor senators, sending only one delegate to the House of Representatives by consultative vote (hence the protest D.C. license plates with the slogan "End Taxation Without Representation").

Therefore, as there is no governor, D.C.’s National Guard is always "federalized" and under the authority of the President of the United States, via the Secretary of Defense. In an emergency, the President can also take control of the D.C. police for up to 48 hours.

It is in light of these details that President Trump’s Rose Garden statements must be understood: he asked governors to call upon their National Guard, under their own authority, or else he would send the active Army, under his own authority (in other words, by invoking the Insurrection Act). Practicing what he preaches, Trump deployed the National Guard to Washington, D.C., which he already had control over, as well as security forces from various federal departments, such as customs and the Bureau of Prisons (whose lack of identification caused an outcry among some protesters who believed they were mercenaries or "little green men," much like those used by Putin in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine).

Concerned responses to the risk of militarization of law enforcement and also the politicization of the military

While the National Guard has increasingly been mobilized to fight in conflicts abroad, it can still be used by governors for policing or law enforcement agency operations. For protesters, this does not eliminate the symbolic significance of seeing convoys of sand-colored armored vehicles in the streets or helicopters performing a show of force above them.

Besides the mobilization of the National Guard, the use of military symbols is causing particular concern. On June 1, in a conference call with governors, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper emphasized the need to "dominate the battlespace," the "battlespace" being American streets. In the same call, President Trump indicated he was putting General Mark Milley in command. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Milley is the highest-ranking and most senior military officer in the United States Armed Forces ("General Milley is here (...) And I’ve just put him in charge"). Soon after the Rose Garden press conference, Milley, wearing military fatigues, and Esper accompanied Trump as he walked across Lafayette Square forcibly emptied of protestors, before inspecting troops downtown.

Trump asked the governors to call upon their National Guard, under their own authority, or else he would send the active Army, under his own authority.

The combination of these elements has elicited a concerned reaction to current events from many commentators.

Most notably, it has stirred up a wave of criticism from former high-ranking military officers: two former Chairmen of the Joint chiefs of Staff in Admiral Michael Mullen (2007-2011) and General Martin Dempsey (2011-2015),  former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller, General John Allen, former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, Admiral James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and even General John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff from 2017 to 2019. On June 6, the Washington Post even published a letter from 89 former Defense officials – including several former Secretaries of Defense, such as Ashton Carter and Leon Panetta – expressing their concern.

Finally, Jim Mattis, a legend of the Marine Corps and Trump’s own former Secretary of Defense, broke his silence on June 3. This is a critical event because, following his resignation in December 2018, he had indicated that he would only open up regarding the current administration if circumstances made it necessary. While condemning the divisions created and exacerbated by Donald Trump, he also emphasized the risk that a militarized response would widen the gap between American society and its military ("Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civil society.")

Apart from the response by former Pentagon members, within the military institution itself there appears to be a certain degree of discomfort with – or even resistance to – the political exploitation of the current situation. 

Units of the 82nd Airborne Division were deployed near Washington, D.C. before being ordered home on June 3, redeployed around Washington the same day and then ordered back on June 4. More significantly, Mark Esper, at his press conference on June 3, clearly stated that he was not in favor of invoking the Insurrection Act. Senator Tom Cotton, once tipped as a possible candidate for Secretary of Defense, replied unequivocally in a New York Times op-ed: "Send In the Troops."

In turn, both CJCS Milley and the various Services – the Army,  the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps and even the newly established Space Forcehave stressed their sensitivity to the issues of racial discrimination. At the same time, they have implicitly shown their disapproval with the President regarding the militarization of law enforcement. The Air Force has stood out in particular through the creation of a dialogue between its Chief of Staff and the Chief Master Sergeant, the representative of the enlisted corps, who is himself African-American.

These internal and external reactions, along with media statements made by D.C.’s Mayor, Muriel Bowser, are likely connected to Donald Trump’s decision, announced on June 7, to withdraw the National Guard from Washington, while the protests continue without violence.

Political relations with the military in the United States

Such intense reactions, particularly from the institutions of the military themselves, can be explained by the unique place that civil-military relations occupy in the political culture of the United States

While the Founding Fathers feared empowerment of the military (one of the grievances that the Declaration of Independence addresses to the British sovereign is that "[he] has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power"), they were also concerned about the power that the executive branch of government might derive from control of the armed forces (for example, see Federalist Paper No. 8).

Such intense reactions, particularly from the military institution itself, can be explained by the unique place that civil-military relations occupy in the political culture of the United States.

The results were strict limits on the use of armed forces on U.S. soil, a system curtailing the concentration of powers (see the National Guards ) and a deep-rooted tradition of civilian control of the armed forces. In this regard, the unique status of the CJCS is telling: created after the Second World War, this post is outside the military chain of command, unlike in France for instance. The CJCS is a primus inter pares and, since 1986, the President’s senior military adviser, precisely because the American model seeks to avoid the concentration of military power under one person or group.

In this context, the widely applauded reactions of the defense establishment are, in and of themselves, raising questions about the particular weight given to these opinions: is it a good thing that the generals are the ones everybody is listening to?

These questions are nothing new given the special prestige the armed forces have in the United States. They enjoy greater trust than most other institutions. From George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower, Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant, twelve presidents have capitalized on their military successes to gain access to the White House – which in part explains the biases against concentrated power.

Civil-military relations, however, have taken a different turn in recent years, especially given the Trump administration’s propensity to rely on generals, both active and retired It has been cause for concern over the politicization of the Army and provoked many discussions. The latest chapter in the saga: Captain Brett Crozier, commander of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, was relieved of his command after drawing attention to the insufficient response to the COVID-19 outbreak on his ship. Many observers saw his dismissal as political.

Beyond the very important racial dimensions, the backdrop to the ongoing protests in the United States is composed of a particular conception of civil-military relations, reflected in the organization of the forces and powers granted to the President, and the special relationship that the Trump administration has with the military institutions.

As the protests and deployments continue, it would be wise to re-read Hannah Arendt and her examination of the distinctions between violence, force and power.



Copyright : JIM WATSON / AFP

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