Military leaders are bred for two kinds of courage—the courage to expose themselves to hostile fire and the courage to assume responsibility for the gravest decisions anyone can make. Most of them, particularly in the upper ranks, demonstrate those qualities. But what they need now, in the face of an unprincipled and brutal commander in chief, is a different kind of bravery.
The president raves of “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” while ensconced in a blast-proof basement. Angered by cable-newscasts noting that fact, he had armored and helmeted police sweep a park of peaceful protesters before a curfew, using smoke grenades, flash bangs, and the threat of batons. All this so that he could stand before a church that he could not enter and where he was not welcome, holding the book that he has probably never read and cannot understand, and whose precepts are a reproach to the life he has led. He is a malignant, empty human being.
But he is the commander in chief, and he does exult in violence wielded by uniformed men at a safe distance from himself. It is why he Twitter-screeches “Domination!” and yells at governors to throw away restraint in suppressing demonstrations or riots. It is why he urged police officers to slam suspects’ heads into cars. It is why he threatens to take over the job of law enforcement with the one organization that could do so: the United States armed forces.
The Founders of the United States feared the use of military power to suppress democratic freedoms, which is why, in the Declaration of Independence, they accused George III of “affecting to render the military superior to the civil power.” But they also created a system with wide emergency powers, to include the Insurrection Act of 1807. While the use of the militia—today’s National Guard, when under state rather than federal control—for the maintenance of order was one thing, the use of the regular armed forces was something very different.
The truth, however, is that if Donald Trump wished to declare that a state government had lost control of public order and was in a state of insurrection or rebellion, he could call National Guard units into federal service, taking them out of the control of a governor. He could send in infantry units of the Army and the Marine Corps. He could probably suspend habeas corpus. And he could, by declaring a national emergency, invoke more than 130 different statutory powers. He might be condemned retroactively by the courts, but he could get away with it in the short term. And maybe not even just in the moment. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Roosevelt administration’s internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry two years before.
What this means is that, de facto, some of the restraint on Trump’s abuse of the enormous reserves of physical force at his disposal rests with the leaders of the American military. They have, to a person, taken oaths to uphold the Constitution, and they mean them. But this is where a very different kind of courage is going to be needed.
These leaders know—and if they do not, their lawyers will tell them—that when he invokes emergency powers, the president can do a lot. They have been conditioned to view the president not the way their fellow citizens do, as a politician who holds the highest office in the land, but as the commander in chief, their superior in the strict military sense of the word. They have been accustomed to working for all kinds of people, and to swallowing personal objections, reservations, and doubts with professional compliance.
If they were ordered to do something flatly illegal, there is little question that they would disobey. But suppose, as is always the case with Trump, that the assault on their integrity and decency was ambiguous or unclear. What then?
In the classrooms of the nation’s war colleges, the next generation of general and flag officers will sometimes discuss whether officers should resign their commissions, usually in the context of what they consider the overriding of sound military judgment. It is usually nothing more than huffing and puffing about a difficult historical case. Military resignations occur periodically, but very rarely, and in almost no cases do they leave much of a mark. When they do, they usually involve a clash between a general and a secretary of defense, who does not have the same aura of authority as the president.
The real demonstration of military courage by a general in such a situation is not resignation. It is, rather, the willingness to be fired. A modest but instructive example occurred in Australia in March 2019. The Australian chiefs of staff were on a podium with their then–defense minister, Christopher Pyne, who began taking partisan political questions. The lanky chief of defense staff, Angus Campbell, stepped forward and gently said, “Minister? I might just ask that the military officers step aside while you’re answering these kind of questions.” Pyne looked startled, and replied, “Yeah, sure.” And that was the end of it.
It was a minor moment, but one in which the senior soldier in the Australian establishment reinforced a norm, at the possible risk of his own job, or at least his relationship with his boss—and it is upon norms no less than laws that these relationships depend.
What our senior military leaders need now is the considerable courage it would take for them to be dismissed from the service. It is the guts to say, “Mr. President, that is an utterly inappropriate use of the armed forces.” “Mr. President, I will not use the jargon of war in talking about American streets.” “Mr. President, if you order these things, you will cause mayhem in ways that will deprive the American military of moral legitimacy in the eyes of the American people for years to come.”
This is a much tougher test. Arguably, the current secretary of defense has already failed it, by talking about “dominating the battle space” in reference to the law-enforcement challenge of the moment. As we have already seen in this presidency, there are generals who, when confronted with the physical reality of a president and the environs of the Oval Office, succumb to the same impulse to defer, appease, and agree that has left the senatorial GOP a moral shambles.
Every appearance in uniform, every word out of the mouth of a senior military leader, at this point has consequences. While these men and women are not the only or even the prime safeguards of American freedoms, they constitute an important line of protection. And if they are willing to take a bullet for the country, they need to be entirely prepared to take obscenity-laced tirades and a pink slip for it. If they are not, far worse things may follow than what we have already seen.