Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

The gnawing in retired Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez’s gut began in June 2015, when Donald Trump rode a golden escalator to the basement of Trump Tower and announced his candidacy for president. In his impromptu speech, Trump likened Mexican immigrants to a plague. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume,” the candidate offered almost as an afterthought, “are good people.”

“I immediately flashed back to my first battalion commander telling me I was not good enough to compete with West Pointers because of who I was and where I came from,” says Sanchez, a Mexican American raised poor in south Texas, and who ultimately would serve as commander of all coalition ground forces in Iraq.

Over the next five years, as Trump made the transition from Republican nominee to president, Sanchez’s disgust at Trump’s actions only grew. There was Trump’s attack on Muslim Gold Star parents. His contention that a judge presiding over a lawsuit against him could not be impartial because the judge was Hispanic. His travel ban on Muslims. His refusal to condemn white supremacists following racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. His separating Latino families at the southern border, and his efforts to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and deport so-called Dreamers. His Cinco de Mayo celebration involving a photograph of himself eating a taco bowl, grinning.

Through all of this, Sanchez held his fire. Then came June 1 of this year. Demonstrators gathered peacefully on Lafayette Square outside the White House to protest the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, were driven off by federal authorities wielding batons and pepper spray so that Trump, a self-proclaimed “law-and-order president,” could pose for pictures outside a nearby church while clutching a Bible.

For Sanchez, 69, it was the last straw. He had to speak out.

“I believe the president is a racist,” he told me. “The statement has to be made.”

For a former officer of Sanchez’s rank to openly brand the president a bigot—as he does in a 1,322-word statement on racial injustice—is unprecedented, military historians say.

“The overtly racist comments and discriminatory actions of our current President,” Sanchez wrote, “have convinced me that this administration does not actually view racial diversity as a pillar of American strength, and that it is choosing to actively ignore many elements of our Constitution.”

In his statement and in a subsequent interview, Sanchez also took aim at the military for what he contends has been its systemic failure to provide equitable opportunities for individuals of color at the flag-officer level. The modern armed services are widely regarded as being among the most forward-leaning of American institutions in striving to afford equal opportunity for all. But those aspirations, in Sanchez’s view, fall woefully short at the high end of the command chain. Only recently was General Charles Q. Brown Jr. promoted to Air Force chief of staff, becoming the first African American service chief in the nation’s history.

“When I retired in 2006,” Sanchez wrote, “only three Hispanic officers had achieved the rank of Lieutenant General in the history of the Regular Army. Of those, only one became a four-star General. Even at our best, we must continue to challenge ourselves.”

Following aggressive police actions against protesters in Lafayette Square and around the country, a handful of top military officers issued striking criticisms of Trump. Former Marine Generals James Mattis and John Kelly, Trump’s former secretary of defense and a former White House Chief of Staff, respectively, as well as retired Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have variously taken Trump to task for his deficient leadership skills, his divisive rhetoric, and his apparent incapacity to fathom traditional civil-military relations. Now, in his statement, Sanchez openly expresses what many civilian leaders have long asserted: that the president appears to care little for the welfare of Americans who are not white.

“This is not me being Hispanic,” Sanchez told me. “This is me advancing the ideals of the Constitution I’ve fought to defend my entire adult life.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Sanchez’s statement about Trump.

Flag officers such as Sanchez are indoctrinated in a culture that makes clear that they answer to civilian authority, not the other way around. They are trained early on to put service to the Constitution and the nation above obeisance to any one elected civilian leader. But they’re taught at the same time never to openly criticize the civilians under whom they serve. This is what makes Sanchez’s decision to speak out against Trump in such an unvarnished manner all the more remarkable.

“I think it’s enormously significant,” says Professor Beth Bailey, the director of the Center for Military, War, and Social Studies, at the University of Kansas. For Sanchez “to move beyond the careful language that has been used by others works, in many ways, against everything he has been trained to do. But it is also the fulfillment of everything he’s been trained to do.”

To be sure, high-ranking military leaders have publicly found fault with presidents or presidential administrations at times in the past. In 1862, Union General George B. McClellan lashed out at Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, for not providing him more fresh troops following the bloody Seven Days Campaign; McClellan went public two years later in a book he published, which he used as campaign literature when he ran against Lincoln as a Democrat. After World War II, in what became known as the “Revolt of the Admirals,” a succession of naval icons—Chester Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey among them—trooped before Congress to scold Harry Truman for granting the Air Force, not the Navy, primary responsibility in defending the nation from nuclear attack. More recently, in 1993, the retired General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, a hero of the Gulf War, testified that a proposal by Bill Clinton to lift a ban on gays serving in the military threatened to create a “second-class armed force.”

What’s different in this case, historians say, is that the likes of Sanchez, Kelly, Mattis, and Mullen are criticizing not just the president’s policies, but his character flaws, which they say make him unable to lead the nation effectively. If Trump were in the military, those flaws would have likely killed his career early on. “I served for 26 years in the Army,” says Gregory A. Daddis, a retired Army colonel and West Point graduate who directs a master’s degree program in War and Society at California’s Chapman University. “I’ll tell you that if Donald Trump commanded any brigade or division in the U.S. Army, he would have been relieved years ago for creating a toxic command climate.”

Trump talks tough and likes to look tough. He often uses the military as a backdrop to promote his tough-guy image for the benefit of his supporters. But in the process, Daddis says, Trump perpetually disregards the basic leadership principles and morality in which the officer corps is steeped, leaving many within its ranks fearful that the security of the nation’s social, economic, and political institutions is being threatened by the president himself.

“This is much more about what I would argue is a defense of the professional military ethic and how these senior officers like Sanchez see the president as an antithesis to that,” Daddis says. “And that, I think, is pretty historic.”

The historian Andrew J. Bacevich Jr. a retired Army colonel and West Point graduate, notes that military leaders took particular umbrage after Trump strolled to his church photo op in the company of Army General Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation’s highest-ranking officer, effectively using Milley as a prop.

“Trump crossed a hitherto sacrosanct boundary when he lured General Milley into participating in a political stunt, thereby implicating the senior-most officer on active duty in partisan politics,” says Bacevich, who is president of the nonpartisan Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Because Milley accompanied Trump that day garbed in his camouflage Army combat uniform, he gave off the impression that U.S. military forces were now helping attack law-abiding protesters at the behest of America’s law-and-order president. Milley later apologized for his presence and said it was a mistake.

This is not the first time Sanchez has created controversy by criticizing an American president.

During his one-year stint as the head of U.S.-led ground forces in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, an insurgency erupted into civil war. News accounts of American National Guard troops abusing Iraqi detainees at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison forced Sanchez to retire. An Army inspector general’s investigation ultimately cleared him of any misconduct but found failures of oversight at all levels. Sanchez later published a book, Wiser in Battle: A Soldier’s Story, in which he denounced George W. Bush’s rush to war as “a strategic blunder of historic proportions” that needlessly endangered the lives of poorly trained, inadequately equipped troops. A devout Christian who often ends his conversations with “God bless,” Sanchez later acknowledged harboring thoughts that certain senior Bush-administration officials deserved to be sent to hell for having prompted the war on false pretense. He declined to name names.

In 2011, Sanchez considered running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Texas Republican Ted Cruz, but ultimately decided not to after his wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor (she’s since recovered) and a fire destroyed their house. These days he serves as CEO of a small San Antonio–based company that refurbishes telecommunications equipment. He professes no political ambition. In hindsight, Sanchez says, he’s inclined to think that abandoning his pursuit of elected office might have been a good thing, given the sacrifice of personal values for political expediency often required of members of Congress.

I asked Sanchez what effect Trump winning reelection in November would have on race relations. He didn’t hesitate before responding:

“I cannot see any path that would lead toward repairing or bridging the divides we have in this country, and that’s very dangerous. For the first time in my life, I have seen Americans calling Americans ‘the enemy.’ We have to move ourselves back to some form of tolerance. I don’t see that getting better under Trump.”

Here is the text of the complete statement.

STATEMENT ON RACIAL INJUSTICE AND DISCRIMINATION

During this time of instability and crisis, every American who believes in our Constitution must answer the call to duty. Countless American citizens, especially those of color, have suffered at the hands of racial injustice, police brutality, institutional discrimination, and inequality. Their souls demand action if we hope to preserve the ideals of American Democracy.   

The horrific, unjust stories that have repeatedly played out on the national stage (most recently involving Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor) are unmistakable symptoms of America’s continued struggle with systemic racism and police brutality. Our national leaders must acknowledge that America has found itself in the grips of systemic racism, which continues to manifest itself in the worst possible way—the killing of Black Americans and other people of color. We must not tolerate it. We must not condone it. We must not ignore it any longer.

The ugliness of racial discrimination has manifested itself repeatedly and unmistakably in our police force’s treatment (and mistreatment) of black Americans and other people of color, but the problems run much deeper than any amount of brutality inflicted on our fellow Americans. As a nation, the United States continues to largely exclude people of color at our highest levels of leadership in just about all elements of American society, whether in the boardroom or at the highest levels of military leadership. The economic disparity that plagues our communities and limits the opportunities afforded to people of color in general (and black Americans in particular) stands in stark contrast to the experience of the rest of us. To build a better America, one that truly upholds the values on which this nation was built, we must overcome the greed, ignorance, and hate that have brought us to where we stand today.

Every American who believes in the promises embedded in our Constitution—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and equal rights for all—needs to take a stand. We must bring substantive and enduring change to the lack of equal justice and equal opportunity for communities of color.

Once again, a clarion call for solidarity is being heard across all forms of media, and public statements are being drafted and released to the public by the leaders of an ever-wider variety of companies. Many of these executives speak of the need for fundamental and enduring change, but otherwise show no evidence of having helped to enact it in the days and weeks preceding a racially charged headline. Sadly, the racial imbalance in the leadership of so many of these companies speaks louder than any post on social media ever could. Their messages of support and solidarity must be followed by real, structural change if we ever hope to achieve lasting progress.

Over the course of my lifetime, America’s leadership has been quick to issue politically correct, carefully drafted statements of rhetorical support in response to the suffering of minorities, especially our black community, simply because it is expected of them. Then, as soon as the crisis subsides, America reverts back to its familiar, deeply embedded discriminatory institutional biases. Let us end this cycle and let us end it now.

Public statements of support from a broad spectrum of American society are necessary and can certainly be helpful in this time of need. When coupled with the diversity of the protesters who have come together in recent weeks, I believe we are witnessing a grassroots movement that will force America to continue its quest toward equal rights and non-discrimination. America is slowly reenergizing its march toward the vision of equality for all.

Any attempt to deny diversity, in all its forms, as a foundational pillar for the strength and greatness of America puts our march toward justice, equal rights, and equal opportunity at risk. In my experience, diversity is what makes our military a shining example of what equal opportunity can foster within a Democratic society. America’s military has achieved a level of equality and opportunity for advancement that is incomprehensible to political and military leaders from other nations around the world. I truly believe that America’s military is the closest our society has come to achieving the American ideal of equal opportunity and justice for all. That being said, why is it that people of color have not had equitable representation at the flag-officer level? The recent confirmation of General Charles Brown as the U.S. Air Force chief of staff is a historical event. General Brown is the first African American service chief in American history. When I retired in 2006, only three Hispanic officers had achieved the rank of lieutenant general in the history of the Regular Army. Of those, only one became a four-star general. Even at our best, we must continue to challenge ourselves.

Currently, America’s standing as an example of unity, strength, and equal opportunity for the rest of the world has been undeniably diminished.  Our hyper-partisanship continues to divide us. The actions of racist, extremist elements must be explicitly condemned. If we do not condemn those actions, then we implicitly encourage them, and that is in direct opposition to our goal of equality for all.

Over my lifetime, I have witnessed the effects of systemic racism, and it remains an enduring problem in America today. Continually refusing to accept that systemic racism exists serves only to strengthen the worst tendencies of those who aim to spread fear and hate and who aim suppress those that are “not like them.”

Through inaction and implicit support, we continue to perpetuate the underlying, often subtle discriminatory practices that lead straight to injustice and inequality. These attitudes have created dangerous divisions and a hyper-partisan environment in which many Americans look at anyone with views contrary to their own as “the enemy.” This makes it easy for a leader to issue an order that leads to the abuse of fellow Americans who are exercising their Constitutional rights. As the commanding general in Iraq at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, I am very familiar with the dangers of official orders being stretched to the point of abuse, as well as what can happen when individuals view their enemies as subhuman. America must immediately address this growing issue and once again move society to a point where we are tolerant of dissenting views.

Ultimately, America’s leadership, at all levels, must have the moral courage to do what is right rather than what is politically expedient. Our citizens expect it and our Constitution demands it. Unfortunately, at this point in our country’s history, moral courage seems an uncommon virtue. Currently, it seems more difficult than ever to directly address racial discrimination, given the stated positions and comments coming from our highest levels of leadership. The overtly racist comments and discriminatory actions of our current president have convinced me that this administration does not actually view racial diversity as a pillar of American strength, and that it is choosing to actively ignore many elements of our Constitution.    

For 33 years of my adult life, I served my country and fought for equal opportunity and equal rights for all Americans. I served alongside countless young men and women who wore our country’s uniform and embraced the ideals that seemed to allow the United States to shine as a beacon of hope for all of humankind. None among us ever expected that we would be put in the position of taking military action against our fellow Americans for exercising the very rights that we had sworn to defend. Yet that is exactly what many of our young men and women in uniform are facing today.

Every American should be gravely concerned when our leadership strays from the rights and values established by our forefathers as the guiding light for American Democracy.

We must always remember and staunchly defend the founding principles of our nation.

We must remain vigilant. We must remain strong.

Above all, we must remain united.

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