President Trump’s decision to use force, and, most notably, members of the Army National Guard, to clear the way across Lafayette Square for a Bible-waving bit of absurdist theater at St. John’s Episcopal Church—where every president since James Madison has worshipped—has brought the long-simmering cauldron of American civil-military relations to a boil. It may be a long time before the waters return to a healthy temperature.
A first response to the Trump stunt came from retired Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2001. Writing in The Atlantic magazine, Mullen declared, “I cannot remain silent” as “military members are co-opted for political purposes.” He suggested that the president, following his impulse to “dominate” the situation, might issue unlawful orders. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so . . . . This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.”
If Mullen’s piece was a shot across Trump’s bow, the subsequent statement by retired Marine General—and Trump’s original Secretary of Defense—James Mattis was a full-on, four-decker broadside. To begin with, he goes beyond Mullen in calling Trump out by name, and in stark terms: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try,” he said in a statement also first released to The Atlantic. “Instead, he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.” Such language is but the opening salvo, for Mattis goes on to analogize Trump’s divisiveness with Nazi propaganda in World War II: “Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘The Nazi slogan for destroying us . . . was “Divide and Conquer.” Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’” Mattis urged Americans to hold those who “make a mockery of our Constitution” to account.
In the wake of Mattis’s attack, another retired Marine general, John Allen, once commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, followed up with a somber article in Foreign Policy by speculating that Trump’s photo-op and preceding speech in the White House Rose Garden may have marked “the end of the American experiment.” The affair “was awful for the United States and its democracy,” wrote Allen. “The president’s speech was calculated to project his abject and arbitrary power, but he failed to project any of the higher emotions or leadership desperately needed in every quarter of this nation during this dire moment. And while Monday was truly horrific, no one should have been surprised. Indeed, the moment was clarifying in so many ways.”
Coming from a politician—Joe Biden or even Mitt Romney—such charged language would be acceptable, appropriate, and even righteous. But coming from the most senior retired military officers—and Mullen, Mattis and Allen are among the most distinguished leaders of their generation, rightly honored for their valiant leadership through the darkest days of Iraq and Afghanistan—it carries unexpected, and in the long run, troubling baggage. It is almost certain to initiate a new level of disharmony and politicization in civil-military affairs, a step-change in the loss of trust between soldiers and statesmen that has been growing for the last three decades, and a serious blow to the ideal of above-the-fray “professionalism” that has been the at the core of the officer-corps ethos since the days of George Marshall.
The increase in politicization of civil-military matters is inevitable and already apparent, and who is ultimately responsible should not be danced around. The dilemma is due to Trump’s cult of personality—the Leader is never wrong. Republican lawmakers quickly followed in lockstep. Senator Lindsey Graham, once a Mattis booster but increasingly a Trump loyalist, told CNN, “It’s just politically fashionable to blame Trump for everything—and I’m not buying it. And he jumped into politics—General Mattis did. And I think he’s missing a lot about what’s going on in America politically.”
A second-order effect of the affair has been the suspicion that the current defense secretary, Mark Esper, and JCS chairman, Army General Mark Milley, are quasi-quislings and, having followed Trump on his ramble to St. John’s—Milley in battle-dress uniform—propaganda stooges for the President. Their post-facto “we-didn’t-know” complaint only made things worse: Are you a collaborationist, or, after seeing Trump for three years, just that dumb? Esper tried to get the toothpaste back in the tube by later declaring that he did not support the invocation of the provisions of the Insurrection Act—a measure intended by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807 to forestall the threat of a rebellion led by Aaron Burr—contemplated by Trump. Esper has no doubt angered Trump but done little to bolster his own reputation.
The reason all of this is so troubling is that it is badly eroding the kind of trust that is necessary for a constructive and productive partnership between civilians and the military. As much as Trump is a real threat today, his exacerbating already-festering problems will certainly long outlast him. From General Colin Powell’s smack-down of President Clinton’s plan to lift the “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy in regard to permitting openly gay men and women to serve, to the vocal objections to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s approach to Iraq to the bureaucratic infighting over the Obama Administration’s surge-and-run strategy for Afghanistan (with Joe Biden, incidentally, playing a key role), the relationship was already in a bad place. The lesson that politicians—of all stripes—are likely to learn from this moment is that independent-minded commanders should be avoided at all costs, lest they either themselves become political opponents or simply tools for their political opponents. They will test senior leaders for their political reliability. Officers are likely to learn the inverse lesson: humor the boss, keep your mouth shut, and minimize the damage.
Indeed, the current contretemps calls into question the very American model of civil-military relations most closely associated with the great political scientist and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington. In his magisterial 1981 work, The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, Huntington saw officership as a “profession,” marked by technical expertise in the management of violence, a strict of ethical responsibility and a “corporate” culture that enforced these norms. He thus distinguished between the dangers of “subjective” civilian control of the U.S. military—when civilian factions co-opt and corrupt the professional officer corps—and “objective” control, wherein professionalism is granted a limited but independent scope for its expertise, but remains subordinate to its political masters. Huntington’s theory has long been attractive to the American military leadership, especially since the creation of an all-volunteer force. While a number of other writers, and several of Huntington’s own students, have tried to modify and introduce nuance in the debate, this simple-yet-powerful model has remained dominant, at least in military professional education.
Subject to Donald Trump’s depredations and the reactions of the retireds, this model is tumbling off its pedestal like a statue of a Confederate general. Trump has no qualms in the matter; he seeks but the triumph of his will. Mattis, for his part, has argued, since the moment of his resignation, that there was a kind of statute of limitations on his silence: “When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country,” he once said. He also warned that his silence would not “be eternal.” Mattis is a deeply learned man, and is certainly aware of the parlous state of civil-military relations. That he chose to take the step he did tells us of how dangerous a situation he sees America slipping into. But despite all that, what he has just said, too, will live on and have consequences that last beyond the current moment.
Mercifully, the Rubicon—that is, an incendiary comment by a currently-serving active-duty general—has yet to be crossed. But, as Caesar proved, that was a shallow stream, no real obstacle to the chaos on the far bank.