The Military Says “Stand Down” to Trump
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.” (War is a Racket)
“I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. That they design and want. That they fight and work for. [Not one] crammed down their throats by Americans.”
Two Marine Generals, Smedley Butler and David Shoup, uttered those words, in 1933 and 1966, to condemn U.S. military intervention and aggression in foreign countries. They’re not typical. Few people with their rank and status speak out. But they weren’t as rare as one might think either. While Butler and Shoup offered powerful criticisms of national policy, it hasn’t been that unusual for military officers, and especially retired officers, to weigh in on national issues and dissent from national policy.
During the Vietnam era, a large number of retired brass criticized the war and, importantly, active-duty military officials offered a steady drumbeat of pessimistic and bleak views of Vietnam and warned against intervention and escalation–to little avail of course. Among those who were outspoken against Vietnam were Matthew Ridgway, who had commanded U.N. forces in Korea, and James Gavin, an ex-NATO Commander. Other retired officers joined their dissent and provided space for more opposition to the war. It’s one of the less-known stories of Vietnam but nonetheless a vital part of the narrative.
It would be easy to dismiss these officers as a novelty, a few cranks going against the grain, but in the context of Vietnam, they were important. The main reason for the U.S. failure in that was in Vietnam itself–the protracted and often-brilliant resistance of the the forces of liberation there–the NLF, the VC, the PLAF, the PAVN.
But outside of Vietnam the U.S. had to contend with a few forces that also made victory impossible–mainly the active resistance of soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, where antiwar activities that went as far as fragging of officers was common, and in vets groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which had huge protests and launched the career of John Kerry who, in the most noble act of his political life before becoming an establishment politician and avid interventionist, testified before Congress and condemned “this barbarous war” and hoped that veterans would help Americans come to grips with the horrors of Vietnam “so when, in 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory but mean instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
So the civilian administrations waging the war in Vietnam had to contend with the fear of rebellion in the ranks and the significant opposition of military veterans. It also had to confront the critical responses of ruling-class figures, like the generals who opposed the war publicly or offered somber analyses of it private, and Wall Street and corporate leaders who warned that Vietnam was destroying the national economy. During the Iraq War that started in 2003, a similar dynamic was at play, as respected pillars of the military, notable names like Anthony Zinni and Wesley Clark, spoke out against U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
To be clear, these were not antiwar activists condemning the American role in the world or American power (though Butler and Shoup did). They were insiders who believed that U.S. aggression would undermine global stability and harm American interests and they were concerned about the credibility of their own institutions as well. But since the ruling class isn’t democratic, doesn’t care a lot about what “the people” think or do, these military (and Wall Street) critics were important as the elites who run the country debated global military, and economic, strategies.
Fast forward to 2020, as the U.S. faces multiple systemic crises–a global pandemic with already over 100,000 dead mishandled in the most egregious manner, an economic crash with over 40,000,000 unemployed and banks and corporations getting bailed out while millions lose jobs and health insurance, and now national rebellions sparked by racist police killings stoked by an angry violent White Supremacist president but encompassing years of racism, neglect, economic precarity, and ruling-class indifference to the lives of working Americans.
And into that combustible mix the American president has poured gas on the fires unrelentingly, calling for the most repressive responses and repeatedly threatening to deploy not just police or National Guard, but U.S. military troops in the streets of America to “dominate” the immense number of Americans protesting a failed society.
And amid this, we are now seeing significant representatives of the military ruling class, not just retired brass but active-duty officials, say “Stand Down” to the commander-in-chief. These men do not have the same political ideas or interests as people in the streets to be sure, but they have created a visible and significant obstacle to Trump’s plans to put active-duty military into action against the American people protesting in America’s streets. That’s not an unimportant development.
The most powerful denunciation of Trump has come from James Mattis, a retired General who had commanded the U.S. Joint Forces Command, was commander of the U.S. Central Command, and served as Trump’s defense secretary until 2018, and has served on several corporate boards of directors (and, to be thorough, probably committed war crimes as a commander in Fallujah). As much as anyone Mattis is an exemplar of the Military-Industrial Complex. In a strident essay, an “angry and appalled” Mattis assailed Trump for dividing Americans and inciting conflict. Putting himself on the side of the people in the streets and invoking the concept of “equal justice under law,” Mattis explained that “this is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding.”
Surprisingly, he did not denounce the protestors, and admonished that Americans “not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.” He excoriated Trump for not uniting Americans, in fact “he does not even pretend to try,” and then, most strikingly, compared Trump to the Nazis: “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.'”
Had Mattis admonished Trump, it would have been news by itself, but other generals offered similar public statements. Indeed, even before Mattis, Admiral Mike Mullen, the JCS Chair from 2007-2011, wrote in The Atlantic that “it sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church.”
What was striking in both the Mattis and Mullen statements was not just that they publicly denounced a sitting president, but that they went beyond the constitutional aspects of Trump’s behavior, went beyond the way Trump was politicizing the deployment of troops, and actually discussed the underlying causes of the current rebellions.
Mullen frankly discussed the angry protests about racism, conceding that he couldn’t fully grasp the plight of American Blacks, “but as someone who has been around for a while, I know enough—and I’ve seen enough—to understand that those feelings are real and that they are all too painfully founded.” He, like Mattis, strongly supported “the right—indeed, the solemn obligation—to peacefully assemble and to be heard. These are not mutually exclusive pursuits.”
John Allen, another retired Marine four-star and president of the Brookings Institution, added his disgust that Trump and Barr had peaceful protestors physically routed but that “this photo-op sought to legitimize that abuse with a layer of religion.” He bluntly added that this current rising could lead to change, and in a cryptic shout-out to protestors, said “it will have to come from the bottom up. For at the White House, there is no one home.”
Others have joined in the chorus of condemnation as well. Martin Dempsey, Army General and past JCS Chief, tweeted “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” and then in what seemed to be a barb at the First Lady added the hashtag #BeBetter.
Michael Hayden, former director of both the NSC and CIA, took a clear shot at General Mark Milley, the current JCS Chair, who accompanied Trump and Barr for the photo op at St. John’s Church in Washington, saying “I was appalled to see him in his battle dress. Milley (he’s a general?!?) should not have walked over to the church with Trump.”
General Tony Thomas, ex-head of Special Operations Command, took aim at Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s description of the Washington D.C. using the language of war: “The ‘battle space’ of America??? Not what America needs to hear…ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure…ie a Civil War…”
Though these officers are retired, they are no doubt in communication, most likely frequent, with active-duty officers and it’s logical to assume that they’re publicly saying what officials in the Pentagon are telling them. More so, given that Trump has already had public spats with military officers, it’s not unlikely that they may have already pushed against his plans and called on their retired colleagues to make the public case for them. Collectively, as media described it, Trump was “facing an unprecedented revolt” from the military over his strongman tactics in the streets.
Even more problematic for Trump were the public statement of active-duty officers in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the 150 or so uprisings in American cities, and Trump’s escalating threats to unleash the military at home, including using the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy troops against Americans in areas where the uprisings were taking place.
On June 1, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, published an extraordinary and powerful series of tweets on being Black in America: “Who am I? I am a Black man who happens to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.” Wright talked of his outrage at “watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes.” Wright, the second African American to be the Air Force’s highest ranking enlisted officer, bluntly said that “what happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me. As shocking as that may sound to some of you…” as he announced an independent review his own service after reports showed a disproportionate number of young black airmen have been punished.
Before tweeting, Wright spoke with Air Force Chief of Staff General Dave Goldfein, who approved of his statement and then went on record in support of him, denouncing the death of George Floyd and acknowledging racism in the Air Force: “Sometimes it’s explicit, sometimes it’s subtle, but we are not immune to the spectrum of racial prejudice, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias. We see this in the apparent inequity in our application of military justice. We will not shy away from this; as leaders and as airmen we will own our part and confront it head on.” The commander of the new Space Force put out a similar memorandum, saying that George Floyd’s death “also serves as a stark reminder that racism and unequal treatment is a reality for many and a travesty for all. As members of the United States Space Force we are not immune. Many in our Service feel this pain a daily basis and we all are hurting as we have experienced the sickening events that have played out in our cities around the country.”
By that point, the floodgates had opened and Milley (who, according to inside sources in recent reports had been against the idea of deploying active-duty troops from the beginning) had no choice but to offer a statement in support of the constitution (a quite frightening development in its own right) and told the service chiefs to “please remind all our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
Perhaps the strongest public statment came from Sergeant Major Michael Grinston, Chief of Staff James McConville, and Secretary Ryan McCarthy of the Army. On June 3d, they released a statement through their Public Affairs Office acknowledging in detail the crisis of racism in America, saying that “we feel the frustration and anger. We felt it this week while traveling through the nation’s capital with the DC National Guard. We feel it, even though we can never fully understand the frustration and life experiences of people of color, in or out of uniform. But we do understand the importance of taking care of people, and of treating every person with dignity and respect.” And they continued
Every Soldier and Department of the Army Civilian swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution. That includes the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. We will continue to support and defend those rights, and we will continue to protect Americans, whether from enemies of the United States overseas, from COVID-19 at home, or from violence in our communities that threatens to drown out the voices begging us to listen. To Army leaders of all ranks, listen to your people, but don’t wait for them to come to you. Go to them. Ask the uncomfortable questions. Lead with compassion and humility, and create an environment in which people feel comfortable expressing grievances. Let us be the first to set the example. We are listening. And we will continue to put people first as long as we are leading the Army. Because people are our greatest strength.
After that remarkable 48 hours of retired officers and active-duty chiefs repudiating Trump’s threats, Esper had little choice but to backtrack on any plans to deploy troops on American soil and broke ranks with the president, saying that he now believed that soldiers should not be put into American cities. Trump was predictably livid over the whole affair, furiously denouncing Mattis and others in tweets and apparently considering replacing Esper.
Yet the military condemnation has continued. General Douglas Lute, who had been on the NSC under both Bush and Obama, warned that “there is a thin line between the military’s tolerance for questionable partisan moves over the past three years and the point where these become intolerable for an apolitical military. Relatively minor episodes have accumulated imperceptibly, but we are now at a point of where real damage is being done.” But, for the time being, at least one element of an ongoing national crisis seemed to be tempered.
Generals are not allies of street protestors, but have provided important support for resistance in this crisis by forcing the White House to reverse its plans to turn American streets into a war zone, at least as I write this on June 5th. Because their concern is the systemic breakdown of virtually every aspect of our national life in the past few years–the economy, politics, the healthcare system, race relations, global credibility–they have finally stepped in, for now, to put the brakes on Donald Trump’s reckless and unhinged behavior in every area of public life. They understand that Capitalist prosperity, and global hegemony, require stability.
A country with systemic crises in healthcare, the economy, and racism, especially police violence against Blacks causing rebellions in 150+ cities, with an vast and rapidly growing chasm between a few people with immense wealth and vast majorities living on the edge cannot be stable. In just a few months, the veneer has been ripped away and American exceptionalism and the U.S. role in the world have been exposed–a failed state and a paper tiger.
In surveys after the risings started, 64 percent of American supported the protests, while, more amazingly, 54 percent approved of torching a Minneapolis police precinct. Major corporations which have been non-political forever have issued statements that supported the protests–Nordstrom’s, Bleacher Report, Planet Fitness, even Harley Davidson, hardly a list of socially progressive businesses. Even George W. Bush, Michael Jordan, and, shockingly, Pat Robertson have added to the public discourse against Trump. Amid such a stark level of political chaos and uncertainty, these military leaders have stepped into the breach to stop the hemorrhaging, both to prevent further damage and to protect their own class interests because stability is a sine qua non of the economic system, more so than ever in late-stage Capitalism.
In this particular instance, since Trump represents such a grave threat to . . . everything, their interventions have seemed to offer a bit of breathing space to . . . everyone. But in the longer term, a society with that type of military influence will confront a new set of issues. Just as Americans have, forever, respected and honored police officers and basically ignored their everyday violence . . . until now, the military is still widely respected and little questioned.
To be clear, though, there’s also a big difference between soldiers and cops.
The military is probably the most diverse institution in America with regard to race, ethnicity, and gender. Non-Whites now make up 40 percent of the Armed Forces so the idea of sending them into the streets of American cities to quell a rebellion and perhaps kill people based on race is simply not feasible.
These retired officers and commanders who have spoken out understood that if Trump had sent armed soldiers into the current firestorm in the streets there might have been a serious fissure among troops, a significant number of whom have experienced situations similar to that of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor.
And, unlike most cops, who make a career out of police work, many young men and women join the military because it provides them with some income, health insurance, and perhaps some training or education. Most don’t make a career out of it. They return to civilian life and a fair number develop progressive political attitudes or even become radical–on this, listen to a recent episode of Green & Red Podcast, “War is a Racket,” featuring antiwar Vet Graham Clumpner (@turncoatveteran). Groups like VVAW and Vets for Peace are still active, and About Face offers community and support to antiwar, radical and anarchist vets, and would have surely been in the streets counseling soldiers to resist if Trump had deployed them. While antiwar, antiracist, and antimperialist veterans are commonplace, there aren’t similar groups of cops who repudiate their violent pasts and join the fight for justice.
The military and Trump have had a difficult relationship from the start as well. It’s an open secret than many (most?) officers don’t respect him–he’s a bombastic war-mongering draft dodger whose racism and sexism were never hidden and who mocked soldiers and officers as “losers” and worse. They’ve had open spats with him over pardoning war criminals and then firing the Navy Secretary after he balked, and relieving Capt. Brett Crozier of command of an aircraft carrier after his plea for help amid a coronavirus outbreak on his ship became public. Trump, who often boasts of masculinity and derides weakness, even as he hides in the White House bunker, sought out public confrontations with the military to prove his toughness, but it was a battle he could never win, as we’ve seen this week.
These Generals who’ve gone public, and probably the overwhelming majority of officers, want to see the Trump era end and also want to see this popular uprising in the streets over as well. They would have no problem with a Biden presidency, just as they had no problems with Bush, Obama or Clinton. They seek stability and probably reforms in order to return to some level of normalcy, so we may see a bump in the minimum wage, some kind of healthcare reform, some changes in the way police forces are put together and the way cops behave.
They are not rebels or anarchists or socialists, it goes without saying. There is no doubt they want to take this growing movement and channel it into reformist, and thus more controllable, pathways. Because of their credibility and “patriotism,” the media offers space to these Generals whenever they utter a word of dissent, but that is important to the resistance in the streets too. The ruling class is not homogenous, and whenever fissures occur, like now, protestors need to be aware of them and ready to operate in the new spaces created.
The issue now is for the millions of people in the streets to build off the events of the past few days. The work of fundamentally changing American society, an almost incomprehensibly immense task, begins with deposing the old regime, in this case Donald Trump, however that happens. After the events of this week, the likelihood of Trump trying to stop or steal the election is probably lessened. The military would not accept that and, more importantly, millions more would pour into the streets.
Trump, and the cops, have radicalized people in ways that radicals have never been able to do. These officers have worked in parallel ways by helping to discredit the use of force (at least on a federal level–local cops are still brutalizing protestors) and providing cover for some governors to recall or refuse to deploy National Guard units. They’ve also made sure the issues of racism and police violence remained the focus of the uprisings. Those are not small contributions.
Mattis et al are not modern-day versions of Smedley Butler or David Shoup or Hugh Thompson, the warrant officer who landed his helicopter at My Lai and forced the American Division to end its massacre of Vietnamese peasants. They’ve stopped a wannabee autocrat from causing mass bloodshed, but they have not questioned aggression abroad or the very nature of the American empire. Still, many people have asked me in the past few days “was this a ‘fuck you’ to Trump from the military?” Yes, it was. And we can be okay with that.
Systemic crises unfold and are played out in phases. No matter your ultimate goal, getting rid of the regime in power has to be the first step–Ho and Fidel knew they had to oust Bao Dai and Batista before moving forward. A socialist revolution in America is far from even beginning, but the point is that there is now an opening to do something real, and big. The very people that may have helped in ending Trumpism (and one can never underestimate what he’ll do when cornered even more and how these military officers will respond to him) will be a barrier to what the masses seek in the future.
I mentioned Ho Chi Minh above. I don’t think an American protestor in 2020 is a lot like a Viet Minh guerrilla in 1945, but Ho was brilliant in many ways and always could see far ahead and develop strategy accordingly. After World War II, as the French reentered Vietnam, many of his comrades in the Indochinese Communist Party wanted him to make a strong stand, to threaten France with war if they tried to thwart Vietnamese sovereignty. But Ho signed an agreement for shared power and a gradual transfer of independence, much to the anger of some comrades.
Ho explained that he’d rather sniff French shit for another five years than eat Chinese shit for another thousand…….
Updated, 6 June: Since writing this a couple more developments of note to add, which are part of the military’s rebuke of Trump.
On June 5th, the pentagon disarmed the National Guard in Washington D.C. and sent active-duty forces home; and on June 6th the Marine Corps put in a complete ban on the Confederate flag and any mugs, t-shirts, stickers, etc. with that image on it.