Mark Esper is the United States’ Secretary of Defense, at least for now. He’s openly stated his opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law that would allow President Donald Trump to use the military to quell the recent unrest that has followed the death of George Floyd while being arrested, and although he quickly backed away from the statement he might not be defense secretary for long.
Trump has deployed National Guard units to patrol the streets of Washington, D.C, and urged governors to also use the National Guard, and he’d clearly love to unleash the active duty military on the streets. Ever eager to project an image of toughness, Trump hopes to “dominate the battle space,” even if it’s a peaceful protest in a public park that’s blocking his walk to a photo opportunity, and seems to care little that the military isn’t eager to take up arms against its fellow citizens.
Esper is a decorated combat veteran of the Army, and is steeped in the military’s proudly apolitical tradition. Trump’s first defense secretary, Gen. Jim Mattis, came from the same tradition and broke with his habit of not commenting on political matters to sharply criticize Trump with an essay that ran in The Atlantic magazine.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing by,” Mattis wrote. “We must reject any notion of our cities as a ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’ Militarizing our response, as we witness in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict — a false conflict — between the military and civilian society.” He went on to criticize Trump for dividing rather than uniting the country.
Trump predictably responded by “tweet,” calling Mattis “the world’s most overrated general,” and despite his having appointed Mattis to be defense secretary adding “I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him, and many others agree.”
Although he talks tougher than any decorated combat veteran, Trump never served in the military, dodging the draft during the Vietnam War with educational deferments and a note for a podiatrist who rented his office from Trump’s father. He boasts about how he’s strengthened the military with increased defense spending, which is true even if he exaggerates how badly it fared until he came along, but he’s often clashed with the military leaders who don’t like being used as political props and disagree with his pardons of convicted war criminals. Trump doesn’t understand military culture, with its notions of honor and adherence to strict codes of conduct, and he doesn’t care about any Constitutional restrictions on its use.
That 1807 law does give Trump authority to quell an insurrection, but no previous president has invoked it, even in the turbulent 1960s, and Mattis and Esper are probably right that now is not the time to do so. Trump would be wise to listen, rather “tweet” more tough talk.
— Bud Norman