Over 72 hours last week, a situation unfolded that had been unseen in America for 70 years: retired generals and politicians on both sides of the aisle raining criticism on the White House after a military policy pronouncement sparked conflict and dissension.
The last time came when President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a move that drove generals to break their nearly monastic vow of silence, an unspoken code that keeps those who have held the highest military ranks from espousing political views.
This time it was President Donald Trump's announcement that he would deploy active-duty troops to cities rocked by protests and rioting, with or without the permission of local authorities.
The situation resounded in Colorado Springs, with its outsized contingent of retired and active-duty military brass. At least one general officer here mulled resigning if Trump pushed active-duty troops into cities. Others, steeped in the unwritten rules of life in the military, thought their colleagues were wrong for criticizing the commander in chief.
“It’s obviously pretty complex,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Marty France, one of the generals who leaned toward criticism of Trump's threat to deploy the military.
Colorado Springs U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn said events of the past week were most American in character, with leaders and citizens weighing in on an important issue in ways that moved past partisanship.
“No one should be afraid of a healthy debate,” he said. While a staunch ally of Trump, Lamborn said he couldn’t support sending active-duty troops against protesters.
MacArthur’s firing started with the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. The issue of sending troops into cities was sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man prosecutors say was killed by a police officer who held him to the ground with a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The video of Floyd's death sparked outrage and ongoing protests nationwide.
The issue at stake both in 1951 and now is the president's authority over his generals. MacArthur wanted to bomb China and use Taiwanese forces against the Chinese in Korea against Truman's wishes. Truman said he fired MacArthur "because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president."
The president's authority over the military became an issue again recently when peaceful daytime protests turned into nighttime riots from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, and Trump decided in an election year to come out hard on the side of law and order.
“Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled,” Trump said in a Rose Garden speech. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
That second sentence was the problematic one for several military leaders because it involved using the Insurrection Act of 1807, a law designed to allow the president to put down a civil war. And amid growing pressure, it drove Defense Secretary Mark Esper to a public break with the president who appointed him.
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper said during a hastily called news conference. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act”
In between Trump’s comments and Esper’s rejection of them, a string of military leaders weighed in.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote in The Atlantic that he was sickened by Trump’s remarks.
“The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws,” Mullen said. “The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered.”
While that might seem mild, it was the equivalent of a shout from protesters in the Mullen lexicon, and the first time he's questioned presidential policy in public.
Mullen’s predecessor, retired Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, said he was saddened by Trump’s remarks and what followed when police broke up a protest near the White House before Trump and his entourage headed to a nearby church where the president posed for photos holding a Bible.
“The first thing was absolute sadness that people are not allowed to protest. And as I understand it, that was a peaceful protest that was disturbed by force,” Myers said on CNN. “That’s not right. That should not happen in America, and so I was sad. I mean, we should all shed tears over that particular act.”
The most scathing comments, though, came from former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who led Trump’s Pentagon until his resignation in December, 2018.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis wrote. “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 alongside.”
Wednesday, retired Gen. Wes Clark of Colorado Springs said Trump was out of line.
“I’m glad both Esper and Mattis are sticking by their guns and I’m sticking by them,” he said.
Most retired generals shy away from wading into politics.
It’s a habit they pick up in uniform. Leaders are taught that while they should vote, they shouldn’t talk politics, because the American military is subordinate to its civilian leadership, no matter who gets elected.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mark Volcheff said it sends the wrong message to troops now serving when their retired comrades get noisy about politics. That kind of argument should be the purview of civilians, he said.
“I don't think we as general and flag officers should have a stronger and more vocal opinion,” Volcheff said.
Mattis, Trump’s most vocal critic in the latest fracas, was himself an adherent to generals keeping their opinions to themselves. In a book released after his resignation, Mattis declined to take potshots at his former boss, saying it was his duty to keep opinions under wraps.
Volcheff said he has taught his subordinates to lay off talk of politics. Some have said the apolitical nature of the American armed forces is what has kept this nation from suffering the military coups that have plagued other nations.
Now, as a retiree, he still wants to set an example for troops on active duty.
“You hear one thing when they are in uniform and after they retire you hear something else, that gets confusing,” he said.
An Air Force Academy permanent professor, France, too, was reluctant to loudly voice his political opinions.
Cadets are taught that's the wrong thing to do.
“You don't want generals and admirals identified as being Republican or Democrat,” France said. “You want professionals in the military who will support and defend the Constitution.”
But what happened last week couldn’t be left without comment, he said. Junior officers can’t tell Trump that putting troops into American cities is wrong-headed, so France decided to say it for them.
“I think it is somewhat sad that we have gotten to the point where something like that was necessary,” he said. “It is a very tough situation for a lot of people in the military.”
The president’s comments were enough to draw differing opinions from some of his strongest supporters.
Lamborn has lavished praise on the Trump administration, and continues to back the president.
But, he said, “I think the bulk of Republicans and conservatives don't think the situation today calls for the sending in of federal troops.”
Lamborn was also proud of Esper for taking a strong stance.
“He's actually just doing his job and not being a yes man,” said Lamborn, who is one of the top-ranking Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee.
Lamborn said Trump’s top military advisers have a duty to disagree at times with the president they serve.
“I think absolutely everyone who is in the military, especially top advisors to the president like the secretary of defense, owe it to the president to give their best advice,” he said.
MacArthur might have been prescient with his speech delivered to a cheering Congress after he was fired as the top American general over the war in Korea.
“Old soldiers never die,” he said citing the lyrics of a song he learned as a cadet at West Point. “They just fade away.”
MacArthur’s supporters in and out of uniform raised a ruckus, even arranging a ticker-tape parade for their fired hero in New York City. But Truman refused to back down. MacArthur stayed fired, and did seem to just fade away in retirement.
Trump’s proposal to send active-duty troops has thus far faded, as well.
He initially reacted strongly to the criticism from generals, taking to Twitter to slam Mattis.
“I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him, and many others agree,” Trump wrote. “Glad he is gone!”
But by Friday morning, the Mattis comments were so buried under dozens of presidential tweets and retweets that they were hard to find.
And in a Friday morning address to reporters, Trump had moved on to praise the nation’s economic rebound.
The protests, he said, were easily dealt with by the National Guard.
“This was like a piece of cake,” he said.