An open letter signed by numerous top generals and past defense secretaries claims that the difficulty in ensuring a peaceful transition of power following President Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 election has created “an exceedingly unfavourable climate” for the United States military.
Donald Trump is not specifically mentioned in the letter. The signatories delivered a thinly veiled condemnation of Trump and his army of supporters who called on the military to endorse his bogus claim that the election was stolen from him in 16 points on the values that are meant to characterize civil-military cooperation.
A bipartisan group wrote, “Military officers swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not an oath of fealty to an individual or an office,” and later added, “It is the responsibility of senior military and civilian leaders to ensure that any order they receive from the president is legal.”
Take advantage of The New York Times’ morning newsletter by signing up here.
The open letter was released on Tuesday on War on the Rocks, a website that provides analysis of national security and international affairs issues. Two former defense secretaries who worked under Trump, Jim Mattis and Mark Esper, were among the signatories.
This letter has the tone and style of a civics class from an American high school. The military’s responsibility to follow only lawful commands has been a recurring subject in the six years since Trump took office. Trump’s presidency was a tumultuous time for the Pentagon, as he sent troops to the southwest border in a standoff against immigration, incited a throng that stormed the Capitol, and asked the military to deploy against demonstrators seeking racial justice.
In addition, Trump reportedly questioned his chief of staff, retired Marine general John Kelly, why he couldn’t have military chiefs who were devoted to him like the “German generals in World War II,” as reported in “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. (Baker is The New York Times’ main White House correspondent, while Glasser is on staff at The New Yorker.)
Former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under both the Bush and Obama administrations, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, has claimed that today’s political dialogue is rife with comments that demonstrate an ignorance of the military’s function.
Mullen, one of the signatories, said in an interview that the letter “is not targeted at Trump, but when you hear him talk about Hitler’s generals, well, that’s not who we are.”
Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University, and retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama, were the original authors of the letter.
Feaver said in an interview that the ongoing fallout includes calls for the resignation of Gen. Mark Milley, the current chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on cable television, especially on Fox News programming.
Feaver stated, referring to the civil-military principles outlined in the letter, “Those cable personalities are not adopting this list as their benchmark.” (The letter emphasizes the last phrase, which states that the military “has a commitment to help civilian leaders in both the administrative and legislative branches in the formation of sensible and ethical directives but must implement them provided that the directives are legal.”)
“Milley need to be graded like an Olympic diver,” Feaver remarked. He was asked to perform something that was far more challenging than everything else on this list.
For example, in the summer of 2020, Trump called on Milley to accompany him as he walked through a park near the White House where protesters protesting police brutality and racism had just been tear-gassed, so that the president could pose for a photo while carrying a Bible.
The president’s anger was not alleviated by the general’s subsequent apology. In the latter days of the Trump administration, Milley further infuriated the president by requesting that he and other top generals examine standard operating procedures for the use of nuclear weapons.
Milley “was navigating civil-military interactions at a time when the processes of the Trump administration were breaking down,” Feaver added. It’s the best anyone can do under the circumstances if he gets a bit wet here and there, right?