"There is a thin line between the tolerance we have witnessed from the military for three years and the point where it becomes intolerable," said Douglas Lute, a retired three-star Army general.
For the first three years of President Donald Trump's time in office, his blunt-force view of the military was confined to threatening US adversaries: "fire and fury" if North Korea challenged US troops. A warning that he would "shoot down and destroy" Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Billions spent to rejuvenate a nuclear arsenal he viewed as the ultimate source of US power.
His generals and admirals accepted a commander in chief with what they diplomatically dismissed as a "unique style" — and they welcomed the increase in military spending. His chief diplomats, while embarrassed, saw some utility in trying to force adversaries to the table.
Now, that tolerance has frayed. The split evident in the past few days between Trump and current and former military leaders over using active-duty troops on American soil against largely peaceful protesters and looters, and his threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, has laid bare the chasm in the national security community that was forming even when he ran for office in 2016.
Back then it was only a limited group of "Never Trumpers" — establishment Republican national security professionals repelled by Trump's description of how US power should be wielded around the world — who wrote and spoke of the dangers. He "lacks the character, values and experience" to be president, they wrote, and "would put at risk our country's national security."
This week, it was his former defence secretary, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a range of other retired senior officers who were saying in public what they previously said only in private: That the risk lies in the fact that Trump regards the military, which historically has prized its nonpartisan, apolitical role in society, as just another political force to be massed to his advantage.
"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," said Douglas E. Lute, a retired three-star Army general who coordinated Afghanistan and Pakistan operations on the National Security Council for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and later became the US ambassador to NATO. "Relatively minor episodes have accumulated imperceptibly, but we are now at a point of where real damage is being done."
Trump's walk to a church near the White House on Monday, with Defence Secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, in tow, may have been the moment everything shifted, Lute said.
"As that team walked across Lafayette Park with the president," after the heavy-handed clearing of a peaceful demonstration, he said, "they crossed that line."
As some of those senior leaders have faced a hail of criticism since then, their ties to the president seem to be shifting back to the troops and the Constitution. Esper, a former Army officer and Persian Gulf War veteran turned Beltway lobbyist for defence contractor Raytheon, seemed particularly stunned at what he had stumbled into.
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When he told NBC News that "I didn't know where I was going," he was speaking narrowly about being unaware that he was headed to the church. But his comment seemed to apply more broadly: That he did not understand that he was symbolically embracing the use of U.S. military forces — the National Guard, and not yet active-duty troops — to suppress peaceful protest. He did not help himself by declaring that same day, to governors, that the mission was to "dominate the battle space" in American cities, as if he were discussing an operation in Anbar province.
After Esper said Wednesday that the Insurrection Act "should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations," many in the Pentagon wonder if he can last. There is speculation about possible resignations from some senior officials.
Trump must have noticed that, one by one, the military chiefs issued statements to the troops reminding them that free speech and assembly are enshrined in the Constitution, and that is where their loyalty must reside. Those statements made no reference to Trump.
All this may dissipate if the president backs down from his threat to put active-duty troops on the streets, as he does so often, or the protests and looting subside.
But something remarkable has happened in the past four days: The last institution inside his own government that Trump has not gone to war with is now questioning what to do should it be ordered to go into American streets even if the protests and looting remain at a level that could be managed without militarising law enforcement.
Trump loves wrapping himself in the regalia of the military, wearing its caps, touring its "powerful" aircraft carriers, talking about "my generals." He was hardly the first president to rely on the military as a political prop: Franklin Delano Roosevelt did it throughout World War II; Dwight D. Eisenhower embodied the generation that won the war; Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had all served.
But for Trump, who avoided the risk of being drafted into the Vietnam War with a diagnosis of bone spurs, acceptance in the Pentagon was key — to him and to his base. He celebrated the hiring of Gen. Jim Mattis as his first defence secretary, calling him "Mad Dog," an appellation the general hated. And then he went looking for other generals: Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, who was forced to resign and was succeeded by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. And his second chief of staff was another general, John Kelly.
None of those relationships ended well. But it was Mattis' decision to break his long silence, and to declare that Trump was "the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try," that broke the dam.
Mattis, as a student of the rise and fall of civilisations, added: "We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battle space' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate.' At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors." His critique, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Thursday, was "true and honest and necessary and overdue," a rare Republican break with Trump.
Trump dismissed Mattis in a tweet Wednesday as "the world's most overrated General" and said that "his primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations."
Trump seems to view the military as an extension of domestic law enforcement as much as overseas combat.
But it was not until this week that the consequences of those differing views about the purposes of the US military became evident to many Americans. Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the country had reached "an inflection point" and denounced the use of the military to support the political acts of a president who had "laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country."
"The United States has a long and, to be fair, sometimes troubled history of using the armed forces to enforce domestic laws," Mullen wrote in The Atlantic. "The issue for us today is not whether this authority exists, but whether it will be wisely administered."
For many of these officers, the question was whether Trump was aware of that history. The Declaration of Independence, several noted, dwelled on the complaints that the King of England "kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislatures," and tried to "render the military independent of and superior to the civil power."
That is pretty close to what Trump did Monday night when he declared that Milley was "in charge" of what was happening in the streets. It is not a role, it turns out, that most in his military want.
What changed was the military went from being "portrayed as the defender of American freedoms" to "being portrayed as the oppressor of American freedoms," said Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor who served in national security roles for Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton. "That of course is not how the White House was viewing what it was asking the military to do. But that is the way it looked."
Written by: David E. Sanger
Photographs by: Erin Schaff
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