Defense Secretary Mark Esper finds himself in the middle of a domestic political mess he probably never expected when he took over direction of the nation's fighting forces — forces trained to fight enemies abroad, not citizens on American streets. Now the National Guard is being activated in Missouri, among other states, to quell protests over police brutality and help burnish President Donald Trump's image. Fears are growing inside the Pentagon that military cohesion could be degraded if active-duty troops are used as pawns to boost Trump's political standing.
Esper told reporters Wednesday that he had been unaware of Trump's plans to clear out protesters on Monday from Lafayette Square, across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, so the president could pose for a photo holding a Bible outside a church. Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, dressed in combat fatigues, flanked Trump on the walk.
Protesters at that point had behaved entirely peacefully. Yet, on the administration's orders, federal forces and police, backed by National Guard troops, fired chemical irritants and smoke grenades while advancing on the protesters. Trump's show of force unquestionably suppressed the protesters' rights of free speech and peaceful assembly. An investigation is now underway, Esper says, concerning deployment of a military medical helicopter to hover low over the protesters in a clearly menacing way.
Esper compounded his own headaches Monday by urging the use of troops to "dominate the battlespace." Esper is not so young that he hasn't heard of Kent State, where characterizations of protesters as the enemy led to the shooting deaths of four unarmed college students on May 4, 1970, by National Guard troops.
Esper now says he regrets the "battlespace" remark. He also clearly sought to distance himself from Trump's photo-op debacle. Milley reportedly is so upset that he declined to appear with Esper at Wednesday's press briefing.
Former Undersecretary of Defense James Miller resigned Tuesday as a member of the Defense Science Board over Esper's participation in the Lafayette Square photo-op, asking in his letter, "If last night's blatant [constitutional] violations do not cross the line for you, what will?"
Esper and Milley should be deeply worried about a potential rift within U.S. military ranks. More than half of women and just under half of men in the U.S. armed forces are black, Hispanic or other minorities. There is no way to know what troops' opinions are, but it's safe to say a very large portion, along with their white colleagues, are outraged at George Floyd's suffocation death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. It's safe to say that many feel a sense of solidarity with the protesters, against whom they're now being ordered to fight.
Those troops should be questioning what their mission is and whose interests they are serving. We certainly are.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Photo credit: 272447 at Pixabay