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Is Trump hurting the military?

Using the military as a political prop may have these three consequences.

- June 2, 2020

On June 1, 2020, President Trump threatened in a televised speech to use the military to “quickly solve the problem” of largely peaceful protests across the country, as military police used gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters nearby, in what many are describing as a photo op. Later in the evening, military helicopters flew low over Washington to try to disperse crowds, while Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper walked on downtown streets.

How will this use of military force in the U.S. capital to shut down domestic protests affect the military as an institution in the United States? I asked three experts on civil-military relations. Here’s what they wrote.

1. Last night’s events will further politicize views of the military

Politics are about material power and social influence. The U.S. military has a wealth of both. This fact has not threatened the U.S. political system because both the nation’s civilian political establishment and its military have adhered strongly to the principle that the U.S. military does not support domestic partisan political groups.

Public confidence in the military is generally high. But research finds that confidence divides starkly along party and demographic lines. Republicans report as much as 20 percentage points more confidence than do Democrats, and nonwhite Americans report about 10 percentage points less confidence in the armed services than do whites. In other words, despite the military’s commitment to nonpartisanship, and despite the fact the military’s enlisted ranks are even more diverse than the general U.S. population, a polarized American public increasingly views the military through a partisan political lens.

The president has threatened to use the military, which he often refers to as if it were his political constituency and political resource, against a group of citizens not generally aligned with him, in an election year. That the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff joined a photo op with the president Monday night and later walked around downtownjust checking” the security services around the White House could raise more questions about how Trump is using the military for political gain.

Alice Hunt Friend (@ahfdc) is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct lecturer at American University’s School of International Service.

2. These events may do lasting damage to the military’s place in society and its effectiveness

As Lindsay Cohn explained here at TMC this morning, the president is within his rights to use the military domestically under certain circumstances, and the military is obliged to follow legal civilian orders. But one lesson of 20 years of continuous foreign wars — which have, in turn, helped militarize the police — is that engaging in heavy-handed tactics against civilians can inflame rather than calm tensions and can even escalate violence.

How the military handles the role Trump is assigning it will affect its own future as an institution. The military’s status as one of the most trusted institutions in U.S. society could be compromised if the public and Congress perceive the military as using excessive force, particularly against peaceful protesters, or as behaving like a politicized tool of the president.

Such a perception could hurt the military’s ability to maintain internal cohesion and to recruit a diverse force, which research suggests are important for combat effectiveness. It also could puncture the bubble of political invincibility that has protected large Pentagon budgets since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, leading the public and Congress to question whether spending hundreds of billions of dollars per year on defense has actually made the country safer.

Caitlin Talmadge (@ProfTalmadge) is associate professor of security studies at Georgetown University and the author of “The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes” (Cornell University Press, 2015).

3. The U.S. military isn’t organized for this kind of mission

The U.S. government has deployed the military within its own borders to enforce domestic law more than 100 times in the nation’s history. Those episodes include enforcing desegregation of schools in the 1950s and protecting civil rights marchers in the 1960s, as well as breaking strikes during World War I and interning Japanese Americans during World War II.

Today, the president is contemplating invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to send troops into U.S. cities to impose order. President George H.W. Bush last invoked that law in 1992, sending in troops to quell the Los Angeles riots triggered by a predominantly white jury’s “not guilty” verdict in the trial of white police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King while he lay motionless in the street.

The president and other top officials have used the language of war to describe the military’s proposed mission. Trump urged the nation’s governors to “dominate” protesters and “do retribution,” while his secretary of defense told them they needed to “dominate the battlespace.” As far back as 1990, the president once said China showed “the power of strength” in “putting down” the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, when that nation’s military killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in the process.

In the United States, massacring protesters is not an option, no matter how tough the president talks. But sending the military onto the streets of U.S. cities is unlikely to work in the way Trump intends.

The president believes knocking protesters down “like bowling pins,” as he praised the National Guard for doing in Minneapolis during the weekend, will cow people into submission and help us “get back to the right normal,” as Secretary Esper put it.

The U.S. Army is trained to fight other militaries on a defined battlefield, using heavy, armored vehicles such as tanks that give it mobile firepower. This force structure is not well-suited to policing or other civilian-oriented operations, as the army learned painfully in Vietnam and after defeating Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq.

Calming protests requires a careful policing operation, not a military one. The challenge is to distinguish peaceful protesters expressing their anger over the killing of George Floyd from those intent on carrying out violence, destruction and looting. As research has shown us, using force indiscriminately in domestic policing, as in counterinsurgency operations, is more likely to fuel than douse the flames of insurrection.

Alexander Downes is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the author of “Targeting Civilians in War” (Cornell University Press, 2008).