Here come the generals.
A procession of decorated former U.S. military leaders has spoken out in recent days to gravely denounce President Trump and his unmistakably authoritarian response to the demonstrations against police violence and racial injustice sparked by the death of George Floyd.
James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, accused Trump of shredding the Constitution with the violent removal of protesters outside the White House so that Trump could stage a photo op. Mattis, who was Trump’s first secretary of defense, said Americans were “witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
John Allen, a retired Marine Corps four-star general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned that the “slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020,” the day of Trump’s crackdown and photo op. “Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
Mike Mullen, a retired Navy admiral and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest ranking military position in the country, penned an essay titled “I Cannot Remain Silent” in which he wrote that Trump’s conduct “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”
These condemnations immediately found an eager audience among the Beltway crowd. The cable networks breathlessly covered them. The words of Mullen, Mattis, and Allen were described as “scathing,” “powerful,” “careful,” “hugely important,” “remarkable,” “striking,” “stunning,” “necessary,” and “overdue.”
Here is another extraordinary quote from Mattis. It was 2004 and he was a major general and commander of the 1st Marine Division fighting in Iraq. American forces had just bombed a wedding party near the Iraq-Syria border. According to the Guardian, dozens of people were killed, among them wedding guests and the band hired to perform at the event. Asked about the bombing afterward, Mattis didn’t flinch. “How many people go to the middle of the desert…to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” he told reporters.
Forgive me for not rushing to embrace the stinging condemnations and sober calls to action by America’s military leaders when it comes to Donald Trump’s performance as president.
What is it about a retired military general speaking up that causes so many otherwise intelligent and shrewd people to fall over themselves with praise? What is it about old white generals that is now so convincing and powerful when so many others, including people of color, have warned about this president’s worst impulses for so long?
These are, after all, the same military leaders who endorsed and defended a policy of forever war that has led to tens of thousands of American deaths, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans and Syrians and Yemenis and Pakistanis, hundreds of thousands of injuries physical and mental suffered by U.S. service members, and many billions of taxpayer dollars poured into endless conflict.
These are the same military leaders who have presided over the longest war in U.S. history, the Afghan war, a conflict so prolonged that there are soldiers old enough to serve who weren’t yet born when the U.S. first invaded in 2001.
It’s a tradition as old as this nation: We regard our military leaders with an awe and a respect afforded to few other classes of people. Washington, Patton, Ike, MacArthur. But after two decades of disastrous wars, presided over by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, why do we continue to treat the eloquent and self-serving words of the likes of Mullen, Allen, and Mattis with such reverence?
When Mattis writes that we are “witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” it would be easier to take him seriously if he first reckoned with the consequences of 19 years of conflict in the Middle East in which he played a leading role.
When Mullen tsk-tsks the use of the phrase “battlespace” in the context of the recent protests, it would be easier to take him seriously if he wrestled with the U.S. military treating so much of the world as a battlespace to be patrolled by our drones and dotted with our bases.
When Allen writes that Trump’s tear-gas photo op “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment,” it would be easier to take him seriously if he first addressed how forever wars waged by a tiny slice of the citizenry fit into the American experiment.
Now is the time to elevate voices who will help us find meaning in this moment of upheaval and protest, help us situate this moment in history, and help us think through what it portends for the future. What the generals have come forward to say this week is better than nothing, but without a reckoning of their own failures, they remain as much part of the problem as the solution.