Who would have thought George Floyd, a black man murdered by police in Minneapolis, would spark a revolt against Donald Trump by three generations of retired American generals who have honorably served our country since the Vietnam War.
The retired generals’ decisions to speak out against Trump is not without possible personal liability. Retired officers are not exempt from military court-martial, and demeaning the president by words or deeds remains a violation of military law.
Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) criminalizes “contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or the Governor or legislature of any state . . .”
In older times, breaching the unwritten and well understood code of honor that marks military officers’ lives was paid for with a self-inflicted bullet to the brain, much preferred to the ignominy of being put against a wall and shot.
There are no such rash requirements today. In 21st Century America, outspoken officers can resign on principle, as former Secretary of Defense and Marine Gen. James N. Mattis did, or simply be sidelined, marked “unreliable, do not recall in case of war.”
In 2016, U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opined, “Retired [officers] can . . . become part of the . . . political landscape,” though Dempsey strongly recommended against them doing so.
That was before Trump stood in the Rose Garden last week, posturing like a caricature of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. During his remarks, Trump threatened to use federal troops in response to the demonstrations fueled by the death of Floyd.
Trump warned America’s governors and mayors:
“If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”
It was more than Dempsey and a host of other senior military officers could accept without publicly commenting.
Dempsey, in an interview with ABC’s “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz, said:
“My generation of military leaders, who entered right after the Vietnam War, spent the majority of our careers, whether it was 20 years, 30 years or 40 years, in my case, trying to rebuild our relationship with the American people. I felt it important to try to keep that relationship sound and solid. Inflammatory language can be an impediment to that.”
The first officer to publicly break ranks with Trump was Mattis, the four-star Marine warrior and scholar of military history who led the way with damning comments in an October 2019 keynote speech at a fund-raising dinner.
At the time, the coronavirus pandemic was still in the future and the recorded murder of Floyd George by police was too horrible to even contemplate.
Mattis was speaking to a crowd of wealthy New Yorkers raising money on behalf of America’s neediest children. Mattis, called the “Warrior Monk” by enthralled young Marines, was at his wisecracking best at the swank New York affair. He told his audience he had finally “achieved greatness.”
A slim, fit man with a quiet, sure demeanor, Mattis is a figure far removed from the cheesy “Mad Dog” moniker Trump and his lowbrow cronies once used to characterize him. How they didn’t know that Mattis, as well as most Marines, consider the nickname demeaning is remarkable. More likely, Trump didn’t care. He has no boundaries.
In 2016, Mattis was Trump’s shining star, the crown jewel in his nascent Cabinet. The president-elect told an audience in Cincinnati during his post-election victory lap that Mattis is “the closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have.”
Like everything else that drips from Trump’s mouth, his revisionist history is nonsense. Patton was a loud, profane man with a high, squeaky voice, an obsession for stars on his burlesque uniforms, and a penchant for talking like a bordello bouncer. He is best known in military history as a brilliant tactician who motivated his soldiers with stark terror.
Mattis, by contrast, is a quiet thinker who knows how to motivate generals and privates alike to do their best simply by being a man they don’t want to disappoint. His power to lead was burnished by his lifelong study of the military arts. He joined the Marine Corps in 1972 and stayed 44 years. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised Mattis as one of the most formidable “warrior-scholars” of his generation.
During Mattis’ keynote address in 2019 after Mattis had resigned as Secretary of Defense, he told his audience, “I’m not just an overrated general, I am the greatest, the world’s most overrated. I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump, because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So, I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals. Frankly that sounds pretty good to me.”
Then he delivered a knockout blow as powerful as the one he administered to the Iraqi Army in the opening weeks of the Iraq War, during the Marines brilliant and decisive drive to Baghdad.
“I earned my spurs on the battlefield,” Mattis explained, “. . . and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”
It took more than six months for the dam holding back the outrage that professional military officers feel for Trump to finally break. The apparent turning point was when the president threatened to deploy the elite 82nd Airborne Division, the nation’s battle-ready strategic reaction force, against American citizens.
The famed 82nd, the “All American,” constantly train to bash its enemies into dust whenever they get the chance. In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the 82nd to Detroit when deadly riots broke out between police and black residents, and again in 1968 to put down rioters following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Trump wanted to unleash them against the George Floyd protestors: “We will end it now,” Trump declared last week in the Rose Garden, calling himself, “your president of law and order.”
Mattis, a true believer in the chain of command and his place in it, uncharacteristically went on the offensive in response to Trump’s irresponsible palaver.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis wrote. “The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand — one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our values as people and our values as a nation.”
Mattis goes on, “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
Since his op-ed was published in The Atlantic magazine, a phalanx of senior generals and admirals joined the quiet coup of the retired officer corps by condemning Trump as a man of little vision, no empathy and, to draw on an ancient Army analogy, “without the sense to pour piss out of a boot.”
On Friday, Foreign Policy magazine published a piece from retired four-star Marine Gen. John Allen, who argued that Trump is putting “the American experiment” at risk:
“There is no precedent in modern U.S. history for a president to wield federal troops in a state or municipality over the objections of the respective governor. Right now, the last thing the country needs — and, frankly, the U.S. military needs — is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens.”
Without military support, Trump jumped back into his newly fortified White House, safe and secure inside a prison of his own construction.