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Roundtable: Former Military Officials On The Protests Against Police Violence

Protesters rally in front of Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Philadelphia, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)
Protesters rally in front of Pennsylvania National Guard soldiers, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Philadelphia, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Former American military leadership has been speaking out against the use of force against protesters. We talk with some of them about why.


Gen. Wesley Clark, retired four-star general. Former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Served 38 years in the U.S. Army. ( @GeneralClark)

Col. Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2002-2005). Served 31 years in the U.S. Army. Adjunct professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary.

Mara Karlin, associate professor and director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Executive director of the Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. ( @SAISStrat)

Interview Highlights

When the president said that he would consider asking active duty troops to help quell protests in the United States, what was your first response to that?

Col. Larry Wilkerson: “I immediately thought about two organizations that I’m a member of right now. And let me just put a little different complexion on this, perhaps. One is the National Task Force [on] Election Crises and the other is the Transition Integrity Project. As the names imply, the former is looking at everything up to the November 3rd presidential elections, and has been doing so since early or late 2019. And the latter is looking at the transition, November 3rd to the inauguration on January [20th].

“And what struck me immediately was some of the conversations that we’ve had in both of these groups. That this sitting president might — if things turn against him in a very decisive way, or even turn against him in a indeterminate way — might use the U.S. military with regard to these elections. And that’s a very dangerous situation and very disconcerting thing.

“It’s not that it hasn’t happened before. General Grant, for example, in 1876 dispatched troops to various polling places to keep essentially the Ku Klux Klan from scaring blacks away from voting. That, you might say, was a positive use of the military. But nonetheless, it was a dangerous use of the military. We’re looking at things like that right now, and between now and the 3rd of November, and even after the 3rd of November. And it’s very frightening when you see this example being set just the other day.”

Who is joining you in these groups? Who is wondering about whether the president would use the U.S. military to interfere with a U.S. election?

Col. Larry Wilkerson: “You might be stunned if I were able to give you some of the names. Let’s just say that it’s people who’ve been in the national security establishment. Some of them 30, 40 years. People who served in cabinet positions as secretaries for various presidents. People of both political parties and people who are independents. People who work in the precincts with state, secretaries of state and voting officials throughout Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and so forth. These groups are composed of people who are very concerned and wish to remain bipartisan, trans-partisan even, with regard to these elections. Our goal in both groups is free and fair elections, the results of which the majority of the American people accept as legitimate. And we’re looking at all manner of scenarios. And some of them involve the misuse, I will characterize it, of the U.S. military.”

How long have they have these groups been meeting?

Col. Larry Wilkerson: “The National Task Force has been meeting really since last year. Vigorously since January, and since the coronavirus came upon us, almost weekly, if not more frequently. The transition project has been meeting now for about two or three months and is involved now in doing some exercises to determine what the reactions might be to gain at least insights from these sort of political war games into what the reactions might be in various states and precincts and so forth with regard to the election.

“Let me give you one scenario, for example, that’s quite frightening that we looked at in sort of a tabletop exercise way. It’s where in Texas where you have no backup for a lot of the voting. You have no paper backup at all in, say, 27 different precincts. All of a sudden you get a hack. And a high schooler proficient in hacking — there [are] more of them than you might think — could eliminate some of the votes, if not all the votes in those precincts.

“There is no backup. So what does Texas do? What are the statutes in Texas require them to do? What do they prohibit them from doing? Do you have a new election? Can you do it in time? Can you do it before December [14th] when the elector slate is supposed to meet in Washington? These are serious problems that we’re looking at.”

But you also said that the groups are looking at the possibility of what might happen if the president turned to the military in November. Are you gaming out scenarios like that as well? 

Col. Larry Wilkerson: “We are. I have a particular insight into that, because — I can’t tell you the individual’s name — but I was recently in a senator’s office. My political party, I’m a Republican, and a senator dismissed people from his office, asked me to dismiss my people, who were escorting me. And he asked me a question. And the question was, What did I think the military would do if Trump lost decisively in November and departed the White House in a huff? And in that huff announced that he would like his base to come to the street with their guns?

“I looked at the senator and I said, Senator, you just posed one of the most serious questions you possibly could about the status of this republic. I can’t tell you what the military would do. I can tell you that a lot of the military voted for President Trump, especially in the ranks. I can tell you that maybe the leadership is not so inclined to be pro-Trump, but I can’t tell you exactly what would happen. I can tell you what I wish would happen, that the military would, in a phrase, stay in barracks. That is to say, it would not do anything. Unless Trump were successful in getting lots of his militia, so to speak, into the street with their guns.

“And by the way, the FBI will tell you that the base that belongs to Trump, if you will, probably own somewhere between 60% and 70% of the 300 to 400 million guns in America. If that were to happen, and serious results came about, then I would hope that the military would act in consonance with its constitutional responsibility and would wind up being the force that opposed that group. But we’re talking about either near revolution or revolution there in some respects. So I’d rather not go that far. But I certainly am thinking in those ways because we’ve got to be ready. We’ve got to know what we’re going to do, or at least have some estimation of what we’re going to do beforehand, in case the worst happens.”

On scenarios where the United States military would defy an order of the commander in chief 

Col. Larry Wilkerson: “And stay in barracks. I remember an occasion in the Philippines when [Colin] Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Cory Aquino, then the president of the Philippines, called us and said, ‘Can you do something? There is a Philippine captain and an entire Philippine army company getting ready to depose me.’ And all we did — most Americans know nothing about this — all we did was fly a couple of F-4’s loaded with weapons across that companies’ airfield in the Philippines, and they went back to barracks. They did not try to overthrow Cory Aquino, the president of the Philippines.

“That’s what we’re talking about. The military needs, under most circumstances, to stay in barracks. And if that means defying a presidential order, then so be it. We go back to the 1930s when General MacArthur, under President Hoover’s guidance, moved to the Anacostia Flats with major military force, to oppose the World War I bonus marchers. The man who objected to that strenuously was a major by the name of Dwight Eisenhower and his arguments were good and powerful. But under President Hoover and General MacArthur — then the head of the Army — it happened. Fortunately, we didn’t kill any bonus marchers to speak of. But we did deploy machine guns and weaponry and even artillery in order to oppose it. We don’t want to see that again.”

From The Reading List

New York Times: “ Trump Orders Troops to Leave D.C. as Former Military Leaders Sound Warning” — “President Trump said on Sunday that he had ordered National Guard troops to begin withdrawing from the nation’s capital, after a week of relentless criticism over his threat to militarize the government’s response to nationwide protests, including rebukes from inside the military establishment itself.”

The Atlantic: “ James Mattis Denounces President Trump, Describes Him as a Threat to the Constitution” — “James Mattis, the esteemed Marine general who resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018 to protest Donald Trump’s Syria policy, has, ever since, kept studiously silent about Trump’s performance as president. But he has now broken his silence, writing an extraordinary broadside in which he denounces the president for dividing the nation, and accuses him of ordering the U.S. military to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens.”

Washington Post: “ Why Mattis and Mullen toppled their bridge of silence” — “The military establishment’s anger at President Trump’s politicization of the armed forces has been building for three years. It finally ripped open in the aftermath of Monday’s appalling presidential photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church.”

NPR: “ Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Condemns Trump’s Threat To Use Military At Protests” — “In rare public comments, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Ret. Gen. Martin Dempsey condemned Trump’s threat to use military force to suppress nationwide protests as ‘dangerous’ and ‘very troubling.'”

Business Insider: “ ‘He tries to divide us’: More and more former military leaders are calling Trump out over his handling of protests and nationwide unrest” — “Former military leaders, including some who have largely kept their thoughts on the president to themselves, have been speaking out this week against President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of nationwide protests.”

The Nation: “ Trump Is Deploying Troops Against Americans, and Military Leaders Are Abetting Him” — “I imagine that these are difficult days to be a professional soldier serving in the armed forces of the United States. As a long-ago soldier myself, I hope they are. That is, for the sake of our republic and for the military professional ethic, I hope that members of the officer corps are deeply troubled by the apparent willingness of the Trump administration and Trump’s acolytes in Congress to insert US military regulars into situations where they don’t belong.”

TIME: “ I Spent My Career in the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Military Must Stand Up for Its Soul in This Moment” — “It is long past time to address inequality in this nation and issues like harsh, often brutal, treatment of minorities by police — especially against African-Americans. The peaceful demonstrations that erupted after the murder of George Floyd are completely understandable although the violence and destruction that accompanied some of them is not.”

The Atlantic: “ I Cannot Remain Silent” — “It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel — including members of the National Guard — forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.