War Stories

Chain of Confusion

Military commanders’ rebuke of Trump after Charlottesville points to a crisis for civilian control of the military.

President Donald Trump with Defense Secretary James Mattis, center, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford at Arlington National Cemetery on May 29.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

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In a stunning bit of news, the chiefs of all four U.S. military services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—have issued statements this week condemning racism in all its forms. This can only be seen as a rebuke to President Trump’s equivocating statements on last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia—i.e., as a rebuke to their commander in chief.

If we lived in a different sort of country, this could fairly be seen as the prelude to a military coup—and a coup that many might welcome.

The United States is not that sort of country. The principles of civilian control and an apolitical military are hammered into every officer’s sensibility in every forum of education and training. Yet, at the same time, so are principles of equality and nondiscrimination—enshrined in the Uniform Code of Military Justice and bolstered by the military’s heritage as a spearhead of racial integration shortly after World War II, long before other segments of American society followed along.

The chiefs’ statements amount to a reaffirmation of those latter principles. It is significant that the last of the four generals to take a stand, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, put it this way in his tweet Wednesday morning:


The top brass are putting up an explicitly united front against what they see as a threat to their ethos. The remarkable thing is that, though they don’t say so, the threat is coming from the top of their chain of command.

If we’re not headed toward a coup, what is going on? What does this looming tension signify about our security policy and the shape of our politics?

One thing is clear: The United States, right now, has no coherent security policy—either toward particular countries or in general. Is it American policy to aid and support democracy, adhere to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, oppose (or even acknowledge) Russian interference in Western politics? What is our stance on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, or eastern Ukraine? How are we managing the balance between conflict and cooperation with the rising power of China? The answers depend on who you believe is speaking on behalf of the United States. The secretary of defense, secretary of state, national security adviser, and other officials have made statements on all these issues that differ from those of the president. For that matter, the president has made statements that differ from other statements he’s made. We have no policy, we have no principles; neither allies nor adversaries have a sense of what we might do under certain circumstances. (This uncertainty may have some benefits when dealing with adversaries but none when dealing with allies).


This is one reason the nation’s top military officers feel obligated to speak their minds on matters that generally don’t require—or call for—their commentary. There is a vacuum—a miasma of confusion and chaos—at the top of the civilian command. This gives the officers no comfort. They really don’t like being put in this sort of spot. But when the vacuum of authority is so palpable, when the president makes statements so at odds with fundamental principles, then they feel a duty to speak out—if just to remind the men and women under their command that those principles still hold, regardless of whatever signals they might glean from the commander in chief.

This did not begin with Charlottesville. In July, when Trump tweeted that he was banning transgender people from serving in the military, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a memo to the services stating that there would be “no modifications to the current policy until the President’s direction has been received by the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary has issued implementation guidelines.” Meanwhile, Dunford went on, “we will continue to treat all of our personnel with respect.” Of course, Trump never did follow up with a formal directive on the subject; his tweet was a transient outburst, or a distraction from scandal, or a sop to his base—pick your favorite theory. What it wasn’t, what it probably was never meant to be, was a serious statement of policy.


This speaks to the larger crisis in civil-military relations. Officers have an obligation to obey a commander’s (including the president’s) “lawful orders,” and most officers want to fulfill this obligation. But what are Trump’s real orders? What are his priorities and policies? Nobody knows, not even those around him, perhaps not even he himself. Yet Trump has the constitutional authority to order troops into combat and to launch nuclear missiles toward their targets.

This is why I disagree with those who clamor for “the grown-ups” in Trump’s Cabinet—especially Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster—to resign in protest rather than continue to sully their own reputations. Rosa Brooks, a distinguished lawyer and former Pentagon official, tweeted on Tuesday that their continued presence is “enabling” and “legitimizing” Trump’s presidency. She has a point, but there’s a larger point: Trump will remain president, regardless of whether his advisers stay or leave. (Republicans in Congress would be shocked by their departure, and alarmed by the prospect of Trump unreined by their influence, but I see nothing to suggest that impeachment hearings would begin as a result.)

If Trump ever gets into a crisis that’s not of his own making, he needs someone to offer sober, professional advice. Not that I agree with everything Mattis or McMaster has said, but they really are the only ones in a senior position who can offer this commodity. And it’s possible that Trump would be swayed by what they say. So far, he has shown no interest in taking responsibility for life-and-death decisions—hence his deferral to the Defense Department on strategy for the Afghanistan war. (Though he doesn’t seem to realize that he still has to issue the final orders: There still is no official strategy.) Because of his refusal to fill key policy positions in the Pentagon and the State Department, there aren’t even Trump-appointed assistant or under- secretaries who could step in, with any authority, for an absent Mattis. Nor can one imagine, under the circumstances, any person of wisdom or experience agreeing to replace him.

Recently appointed White House chief of staff John Kelly—like Mattis, a retired Marine general—will probably also have to stay on, despite his clear realization that he’s stepped into a big pile of dog shit. Just look at the expression on Kelly’s face as Trump turned Tuesday’s news conference from a rehearsed announcement on infrastructure to an endorsement of the alt-right marchers at Charlottesville. Kelly is learning that he can’t control the man at the top, but he has done a reasonably good job of manning the gateways to the Oval Office, and this could be an asset if the officer holding the suitcase containing the nuclear codes were ever called to come forth.

All three men, especially McMaster, will have a lot of explaining to do when they write their memoirs. Meanwhile, they can’t leave Trump alone. Like the military chiefs, they have to raise flags of internal resistance when they can.

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