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OP-ED: The best way to keep the military out of politics? Elect a new president

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John's Church across Lafayette Park from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. Part of the church was set on fire during protests on Sunday night. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In 1964, movie audiences were thrilled by “Seven Days in May,” an adaptation of a novel about a plot by a charismatic chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (played by Burt Lancaster) to topple the president in a military coup. The president in question, played by Fredric March, stood for adherence to the Constitution, while Lancaster’s character obviously wanted to subvert it.

I don’t know whether Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ever saw “Seven Days in May.” But his remarkable apology last week for joining in President Donald Trump’s June 1 photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church — which occurred after authorities cleared the Lafayette Square area of largely peaceful protesters — spoke to the theme of keeping the armed services out of politics.

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“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics,” Milley said Thursday in a commencement address to National Defense University. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

Milley’s statement echoed the remarks of retired Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who served as Trump’s first secretary of defense. On June 3 Mattis said: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

I first thought of “Seven Days in May” after Trump took office and installed former military leaders in key positions in his administration. Mattis was able to be confirmed as defense secretary only after Congress waived a prohibition on recently retired military officers serving in that position.

But the way the Trump administration has played out has confounded the “Seven Days in May” comparison as much as it has confirmed it. Mattis and other former and active military officials seem to have a better understanding of the role of the armed forces in a constitutional democracy than Trump does.

At the same time, you can argue that for an active-duty official such as Milley to differ publicly with the president undermines civilian control of the military.

In an article in National Review, Mackubin Thomas Owens, a former professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, argues that Milley “should have made his objections known to the president in private.” Referring to reports that some retired officers had urged Milley to resign in protest, Owens writes: “There is no tradition of public resignation in American history. At best, resignation under such circumstances undermines the mutual trust that lies at the heart of healthy civil-military relations. At worst, such a step constitutes a form of mutiny.”

The problem with this critique — and with a lot of commentary about civilian-military relations in this administration — is that Trump is not a normal president. Having shown little respect for the importance of an apolitical military, he is in a poor position to complain that military officers are engaging in what he might see as politics.

Still, the lines are being blurred with military officials distancing themselves from Trump in various ways, including in how they characterize the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd. As my colleague Doyle McManus wrote: “Nothing says ‘internal chaos’ more clearly than Cabinet officers or top aides refusing to fully carry out the president’s desires and publicly staking lines they will not cross.”

You can simultaneously welcome resistance from the military to Trump’s authoritarianism and still be uneasy about it, even if it doesn’t come close to the rebellion dramatized in “Seven Days in May.” There is an obvious remedy, however: Elect a new president who respects the Constitution.

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.