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Top U.S. military commanders aren’t eager for active duty troops to be called up for use in quelling unrest in American cities roiled by the protests after the death of George Floyd.
That’s a big reason why Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke out against such use of regular military units this week.
But President Donald Trump has insisted that he’ll order military intervention if states aren’t able to quell disturbances on their own – as he’s largely entitled to do under the Insurrection Act of 1807. There are precedents for such call-ups. Throughout American history the government has resorted to active duty soldiers for domestic duty in times of national crisis.
In 1957, for instance, President Dwight Eisenhower called in the 101st Airborne to ensure that Arkansas followed a federal desegregation order. In 1992, President George W. Bush called on the 7th Infantry Division to restore order in Los Angeles, after the city erupted following the acquittal of officers accused in the beating of Rodney King.
“Restoring order is a very valid use of military – or I should say martial – power,” says retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis. “But it is a very dangerous thing to talk about using active duty military against U.S. civilians voicing their displeasure” peacefully on constitutional grounds.
While the president has the authority to call in active duty forces to quell riots – though not peaceful protests – top United States military officials widely agree that it’s a prospect they don’t relish.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a retired four-star general, explained why this week. Militarizing the U.S. response to demonstrations “sets up a conflict – a false conflict – between the military and civilian society.”
In an effort to avoid this, military leaders tend to cringe at any hint of martial swagger when used with respect to Americans on U.S. soil. “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy,” retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeted.
On the heels of these censures, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper this week broke with President Donald Trump and acknowledged that his call for troops to “dominate the battlespace” was perhaps a poor choice of words. Active duty forces should not be sent to control unrest in American cities, he said, except as a “last resort” in a “dire situation.”
Some elected officials doubled down on President Trump’s Monday threat to invoke the Insurrection Act and dispatch active duty soldiers to states whose governors could not bring protests under control, whether they liked it or not. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas and former Army infantry officer, this week published a controversial opinion piece in The New York Times with the blunt title “Send in the Troops.”
However heated the debate about the role of the military in times of domestic unrest becomes, and whatever course the current protests about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer take, sending in the troops is something with which the nation has experience. For over 200 years, in American cities big and small, the U.S. government has used active duty military elements in times of national crisis.
“I hate to tell you this, but there are three volumes at the [U.S. Army’s] Center for Military History on the ‘Role of the Federal Military in Domestic Disorders,’” says Richard Kohn, former chief historian for the Air Force and professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At 400-plus pages each, they begin in 1789, with the most recent volume detailing interventions in Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore, among other cities, since 1945.
Little Rock desegregation
One of the more notable cases was the 101st Airborne Division’s deployment to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 during the integration of schools there. This came after Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor at the time, ordered his state’s National Guard to enforce measures that effectively turned black students away from previously all-white schools.
When black teenagers, each escorted by a clergyman of both races, arrived to register, they faced booing mobs waving Confederate flags. After trying “several times” to pass through a line of guardsmen, none of the children managed to enter the school, according to the Army report.
President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to use “whatever force may be necessary” to carry out federal integration orders. The 101st Airborne Division was put on alert after being ordered to reduce its “colored strength” to take black infantrymen “out of direct contact with the public,” according to the report.
A day later, the mayor of Little Rock phoned the president “to express his conviction” that troops would have to be used if Central High School was to be integrated. White House staffers told him to put it in writing, so he sent a telegram saying precisely this.
“In fact, the request had no legal standing, however useful it might have been from a political standpoint to have a request for troops from a local official,” the Army report notes.
The 101st paratroopers were instructed to carry out the president’s order “with the minimum force necessary.” They came equipped with “an irritant gas dispenser, supplies of tear gas and vomit gas, and gas grenades that could be thrown by hand or launched from M1 rifles,” according to the historical record. “More troops were coming than were needed, so they might ‘exert absolute control of the situation.’”
Commanders hoped the display would reduce the danger of violence, “but if some people have to be hurt, I assure you that it will be as few as possible,” one said.
The report concedes that there was “some bitterness toward the Army among the guardsmen because National Guard officers had not been consulted during the planning.” The 101st troops were in place around Central High School by 5 a.m. on Sept. 25, 1957, with bayonets fixed. “Small arms and chemical ammunition were held in a reserve area.”
As the black students arrived, the crowd grew increasingly hostile. “Two persons were slightly injured, one with the butt of a rifle and the other by a bayonet,” the Army report adds. “Despite the tension, the crowd began to disperse in the early afternoon, and soon the vicinity was relatively clear. Nothing significant happened during the rest of the day.”
The political fallout, however, continued for months. “There should be no troops from either side patrolling our school campuses,” Sen. Lyndon Johnson said. Another senator wired Eisenhower that his “tactics” in Little Rock “must have been copied from ... Hitler’s storm troops.” This prompted Eisenhower to respond, “Few times in my life have I felt so saddened as when the obligations of my office” required this military operation on U.S. soil.
“Break out the military”
It would not be the last time in the nation’s history. In the wake of the 1992 acquittal of police officers who engaged in the savage beating of Rodney King, the riots in Los Angeles marked the first killing of a civilian by the U.S. military since Kent State University 22 years earlier. It occurred when a man tried to run over National Guardsmen manning a barricade.
“During his third attempt to strike the troops, guardsmen fired 14 rounds at his automobile,” killing him, says the Army report.
Altogether 54 people died during five days of rioting, the highest death toll since the 1863 draft riot in New York. Some 2,328 people were treated for injuries and property damage exceeded $900 million, more than in any U.S. riot to date.
Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney instructed the Army to put 7th Infantry Division soldiers, as well as 1,500 Marines, on standby. Their mission was simple: assist civilian authorities in restoring order.
According to the admittedly self-congratulatory Army report, “As had been the case in past civil disorders, the arrival of regular forces and the federalization of the National Guard produced an immediate, sharp decrease in the levels of violence in Los Angeles, with incidents of lawlessness dropping below 100 for the first time since the beginning of the riot.”
In order for the National Guard to be federalized and placed under the authority of the 7th ID commander, President George H. W. Bush issued an order saying he was sending in troops not to quell an insurrection, but rather to “suppress conditions of domestic violence.”
This may be because the term “insurrection” is loaded, says retired Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap, a former deputy judge advocate general for the Air Force and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University in North Carolina.
“Using the word ‘insurrection’ might inaccurately conjure up overheated notions of a civil war in the public’s mind,” says Mr. Dunlap.
In other words, the president doesn’t necessarily have to invoke the Insurrection Act, he adds.
The legal justifications for sending in U.S. active duty forces during American civil unrest can be riveting or eye-glazing, depending on the depth of your procedural interests, but suffice it to say it can be done. The question is whether it’s advisable.
“Restoring order is a very valid use of military – or I should say martial – power,” says retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, senior fellow at the think tank Defense Priorities. “But it is a very dangerous thing to talk about using active duty military against U.S. civilians voicing their displeasure” peacefully on constitutional grounds.
“This is what we’re so vocal about accusing the Chinese of doing, we talk about how awful it is – and we’re right,” says Mr. Davis.
What’s more, the argument that the National Guard, which is trained for such missions, “cannot handle it,” has not proved to be the case in the George Floyd demonstrations, adds Mr. Davis, a point that Mr. Esper reiterated this week.
“This might be a way of [President Trump] saying, ‘I want more power, more prestige of bringing in the active duty military – the 82nd Airborne – like it sounds cool or something. No. No. The National Guard actually has training for these situations,” says Mr. Davis.
The recent debate surrounding use of force has become emblematic of “how we have become so military-focused in solving problems, so that even when we have a comparatively small national problem – as opposed to 1968 – the first thing people are wanting to do is break out the active duty military,” he adds.
Instead, the president and other national leaders “must do the hard work of understanding what’s going on, calming people,” says Mr. Davis.
While it is true that in the military’s playbook the best way of stopping civil unrest “is to mount overwhelming force in the streets and get everyone to go home, if you don’t do it with other reconciliations and kind words you may stoke more violence and opposition. What you want to do is avoid bloodshed and restore order – property damage can be repaired,” Mr. Kohn says.
If the president insists on, say, sending the 82nd Airborne into the streets of Washington, D.C., a commander could take officers aside and say, “Fix bayonets, don’t give your kids bullets,” he adds. “And also remind commanders all the way down the line that they’re going to be videoed every minute.”
Still, President Trump’s “typical bluff and bluster” puts people like Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in a pretty ugly position,” Mr. Kohn says.
A general being used as “a political prop is not unusual in civil-military relations, but almost every president I can think of has enough sense not to trot people out as Milley was,” says Mr. Kohn.
General Milley accompanied President Trump on his now-famous walk across Lafayette Square to St. John’s Church, where the president held up a Bible.
It did not help that the Joint Chiefs chairman was striding the streets in battle fatigues following a White House meeting, and that the National Guard aggressively broke up largely peaceful protests to clear the area for the photo-op, former military officials pointed out.
The next day, he sent a memo, obtained by CBS News, reminding troops they took an oath to defend the Constitution and serve the American people. It also included an unusual handwritten note: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America – We will stay true to that oath and the American people,” General Milley wrote to the Joint Forces.
In such extraordinary times, for many senior military leaders, Gen. George Marshall continues to offer counsel, Mr. Kohn argues.
“He said, ‘I didn’t oppose everything I was opposed to.’ In other words, he tried to save himself for the really important things. The really important thing for Milley is to retain the president’s confidence,” Mr. Kohn argues, “So he doesn’t order something stupid. Or counterproductive. Or toxic. Or lethal.”