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Trump Is Defying Everything I Learned About Military Ethics In The Armed Forces

Boston Police emerge from the cloud of tear gas in the Boston Common to clear out protesters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Police emerge from the cloud of tear gas in the Boston Common to clear out protesters. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts. I can assure you, they live with the mark of Cain upon them.”

On the eve of battle, British Lt. Col. Tim Collins gave this warning against harming civilians to the soldiers under his command. It was March 19, 2003, and they were waiting to cross the Kuwaiti border into Iraqi in the early moments of that ill-fated invasion and occupation.

I studied his speech in my military ethics class as a midshipman in the Boston University Navy ROTC program. Our regimen to become officers in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps included many frank discussions and case studies on the proper treatment of the innocent in war. We read about My Lai and the catastrophic failure of leadership there. We debated the relationship between abuses of French soldiers in Algeria and the pitiless way the French Resistance had dealt with Nazi prisoners and Vichy collaborators.

This bumbling, would-be autocrat ... is blustering his way across a momentous Rubicon.

Outside the classroom, war is messy. Some of us would go on to serve in Afghanistan where the lines between noncombatants and insurgents blurred and shifted erratically, a true test in discernment of who was the enemy at any given moment. But our instruction on the laws of war provided a foundation we could draw upon if faced with that awesome choice of whether or not to exact violence.

What we were never prepared for, what all of our case studies and discussions never contemplated, was making these decisions on American soil.

In the wake of protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, President Donald Trump has threatened to send the military into American cities in order to quell the unrest. Such a shamelessly brazen deployment of the national security state domestically, particularly against the objections of governors, is precisely what Madison warned against in Federalist Paper No. 46. It should surprise no one that the president lacks either knowledge or regard for this country’s founding principle that the military not be employed against American citizens.

Since he assumed the role of commander-in-chief, Trump’s assaults on the professionalism of our armed forces have been legion. From intervening directly in the military justice system on behalf of a war criminal to pettily engaging in a public squabble with a grieving widow regarding the quality of his condolences, civil-military relations are just one more front in his tireless campaign of norm-shattering.

[I]t belies how little it means to him to make murderers of the men and women who joined the armed forces to defend their fellow citizens, not to kill them for the sake of political messaging.

It is now, though, with the threat to use the armed forces against Americans in their own cities, that we see that the only limit to what he is willing to do is his imagination. This bumbling, would-be autocrat, this, to quote conservative columnist George Will, “sad, embarrassing wreck of a man,” is blustering his way across a momentous Rubicon.

This country’s military is peerless when it comes to fighting and winning wars. It is peopled by earnest, dedicated men and women adept at managing the execution of state-sanctioned violence. It is not built for domestic civil unrest. It is built to win battles and when used at home, tragedy is inevitable.

“I am your president of law and order,” Trump declared during his Monday night announcement. It is a soundbite scripted for a campaign commercial; it belies how little it means to him to make murderers of the men and women who joined the armed forces to defend their fellow citizens, not to kill them for the sake of political messaging. By executive fiat, he would brand them all with the mark of Cain, demand they sully their hands with American carnage so that he can take credit for ending it.

Senate Republicans could stop him. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, intended to limit the ability to use federal military personnel to enforce domestic policy, gives this power to Congress. If they want to live out their purported support for our military there is perhaps no more meaningful action they could take than blocking the president here. But given their deference to the executive branch these past four years, I hold little hope for that. The electoral consequences of upsetting their base will likely carry more weight with them than the impossible choices that will be foisted upon junior officers contemplating whether or not an order to fire on a crowd of civilians is lawful.

The three core values of the Navy and Marine Corps are honor, courage and commitment. It may sound quaint, but I always took these tenets seriously, and sailors and Marines are expected to comport themselves with those values in mind both on and off duty. When the armed forces are wielded for ignoble ends against those whom they are sworn to protect, these values become mere platitudes. Like a warped King Midas, Donald Trump wantonly dishonors all he touches.

Perhaps, as in past cases, this shall be another example of the president’s bark being worse than his bite. I am somewhat dubious he’s eager to be painted as an occupier of American cities. Still, the discovery of a lump may precede a cancer diagnosis, and likewise, the invocation of the military in domestic politics is a sure symptom of a sickly Republic. As I have written in the past, the president’s power to use force overseas is virtually unchecked. What will the rest of Donald Trump’s presidency look like if he discovers himself to be equally unencumbered when using force at home?

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Andrew Carleen Cognoscenti contributor
Andrew Carleen is a former public affairs officer in the U.S. Navy who lives in Quincy, Massachusetts.

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