09 June 2020

Trump and the Flowers of War. The US Army – mobilization order on the home front

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Just as all big powers, which have no force to be equal or at least challenging to them, the United States have a series of domestic weaknesses, which, from time to time, come out, challenging the American democracy. Protests and demonstrations as we are today witnessing took place also in the 60’s, 70’s and at the beginning of the 90’s. For similar reasons – racism, segregation, human rights – or different ones – the Vietnam war, the US interventions in different parts of the world. Each time, they seemed to turn things upside down, to create new beginnings in the American society and also each time they ended as if their motivation was only to draw the attention on an issue, but it was enough to mention it. The social or political pressure gets liberated through these protests, but problems stay. To calm down the situation, they often use the military, although the American army, just as any other military structure in the democratic states, are normally used for foreign missions. When this happens, quite rare actually, the American society is carefully analyzed, each time discovering something new. And because every time, until now, it also possessed the cure for all issues, the American democracy stayed healthy and powerful. With or without Trump, everything will be the same.

Image source: Mediafax

Can the US army be used on the home front?

From the White House Rose Garden, president Donald Trump mentioned the possibility of using the army to calm down the protests which spread, in the last days, in many American cities. "If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them”.

Constitutional right experts state the president has the authority to use the army to solve an internal issue, by calling on the Insurrection Act, a juridical document adopted since 1807, by which the leader of the country can use the army in the states of the union wherein there is an insurrection or people are going against the federal authorities.

Two centuries ago, the public complaints could end through insurrections. Now, there are only protests, indeed also vandalism actions. Maybe this is the reason why the call on this legislative possibility to internally use the army was used quite rare, once in two decades. And, each time, it took place in states from southern US. Or in California (as it happened in 1992), the state which answers to a smaller scale to all of the American society’s frustrations. But it is also the state which produces the “Happy Ending” version of the same society.

Jurists can endlessly debate if violent protests can equal an insurrection or if vandalizing the public transport and the commercial infrastructure can equal the urban conflict. The president can, however, decide anytime and he has full coverage for his decision in a law that’s enough ambiguous to allow his supporters to justify his actions and support him. And in an electoral year, they will certainly do it.

However, it will not be the greatest decision. That’s why, for almost 30 year, since 1992, the law was neither invoked nor the American army was sent on the street.

And it will not be the easiest decision to make. That’s why the army should have been prepared if ever the case to use it. The White House moment, with an ad-hoc conference and a visit at the Saint John Church, which is close to the presidential residency, also hit by protests’ fire, was part of the theatre the American president usually does.

Caught on the wrong foot were also the chief of the Defence Department, Mark. T. Esper, and the president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Army, General Mark A. Milley, who were part of a photo session at the church, the latter also wearing a battle uniform.

The bellicose speech the president gave, taking photos with the Bible in his hand and also the context, as hundreds of protesters were just gas sprayed and attacked with rubber bullets, raised some concerns among the Pentagon officials and, specially, among those who during time have politically responded or even led the US Army.

Pentagon holds on the pressures

After the effective officials of the Pentagon seemed to support president’s approach, Mark Esper even using a description like “the state as a battleground” to justify the operations, things became, however, increasingly complicated in terms of the involvement of the US Army in the protests management operations.

Former military officials, some even from the pro-Trump camp, took a stance on this possible development. General Martin E. Dempsey, former president of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message on twitter: “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy The ‘battle space’ of America??? Not what America needs to hear … ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure … ie a Civil War.”

Another former chief of the US Army, admiral Mike Mullen, also stated: „Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”

The General Attorney, William P. Bar, did not support the call on the Insurrection Act and the decisional bypass of governors from the American states. Trump was eventually convinced to postpone the use of active armed forces to re-establish order, but he asked for the dislocation of troops on the only place the US did not have to use this law, as it is not a local authority, similar to governors who could have opposed the decision: the District of Columbia.

Maybe the most critical was the former US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, who talked after a long period of self-imposed silence: “Divide et Impera”, to suggest the management of this crisis. He identified also the solution: We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”

These are not the voices of people who after retiring from the army go anonymously and only come to military ceremonies. Many of them work in companies, research institutes, they hold conferences and are possible dignitaries, important factors in the public debate. That’s why their reactions were not ignored.

The effective Secretary of Defence, Mark T. Esper, ended the series of critics: „The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act now”.

His statement was a surprise for the White House, for his future in leading the Department, as portrayed by the press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, does not seem too bright: “As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper. And should the president lose faith, we will all learn about that in the future."

But the problem is still out there

Former Pentagon leader and former CIA leader Robert Gates details, in an analysis, the role the military institution has in American politics. Of course, bigger in foreign policy decisions, but it must not be forgotten that the armed forces, but also everything related to it, is still one of the most distinct and concentrated fields in the social structure of American societies. Active military are only 0.5% of the country's population, but together with their families, at a rate of 1.5 family members per military, they get to approx. 5 million people, almost 1.5% of the country's population. Add to that we add the 7% veterans, around 18 million in 2018. About 2% of the American workforce, almost double the number of active military, work in the defense industry. About 3.5 million workers and specialists. Which, in turn, have families, generally more numerous than those of the military. So, all in all, and with a high degree of approximation, somewhere between 35 and 40 million Americans are dependent, in one way or another, on the military component of society.

So any decision that is made, involving the armed forces, has big consequences within the American society. And any debate, of any nature, involving people in uniform, also has repercussions on the discussion on how this society works.

The veteran American politician points out in particular the fact that these problems, undisputed and not accepted as a challenge, only delay their solution. US dependence on military methods has become more evident in recent years. Trump's reaction to invoking the manu military solution to internal problems is just a recognition of this.

The events that led to these protests, however, reveal another aspect, perhaps just as important, regarding the internal construction of American society: the impunity enjoyed by members of the force structures. In this case, it is about the internal law enforcement structures. The topic is so important that even a newspaper as the New York Times (generally more liberal than conservative), felt obliged to discuss it these days. The culture of impunity stems from Supreme Court rulings that provided quasi-immunity to members of the police or other components of internal security when tragic incidents occurred. But the scene is much more complex, including the strong unions of police, prosecutors investigating these cases, judges who decide, all with the aim of an approach that prevails the "good faith" of those who enforce the law, even if their actions end up with victims.

This culture of quasi-immunity is what led to the image of policeman Derek Chauvin, who for 8 minutes uninterruptedly suffocated his former clubmate, George Floyd. He was convinced that he was covered, that nothing could happen to him.

Which of the two hypostases - a society strongly influenced and dependent on its military component / a society that offers immunity to one of the parties in the internal conflicts that periodically crosses it - is prevalent, is difficult to say. Most likely, in such moments, a pedagogical balance is needed in the analysis that the supreme commander, the one chosen by the society for a four-year term to lead his destinies, must do.

But President Trump's possible decision did not seem to fit that standard. For the president, the drama that took place in Minnesota is just one of the lines that are written in the play that precedes the November elections. And the authoritarian stance is a deliberately chosen role to restore the electoral handicap that has emerged as a result of a problematic management of the coronavirus crisis and of the approximately 30 million jobs lost in just two months.

The American dream, stopover

In US’s history, political and social crises usually unlock situations and developments which turn, at some point, unbearable for the society. This liberation of energies was even produced through a civil war, the bloodiest America has ever seen. One of the final limes from the movie “Flowers of war”, which presents the drama and survival stories of this war, is: "We're going to look towards tomorrow and a new life”.  Often, they got solved, however through decisions that fixed the social and political  mechanism, which allowed the American democracy to develop. There was always something that was left unsolved and continues to produce breaches between the ethnical communities, the North and the South, between those who entered the “American dream” so many times and they are still trying to do it. A country as big as its problems.

Considering the situations nowadays, the George Floyd death, an Afro-American man, left jobless due to the coronavirus crisis, and lifeless because of some white policemen, but not only because of that, opened again American society’s Pandora box of increasing pain.

Translated by Andreea Soare