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The real meaning of a striking new letter from former military officials

An open letter quietly calls for resistance within the defense establishment.
Image: Two members of the National Guard walk past at the World War II Memorial.
Two members of the National Guard walk past the World War II Memorial in Washington on June 6, 2020, during protests against police brutality and racism.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Eight former secretaries of defense and five former chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an open letter Tuesday intended to “review” the best practices for maintaining “healthy” American civil-military relations. The letter listed what experts considered to be a basic and outwardly uncontroversial set of principles to ensure civilian control and the rule of law in the American political system. But what stood out about the missive was that the officials felt compelled to write it.

The real inspiration for the letter, which was signed by former officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations, can be found in a line in the introduction. The signers express concern about “polarization that culminated in the first election in over a century when the peaceful transfer of political power was disrupted and in doubt.”

The letter’s reassertion of civil-military norms is meant to be a rejection of Trump’s transgressions.

The clear subtext, experts say, is that these former officials were shocked by Donald Trump’s attempt to subvert American democracy — and his efforts to use the military to do it. By writing the letter, they were emphasizing that Trump’s attitude toward the military was unacceptable — and signaling that any future attempts by politicians to follow in his footsteps should face resistance from the defense establishment.

Trump’s attempts to overturn the election included multiple efforts to use the military as a personal security force and tool of authoritarian rule. Trump asked the nation’s highest-ranking military officer to shoot antiracist protesters “in the legs.” Trump considered invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy troops in the streets to put down protests before the election, and his allies suggested using it to help him stay in office after the election. He also contemplated directing his defense secretary to seize voting machines after the election, according to an executive order that was never issued. On the fateful day of Jan. 6, 2021, he wanted the National Guard deployed to protect sympathetic protesters who were there to aid his attempt to thwart the certification of the 2020 election.

The letter’s reassertion of civil-military norms is meant to be a rejection of Trump’s transgressions — as well as those who abetted him. The former officials noted that “it is the responsibility of senior military and civilian leaders to ensure that any order they receive from the president is legal” and argued that “military and civilian leaders must be diligent about keeping the military separate from partisan political activity.”

“This list is clearly a condemnation of Trump and his acolytes, which includes many GOP Senators,” Stephen M. Saideman, a political scientist at Carleton University in Canada, wrote on his blog. Other experts in civil-military relations hailed the letter as a solid start to reviving norms.

Part of the likely reason the letter is being written now is that these former defense officials believe — as many political analysts also do — that Trump still poses a threat to the democratic project, most tangibly through a third presidential run. Maintaining a democratic government requires civilian and military leaders to be “vigilant and mindful,” they write.

The letter also comes days after President Joe Biden decided to have two Marines flank him as he spoke last week about how MAGA Republicans pose an existential threat to the republic. As I noted in my analysis of Biden’s pointed stagecraft, he was showcasing his belief and hope that the military shows allegiance to democracy over any partisan agenda or authoritarian challenge to the political system in the coming years.

The reality is that the military’s relationship with civilian rule is inescapably political. In a case of contested power, the military has a unique and pivotal role in conferring state officials with power and legitimacy. This letter is the latest attempt by the Washington defense establishment to intellectually and socially organize around the idea that defending the rule of law and democracy requires being alert to the threat posed by Trumpism.