In the first week of this month, the nation was surprised to learn that retired general officers (generals and admirals) including James Mattis, Colin Powell, Michael Glenn Mullen, and William McRaven (to name a few) spoke out against President Donald Trump’s response to demonstrations across the United States. President Trump threatened to unilaterally invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and federalize the National Guard as well as use the active duty Armed Forces of the United States as a “super police force.”
The conduct of the retired generals is not without detractors. The Constitution was constructed with the idea that a “standing army” is a menace to liberty and that presidential control over the military – particularly the army – should have critical checks. In the 1950s Samuel Huntington posited, in his book “The Soldier and the State” (a staple reading for military officers) that in order for the military to perform its constitutional duties, the officer corps should remain apolitical. Of course, many generals have not done so, and in the nineteenth century, a few of them ran for the presidency while still in the Army. The current detractors allege that it is Mattis and Powell, et al who pose the risk to the Constitution because they have spoken against, what the detractors perceive, as legitimate presidential authority.
The theme of the panel is that where a democracy has political institutions that are of long duration and strong, there is little worry about the retired military taking a political role and undermining the institutions. But when an elected or appointed individual undermines the institutions, such as President Trump’s attacks on the courts, and on civil rights, the retired military leadership serves an important role in preserving the institutions if not democracy itself. While anyone of us could find singular events to point
Joshua E. Kastenberg,
Civil Military Relations Panel,
Available at: https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/law_facultyscholarship/799