Blackhawk helicopters hovered over protesters, their powerful rotors shaking storefront windows and snapping tree branches.
The US military choppers shined their bright spotlights on the crowd, covered in the tan paint scheme that conjures memories of America’s post-9/11 misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Only this scene wasn’t playing out in a country most Americans would have a tough time pointing out on a map. This was Washington, DC, the alleged capital of the allegedly United States of America.
As if that show of force wasn’t enough to make even the most cynical of Washington veterans more than a little antsy and depressed and concerned, another military deployment was perhaps even more troubling on Monday night.
Like the Blackhawks he deployed to harass the protesters reacting to the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of white police officers in Minneapolis, Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in his battle fatigues as he patrolled the streets of Washington. Defence Secretary Mark Esper was also out there as the Pentagon, in his words, sought to “dominate the battlespace.”
Your correspondent covered the Pentagon and the congressional-defense-industrial base for 13 years. When Esper and senior military officials speak about the “battlespace,” trust me, they are talking about “dominating” it with lethal force.
“I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal,” Esper told a group of governors earlier Monday in a call initiated by the White House. Donald Trump made similar comments on that call as he drafted the US military to help put down protests by American citizens inside US cities, including its capital.
Imagine then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates or then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen agreeing to an order from then-President Barack Obama to direct DC National Guard troops to use force against American citizens when almost exclusively white conservative citizens came to DC to protest the healthcare bill he later signed into law.
Try picturing Gates or Admiral Mullen agreeing to walk with President Obama to a church without seeking permission from its leadership, had the 44th president ordered federal law enforcement officers to use rubber bullets and tear gas on those conservative protesters.
I know. I know. Back in those Tea Party days, the conservative protesters were not joined by a group of instigators who looted office buildings and downtown stores. That is a fair point. The looting was unacceptable. But so, too, is turning Washington into Damascus just because the president was angry about television news coverage of his response to the protests and businesses having to close just after opening after the coronavirus lockdown.
Having covered Gates and now-retired Admiral Mullen for so many years, I doubt either would have agreed to what Esper and General Milley did just 24 sad hours ago. I would place a large wager than one or both would have refused the order and either resigned or forced Obama to fire them.
Since neither the current defence secretary or Joint Chiefs chairman did so, we’re left to assume – no, conclude – that both agreed fully with Trump’s instinct to quell the protests by, in his words during an evening Rose Garden address, “dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.”
One thing this former defense reporter learned while covering the US national security apparatus was it wastes a lot of taxpayer monies – willingly, and members of both political parties are complicit in what has become a weapons acquisition scam. But another is this: The best senior uniformed officers and civilian Pentagon leaders are those who are reluctant to use military force.
They know how risky it is, in terms of both blood and treasure. They know how difficult it is to untangle American forces from conflicts once they start – this set of defence officials have studied and truly learned the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. And they know that injuring or killing civilians, no matter where their troops are operating, comes with grave and unpredictable consequences.
“I was appalled to see him in his battle dress. Milley … should not have walked over to the church with Trump,” Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force four-star general and former CIA director tweeted.
General Milley did not change into his battle fatigues after Trump’s Rose Garden address and stroll to St John’s. Rather, the country’s top military officer was dressed for battle as he walked behind the commander-in-chief to a church in Washington, DC, over some broken windows.
Trump in the Rose Garden described protests in Washington as a “total disgrace.” What happened in DC, my home for over 18 years, was truly disgraceful. The president and the Pentagon leadership he installed when their predecessors sometimes defied his hardline whims turned it into a “battlespace.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington state on Tuesday summoned Esper and General Milley for a hearing next week to explain all that happened on a surreal and disturbing Monday.
A hearing is not enough. A public slap on the wrist won’t start reining in a military and federal law enforcement apparatus this correspondent always has feared would eventually bend our president’s every dangerous notion and order.
The secretary and chairman now have proven that fear is a reality. They were, frankly, too willing – enthusiastic, even – to go along with Trump’s boldest move yet against his countrymen. Smith and others should demand they resign. Not next week. Immediately.