US military
Trump has threatened to use American military against citizens who are protesting against racism and police brutality Image Credit: Supplied

For two decades, the United States has repeatedly made the mistake of over-relying on the military toolbox to try to solve intractable problems — particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq — without adequately relying on diplomacy. Now President Donald Trump wants to repeat the mistake at home.

The US military is, according to Gallup polling, the most trusted institution in the country. But Trump’s call to dispatch armed forces to crush protests so that he can look tough betrays the military’s non-partisan tradition and should trigger all our alarm bells.

It was exactly 31 years ago that I covered the Chinese military’s assault on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. No, US troops won’t do what Chinese troops did, but Trump’s deployment of troops for political purposes would betray American traditions, damage the credibility of the armed forces and exacerbate tensions across the country.

Think of that phrase: “all available resources.” In this annus horribilus, the United States has endured more than 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus and 40 million jobs lost


Trump introduced Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to governors as the man “in charge” of putting down protests. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” Trump said of a National Guard crackdown in Minneapolis.

The Pentagon has rushed active-duty military police and combat engineers to just outside Washington, where they would back up National Guard units, and military helicopters have already been used in a show of force to intimidate protesters.

More on the issue

“I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting,” Trump said in his Rose Garden address.

The Times has reported that there have been heated arguments in the White House about whether to invoke an 1807 law called the Insurrection Act that on its face provides broad authority to deploy the military.

Mobilising all resources

Trump also declared, “I am mobilising all available federal resources — civilian and military — to stop the rioting and looting.”

Think of that phrase: “all available resources.” In this annus horribilus, the United States has endured more than 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus and 40 million jobs lost.

In response to those cataclysms, Trump responded ineffectively: The American death rate from the virus is three times Germany’s and the unemployment rate roughly four times Germany’s. But in response to a week of protests and looting, Trump seeks to send in the Army? According to the Daily Beast, he even inquired about sending in tanks.

The impulse to call in the military is perhaps rooted not only in his authoritarian instincts but also in something more personal. Trump seemed mortified at disclosures that when protesters approached the White House he was rushed to an underground bunker; on Wednesday, he claimed instead that he went down “more for an inspection.”

Embarrassment at his “inspection” trip seems to have fuelled his desire to project toughness by using the US armed forces as a prop.

Trump’s aides dispatched federal forces to use rubber bullets, chemical irritants and flash bang grenades to clear peaceful, lawful protesters — so that the president could indulge in a photo op at a nearby church. The church’s leaders were outraged, for those protesters had as much moral right to be there as Trump did.

Battlespace America

Milley and Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper accompanied Trump on this stroll, and Esper spoke of US cities as a “battlespace.” I spoke to several retired American commanders who were deeply troubled by this.

“I cannot remain silent,” Admiral Mike Mullen, a much-respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in The Atlantic. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.”

“America is not a battleground,” tweeted Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”

On Wednesday, Esper backed off and said that he opposed the use of active duty military forces for now.

I find it thrilling that so many Americans have marched peacefully against racism, although I do wish they would all wear masks and be extremely careful about spreading the coronavirus. My 88-year-old mom joined a peaceful protest the other day in rural Oregon, with hundreds of people turning out in a lily-white community and chanting “black lives matter.”

Rioting and looting are deplorable of course, and it’s great that protesters have tried to stop the looters. Police forces are available, so it’s baffling to hear Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, suggest sending in the 101st Airborne Division.

When you’ve seen the ugliness of war, you don’t lightly summon tanks, helicopters or heavily armed troops to deal with civil disturbances.

— Nicholas Kristof is an American journalist, author and a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes.