How Military Leaders’ Trump Criticism Can Damage Civil-Military Relations

Defense Secretary Mark Esper (left) listens as Joint Chiefs Chairman Army General Mark Milley addresses a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., April 14, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Public attacks on an elected president by retired officers and the threat of resignation by high-ranking officers undermine trust.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T ensions between civilian authorities and the uniformed military are nothing new in American history. Indeed, civil-military tensions can be traced to the very beginning of the republic and have occurred during both times of peace and war. So we should not be surprised that civil-military tensions have flared in the wake of the recent rioting, arson, and looting across the United States. In the current case, one focus of these civil-military tensions is the proper relationship between federal and state authority during a domestic emergency. Is it proper to use regular troops to curtail domestic disorder? Under what circumstances?

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Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national-security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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