Why Soldiers Might Disobey Donald Trump’s Orders to Occupy U.S. Cities in a Crisis
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President Donald Trump has announced that he is considering sending the military to the streets of numerous American cities - beyond those sent to Washington DC - to control the protests and violence that followed George's May 25 murder Floyd.
Since then, he has ordered the military to be withdrawn from the capital, but has not ruled out that troops can be deployed in similar situations in the future.
These actions have raised widespread objections, including apologizing to the country's top military official for participating in Trump's walk across Lafayette Square on June 1. Trump's former Secretary of Defense, retired Navy General James Mattis, went on to urge the Americans to “refuse and hold in office those who would mock our constitution. "
For most Americans, this type of response could take various forms, including protesting, voting, and contacting elected representatives. However, members of the U.S. Armed Forces have an additional option: they could refuse to follow the orders of their commander-in-chief if they believe these orders are in violation of the Constitution's oath.
Legal force and moral obligations
As former officers themselves and as current professors for military ethics, we do not take this opportunity lightly. We often discuss with our classes the fact that military personnel are not required to follow illegal orders. In fact, they are expected and sometimes required by law to refuse to obey them.
In this case, many have argued that the 1807 Insurrection Act gives the President legal authority to use the military in the United States to restore civil order. And because of the city's unique constitutional status as a federal district, the president has already brought federal troops onto the streets of the District of Columbia without relying on this law.
However, military personnel are not released from moral responsibility simply because orders are within the limits of the law, because they also take an oath to "support and defend the constitution" and "keep true faith and loyalty".
On June 2, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - the highest ranking uniformed officer in the U.S. military - went so far as to issue a service-wide memo reminding troops of this oath, which may contradict what the President can do order them to do so when he sends them back to US cities.
Civilian control and the reasons for principles
The mere fact that a military member is concerned about the constitutionality of an order cannot, of course, be a decisive reason not to obey. It is usually the role of those higher in the chain of command - often civilian leadership - to determine whether an order is constitutional.
This type of concern may have been seen in the past few days when senior civil and military officials are reported to have resisted Trump's desire for active troops to get more involved.
The U.S. military has long been committed to the principle of civil control. The country's founders wrote the constitution that the president, a civilian, must be the commander-in-chief of the military. After World War II, Congress went further, restructured the military, and demanded that the Secretary of Defense also be a civilian.
However, the underlying moral reasons that generally speak for a shift in civilian leadership may not be as simple when it comes to federal forces on US roads.
For example, consider the fact that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were concerned about a military that would remain loyal to a particular leader rather than a form of government. Madison feared that soldiers could be used by the rulers as instruments to oppress the citizens.
We see the founders' fears recognized when President Trump described the military as "my generals". We see it again when a largely peaceful demonstration has been violently ended by the authorities to create a moment of political theater, rather than for public security reasons.
By refusing to follow instructions for use in U.S. cities, members of the armed forces could actually respect the reasons that ultimately establish the principle of civilian control, rather than undermining it. After all, the writers always wanted it to be the people's military rather than the president's.
The risks to the military
The reasons for disobedience in such a case should be even stronger, because there is also a long and important tradition that the US military remains separate from politics.
Political action by the military reduces public confidence in the truthfulness, competence and trustworthiness of the military.
Failure to follow orders certainly carries this risk, as many supporters of the President would likely reject a soldier's refusal to obey a non-partisan institution as a partisan stain.
However, it is not clear that there is a way to avoid this stain if U.S. forces are ordered back to US cities. Not after national guardsmen wearing camouflage and carrying loaded automatic weapons have aimed those weapons at apparently peaceful citizens. Not after a photo of soldiers guarding the Lincoln Memorial raised questions about what or who they were protecting. Not after citizens who protested mostly peacefully were exposed to gas cans and grenades with rubber pellets.
If military personnel are in a tragic situation in which a certain degree of partiality is inevitable, they would have to consider which approach would tarnish the military and our nation more. Some people will likely view any refusal to follow the President's instructions as non-partisan. However, following the recent events, others would certainly perceive the presence of the military not only as partisan, but also as an explanation that the very people whose defense they swore to be should not be seen as fellow citizens but as enemies of the state.
Other risks too
Unlike their civilian leaders, military personnel cannot simply resign because they disagree with an order. If they violate legal regulations, the troops risk demotion and prison.
Still, there are a long line of military heroes who take a different risk - who have the moral courage to disobey immoral orders. While this disobedience would be most effective if it came from those at the top - such as generals - it could be powerful at every level of the chain of command.
After all, it was a junior officer who first exposed the widespread use of torture in the war on terror, and an even lower arrest warrant that prevented more innocent people from being killed in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
For this reason, we often ask our students to introduce themselves in numerous different ethical situations, both real and imaginary. However, in the world we are in, a number of ethical questions can quickly become more specific to those who are already in office: would you obey the order of a president - this president - to send you to a US city ? What could it mean for the nation if you did it? And what could it mean for American democracy if, under certain circumstances, you were brave enough not to?
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Marcus Hedahl, associate professor of philosophy at the United States Naval Academy and Bradley Jay Strawser, associate professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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