1. Opinion

Military leaders must have the courage to say ‘no’ when an order violates the Constitution | Column

I was a Marine officer, and I served with and under some extraordinary military leaders. Where have they all gone?

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has publicly stated that it was a “mistake” to walk with President Donald Trump across Lafayette Square in Washington on June 1. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has also sought to “reinterpret” his appearance with Trump that day. Too little and way too late.

I am a former Marine officer who served from 1969 to 1973 with a tour of duty in Vietnam. My regimental commander there was PX Kelley, who in 1983 became commandant of the Marine Corps.

Sandy Alderson
Sandy Alderson [ Courtesy of Sandy Alderson ]

When I returned from overseas, I was assigned to Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. Among our duties at the Barracks were participating in military ceremonies and funerals and providing security at Camp David. When President Lyndon B. Johnson died and lay in state, my men and I, along with members of other services, stood watch in the Capitol Rotunda. I took over my unit at the Barracks from Pete Pace, who was named chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2005. My company commander there, Jim Jones, was appointed Marine commandant in 1999 and later became the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. I served with and under some extraordinary military leaders. Where have they all gone?

I was appalled by the images of Esper and Milley as they accompanied their commander in chief for a photo op at St. John’s Church, a short distance from the White House.

Their trip was short in distance but long on aggression. It required combative action against protesters by police, guardsmen and other unidentified federal officers. The latter reminded me of the Russian “little green men” fighting by proxy in the Ukraine. Is this what our own country has come to?

Why were Esper and Milley (dressed in combat fatigues) involved in this foray? To prove their loyalty to the president? To proclaim their own political beliefs? It certainly wasn’t to demonstrate their loyalty to the Constitution of the United States.

Our active duty armed forces are prohibited, except in extraordinary circumstances, from involvement in domestic disputes of any type. This was reiterated early and often during my brief military career. Esper and Milley conveyed the opposite impression, and in that moment undermined the Constitution and our belief in the apolitical nature of the United States military.

Esper has since tried to reframe his role in the events at St. John’s Church, and Milley has apologized for his participation. But few of us are persuaded by—or even see—such postmortems. Through their presence, in the context of that artificially created scene, our system of government was shaken by the men who administer it. How close have we come to despotism, where “dominating the battle space” becomes acceptable in our own land?

Our military is subject to civilian authority, as it must be in a democracy. The president is the commander in chief. But our military leaders must have the courage and integrity to say “no” when an order, or even a request, from that civilian authority violates the Constitution or undermines one’s oath to uphold it.

Even the perception of such a violation, as the images of Esper and Milley at St. John’s Church conveyed, can have dangerous consequences.

Marine Corps culture stresses many important principles, among them integrity and loyalty. Integrity is the most foundational, for without it, all forms of leadership eventually fail. Loyalty, however, is the most problematic, because our loyalty can be abused by dishonest leaders who demand it from us.

I was heartened by comments from retired Marine Gens. Jim Mattis and John Kelly condemning the events in Lafayette Square. But former military leaders can only scold a rogue president, not thwart one. We should all keep this in mind when we vote in November.

I participated in a leadership conference last year with cadets at West Point. I hope the lessons of recent days are part of the future curriculum. They are too important not to be.

Sandy Alderson is the former general manager of the Oakland A’s and New York Mets. He lives in St. Petersburg.