Against All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

I cannot underscore with a heavy enough pen how significant it is that James Mattis has broken his silence about Donald Trump. Mattis is one of the most respected people in the military establishment, and for him to write a public rebuke of a sitting president that compares him with the Nazis is, quite frankly, both a massive relief and deeply unsettling:

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is In Union there is Strength.’” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.

Mattis’ letter comes a day after Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents Bush (W) & Obama, wrote his own open letter:

I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops.

It also comes a day after former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller wrote a resignation letter published in the Washington Post to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, resigning from the Defense Science Board:

When I joined the Board in early 2014, after leaving government service as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, I again swore an oath of office, one familiar to you, that includes the commitment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States … and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

You recited that same oath on July 23, 2019, when you were sworn in as Secretary of Defense. On Monday, June 1, 2020, I believe that you violated that oath. Law-abiding protesters just outside the White House were dispersed using tear gas and rubber bullets — not for the sake of safety, but to clear a path for a presidential photo op. You then accompanied President Trump in walking from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church for that photo.

President Trump’s actions Monday night violated his oath to take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” as well as the First Amendment right of the people peaceably to assemble.” You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it.

Anyone who takes the oath of office must decide where he or she will draw the line: What are the things that they will refuse to do? Secretary Esper, you have served honorably for many years, in active and reserve military duty, as Secretary of the Army, and now as Secretary of Defense. You must have thought long and hard about where that line should be drawn. I must now ask: If last night’s blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?


You have made life-and-death decisions in combat overseas; soon you may be asked to make life-and-death decisions about using the military on American streets and against Americans. Where will you draw the line, and when will you draw it?

Saying the Quiet Part Loud & Clear

Despite his letter’s brevity, Mattis cites the Federalist Papers, the inscription atop the Supreme Court, Lincoln’s first inaugural address, and the United States Uniformed Services Oath of Office. Mattis quoted part of the oath directly — support and defend the Constitution [of the United States]” — and, implicitly, referenced what follows1: against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Update: Gen. Mark A. Milley, the sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sent a message to all members of every branch of the military today. His handwritten note at the bottom is another invocation of the oath:

We all committed our lives to the idea that is America — we will stay true to that oath and the American people. [emphasis mine]

  1. I believe James Miller signaled this same phrase with the eclipses in his own letter.↩︎

America James Mattis civil-military relations military politics 45

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