The violent attack on the Capitol raises the question of the potential role of the U.S. military in any other transition-related violence that may arise in the coming days. President Trump did not deploy active duty troops in response to the riot; The National Guard was deployed at the request of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser by Vice President Mike Pence. But Trump would have held a Oval office meeting last month to discuss the possible use of the military to overthrow the elections. That meeting included his former national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who previously had said on tv that Trump “could take military capabilities, and he could place them in these [disputed] States and, basically, relaunching an election. Three days before the Capitol riot, the 10 former defense secretaries Washington post editorial against “efforts to involve the US armed forces in the resolution of electoral disputes.”
To get a glimpse of what awaits us, Fortune spoke with Thomas Kolditz, a retired Army Brigadier General who has taught leadership at West Point and the Yale School of Management, and who now heads the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at the Rice University. To follow are edited excerpts.
What do you think now about the relationship between Trump and the military?
One of my biggest worries is that there has long been a strong Trump following in the military. The military have every right to be conservative or extremely conservative. But Trump supporters in the military who think what happened [on Jan. 6] was a good thing to deal with out of the military as soon as possible. It probably won’t happen until Trump loyalists come out, but it needs to be done. We’re not talking about half a dozen people. We’re probably talking about thousands across the Department of Defense. Many of them will have already made their mouths, put things on social networks. But it was an insurrection, a crime against the state. And it’s an obligation of the defense leadership to make sure that there aren’t, essentially, sleeper cells, military personnel who, for whatever reason, think an insurgency is a good idea or justifiable.
What is military doctrine in situations like the Capitol Riot?
The army is governed by the Posse Comitatus Act. The military cannot be used against American citizens on American soil. It cannot be used for law enforcement purposes. that’s why [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mark Milley did clear public statements that the military would not participate in any type of election enforcement activity or be used by Trump or anyone else.
In the context of the transition, military officers have an obligation to remain professionally impartial to anyone who happens to be president at the time. They take an oath to support and defend the constitution, not the president. In Eisenhower’s day, it looked like a military officer was even wrong to vote. It is only recently that military officers are making political statements in their private capacity. They vote. But it is their responsibility to remain politically impartial and independent in the way they carry out their duties. This includes not making statements that their subordinates might see on social media or otherwise publicly. For an officer, stating a preference is almost like giving an order.
Did you vote when you were in the military?
I’ve voted pretty much my entire career, almost every time by missing ballot. I doubt any of my soldiers ever had a clue who I voted for or what my political views were. None of us, when on active duty, have the freedom to express our own personal beliefs and expect those who work for us to be immune from it. These are the dynamics of how the military should approach political activity.
Military officers can have liberal views, conservative views, etc. But what we have now is a near cult. The insurgency has taken shape, and it is domestic terrorism. The woman who was shot while walking up through the Capitol window was a 12-year-old Air Force veteran, and I’m sure she did not allege overnight. So it’s really important.
More political cover of Fortune:
- “We will never concede”: how Donald Trump incited an attack on America
- Democrats plan to use Senate victory spend $ 2,000 stimulus checks
- Pictures: A look at Wednesday’s national riots
- Coup attempt on Capitol Hill presents key cyberattack opportunity, warn experts
- The betting odds strongly favored the Georgia GOP candidates, then suddenly collapsed. What did not go well?