The violent attack on the Capitol raises the question of the U.S. military’s potential role in any other transition-related violence that might occur in coming days. President Trump did not deploy active-duty troops in response to the riot; the National Guard was deployed at the request of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser by Vice President Mike Pence. But Trump reportedly held an Oval Office meeting last month to discuss possibly using the military to overturn the election. That meeting included his former national security adviser, retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who had previously said on TV that Trump “could take military capabilities, and he could place them in those [disputed] states and basically rerun an election.” Three days before the Capitol riot, all ten living former defense secretaries warned in a Washington Post op-ed against “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes.”
For insight into what might be ahead, 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 runs the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University. Edited excerpts:
What are your thoughts now about the relationship between Trump and the military?
One of my bigger concerns is that there has long been a strong Trump following in the military. People in the military have every right to be conservative or extremely conservative. But Trump’s supporters in the military who think that what happened [on January 6] was a good thing need to be managed out of the military as soon as possible. That probably won’t happen until the Trump loyalists are out, but that 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 run their mouth, put things on social media. But this was an insurgency, a crime against the state. And it’s a duty obligation of the defense leadership to make sure that there are no, essentially, sleeper cells, people in the military who, for whatever reason, think an insurgency is a good idea or justifiable.
What is military doctrine with regard to situations like the Capitol riot?
The military is governed by the Posse Comitatus Act. The military can’t be used against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. It can’t be used for law enforcement purposes. That’s why [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Mark Milley has made clear public statements that the military would not be participating in any kind of election enforcement activities or otherwise be used by Trump or anyone else.
In the context of transition, military officers have an obligation to remain professionally impartial to whoever happens to be president at the time. They swear an oath to support and defend the constitution, not the president. In Eisenhower’s day, it was felt to be wrong for a military officer to even vote. It’s only recently that military officers do make political statements in their private capacities. They do vote. But it’s their responsibility to remain politically unbiased and independent in the way they execute their duties. That includes not making statements that their subordinates might see on social media or otherwise publicly. For an officer, stating a preference is almost giving an order.
Did you vote when you were in the Army?
I voted pretty much my whole career, almost every time by absentee ballot. I doubt if any of my soldiers ever had any idea who I voted for or what my political views were. None of us, when on active duty, have the liberty to express our own personal beliefs and then expect people working for us to be immune to that. Those are the dynamics of how military people have to approach political activity.
Military officers can have liberal viewpoints, conservative viewpoints, and so forth. But what we have now is a near cult. The insurgency has taken shape, and it’s domestic terrorism. The woman who was shot climbing through the window at the Capitol was a 12-year Air Force veteran, and I’m sure she did not come upon her allegiance overnight. So it’s really important.
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