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What Veterans Think About Sending Active-Duty Troops To Police Protests


The dam started to break a couple of days ago. The former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Admiral Mike Mullen, said he could no longer remain silent. Mullen said he was sickened by seeing security personnel, including members of the National Guard, use force and violence to clear a path for the president. Then last night, former Defense Secretary and retired Marine General James Mattis released a statement condemning President Trump and urging Americans to come together without him.


And just this afternoon, another retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired General Martin Dempsey, told NPR's Steve Inskeep that there has to be a relationship of trust between the American people and the military.


MARTIN DEMPSEY: And that the military would somehow come in and calm that situation was very dangerous to me.

MCCAMMON: To talk more about how current and past members of the military are responding to the events of the past few days, we're joined now by NPR's Quil Lawrence. Hi, Quil.


MCCAMMON: So let's start with the criticisms of the president. General Mattis speaking out is seen by many in the military as a watershed moment. Put this in context for us.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, Mattis is revered, practically worshipped - by Marines, in particular. And I'd say he's respected by some because he didn't politicize things after he resigned from the administration. And now his critique seems to provide a cover for even some Republicans to chime in. I should say, among veterans, there's still some divide between officers and enlisted on Mattis's comments, which roughly tracks with polls on the same divide in terms of who supports the president.

MCCAMMON: And, Quil, Mattis is not the only former administration official or general speaking out about Trump's use of the military. Tell us what former White House Chief of Staff and Marine General John Kelly had to say.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, General Kelly chimed in, again, just in the recent hours to support Mattis and, really, just to correct some tweets from the president. President Trump had falsely claimed that he fired General Mattis. In fact, Mattis quit over the president's widely criticized Syria policy. And Trump also falsely claimed to have given Mattis one of his nicknames, Mad Dog. Mattis had that nickname for years before. But it is true that Mattis never liked the nickname, although Trump clearly did like it.

MCCAMMON: Certainly used it a lot on the campaign trail in 2016.


MCCAMMON: And let's turn to the substance of what all these criticisms are about. Why is it so controversial to talk about sending troops when there are already uniformed National Guard, not active-duty troops, policing protests?

LAWRENCE: The National Guards are the ones who are specifically trained for this. Army troops like the 82nd Airborne are trained legally to kill and capture our country's enemies at war. Listen to what retired Colonel Drew Sullins told me about this.

DREW SULLINS: An American citizen is not an enemy combatant. That's not the case. Even a violent American citizen who might be doing something very illegal or harming others is still an American citizen, and that person has rights. And we have to - you know, we have to preserve and protect those rights, even under circumstances in which we have to take force, you know, use force.

LAWRENCE: Sullins deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, but he also led the Maryland National Guard's response to the protest after Freddie Gray died at the hands of police in 2014. He says the National Guard are - you know, they're from the same state where they're working. They've got a better chance of de-escalating things.

MCCAMMON: And do you have a sense, Quil, of how veterans or troops feel about the idea of sending the Army in to quell these protests?

LAWRENCE: There's a range. Veterans are really diverse politically. But I think they all know that crowd control can be just a no-win, really difficult, grueling job when they do it perfectly, especially because they in the military know that things can go wrong when you use the military. And suddenly, they could lose their status as sort of one of the most trusted institutions in America right now.

MCCAMMON: So they're concerned about how the military might get politicized.

LAWRENCE: The leaders of veterans organizations certainly are, even though they try to stay apolitical. One of the first to make a personal statement about this was the head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Jeremy Butler.

JEREMY BUTLER: As a veteran, as a black man, I just thought it was important to help people understand that this is not about one event; this is about an ongoing systemic problem that this country has. To say that you love America means, in my book, that you want to make this country better and that you're going to take part in ensuring that it does become better. And I think that's what so many veterans feel. They joined the military because they want to support a country that they feel is great, and they want to make it better.

LAWRENCE: And it's been kind of a slow burn on this, just as it was with the secretary of defense and other service chiefs. Veterans organizations said very little at first. Maybe they condemned the killing of George Floyd in simple terms, but then some organizations started talking about race and about how black people have served in the armed forces since the Revolutionary War and George Washington crossing the Delaware. But they still aren't enjoying equal rights in this country.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans. Thanks, Quil.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMAR APOLLO SONG, "ASHAMED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.