US Military Leaders Affirm Their Commitment to Democracy

*By Sivahn Sapirstein
Time Period: January 2021
Location: Washington, DC
Main Actors: US Joint Chiefs of Staff
Letters of Opposition or Support

On January 6th, 2021, the United States faced a direct threat to its democracy. Encouraged by former President Donald Trump and defended by a significant number of politicians, the January 6th attack on the US capitol was a last-ditch attempt to undermine the 2020 presidential election by preventing an official count of the Electoral College votes. While the violent mob was unable to stop the proceedings, and Joe Biden became president shortly after, the scope and length of the attack were particularly concerning to pro-democracy Americans.

In response, the Joint Chiefs of Staff published an unprecedented letter to the joint forces. The Joint Chiefs is a politically appointed body comprised of the top eight military officials in the country and headed by the Chairman who serves as the principal military advisor to the White House. Given their rank, their commentary has serious implications. The letter stated plainly that the events of January 6th were an assault on American democracy and against the rule of law. It also emphasized how the US military will continue its 250-year legacy of defending the Constitution and reiterated that President-elect Biden will be the next Commander in Chief, in line with the rule of law. 

While the ideals listed in the letter – a commitment to the Constitution and upholding the rule of law – are not themselves political, any commentary by military officers on ongoing political matters is nearly unprecedented in American history. The only similar act in recent history is the “revolt” by retired generals against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s management of the Iraq War in 2006. However, as with most instances of political involvement from the armed forces, these were all former officers. The US military has an important standard of maintaining an apolitical approach to domestic politics, which is critical to ensure civilian control over the armed forces. However, in the months leading up to January 6th this reputation was being challenged. While broader trends of politicizing political appointees are not directly linked to the Trump presidency, during Mr. Trump’s time in office, his remarks of “my military” and the planned surprise photo-op with General Mark Milley (the chairman of the Joint Chiefs) after using the National Guard to clear peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, an incident General Milley apologized for soon after, particularly threatened to damage the reputation of nonpartisanship. 

Therefore, in publishing this letter reminding the public of the military’s primary commitment to the Constitution, the Joint Chiefs not only rejected the prospect that they would be a pawn in any plans to overthrow American democracy, they were also working to reestablish a key pillar of American democracy: their own nonpartisan status. 

Where to Learn More
Military Chiefs Remind Troops of Their Oath After Fallout From Assault on Capitol

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