Generals, Borders, and Militias

A few days ago, the Washington Post gleefully announced in a front-page headline that some retired American generals are criticizing President Trump’s decision to send Army troops to our southern border.  The troops are being sent to support police facing the Central American “migrant caravan.”  These former officers claim that Trump is dangerously politicizing the military by involving them in the border crisis.  The opposite is true.  By publicly questioning the President’s clearly legal use of the military to help secure the border they are doing exactly what they claim to oppose -- making the military a political football. 

The issue is the generals raise is politics, not the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from acting as a domestic arm of law enforcement.  If there is one legal thing military officers understand, it is Posse Comitatus.  In my experience as a JAG officer many years ago, it was a non-JAG’s go-to subject if he/she wanted to talk military law.  (That and how it’s illegal to shoot AA guns at infantry -- it’s not.)  While some officers might have got it wrong on the AA guns, they understood Posse Comitatus perfectly well, because it was drilled into them. 

Nobody understands this better than Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who doesn’t need a lot of bolstering of his bona fides as a warrior-scholar.  He’s not going to order troops to violate the statute in letter or in spirit. 

The border deployments in logistic and intelligence support of police are well within the letter and intent of the statute.   Nobody is asking or expects Army personnel to make arrests of illegal migrants on this side of the border, and they have not been so tasked. 

As for defending the border, by supplying logistic support to federal and local police, there could hardly be a more legitimate use of the military.  Defending national borders is the core function of government.  It is what governments were founded to do in the first place, many millennium ago.  People may agree or disagree about the politics of it, but it is disingenuous to question whether defending the border is an appropriate mission.

Just a century ago, the Army went to our southern border as a result of Latin American unrest not dissimilar from what we face today.  Mexico was in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, and rebels and government forces alike occasionally violated the American border, sometimes with extreme violence.  This not only resulted in direct military action within the United States by Army units defending themselves or civilians, but ultimately General John Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico to apprehend Pancho Villa -- something akin to policing, though to be sure, not within American borders.  But had an opportunity arisen to chase and trap Villa within U.S. borders, thus obviating a cross-border incursion, there is little doubt that military forces would have taken part. 

The problem with the generals’ complaint, and why they and not the Trump administration are making the military a political football, is that historically almost any American military action has been the subject of intense politics.  That’s easy to overlook with the passage of time, so as to come with stories about how unified the country was during this or that war. 

In the 20th century alone, every American military adventure has been met with political resistance from one party or another.   American involvement in World War I was subject to intense opposition, sufficient to keep us out of that conflict for over three bloody years, and even today there is substantial doubt our involvement was either just or worth the cost.  The same is even true of World War II.  There was substantial opposition for going to war against Germany, even in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  The issue was put to rest only because Hitler stupidly decided to declare war on us.   

Since then every American conflict has been the subject of intense controversy and politicking. The complaining generals, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, know this as well as anybody.  How by any stretch of the imagination was sending American men and women to war in the urban wastelands of Iraq a more legitimate use of the military than securing our southern border?  Claiming that doing so is involving the military in politics, any more than any military action involves the military in politics, is both laughable and irresponsible.  It makes things worse, not better.

Not long after the Post’s revelation about the generals, it ominously reported that volunteer militia groups were arriving at the border to assist authorities there.  Here the paper claims that Newsweek obtained a document indicating the current military command is “concerned” about the arrival of the militias.  But the same article notes that local militias have effectively operated in the area for a long time, protecting property owners and assisting authorities in finding and apprehending illegal border crossers. 

The point here is that if the Post, the Democrats, and the former generals don’t want to deal with citizen militias, then they should support action that makes such deployments unnecessary.  The current border environment is a security vacuum, and the arrival of the militias is a direct consequence of that, not Trumpian rhetoric.  Legitimate use of the military in the face of an immediate threat to the integrity of the country’s borders will make the citizen militias irrelevant.  Are the generals against that?   

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