On the eve of their graduation from the United States Military Academy, a group of hundreds of West Point graduates published a letter Thursday rebuking the politicization of the military.
The letter comes two days before President Trump is scheduled to give an address during a commencement and commissioning ceremony on campus, for which 1,000 cadets have been recalled from sheltering-in-place at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
“By accepting your commission, you incur a moral purpose and obligation to provide for the common defense. In doing so you enable the nation to fulfill the full range of its aspirations,” the concerned alumni wrote in the letter, published by Medium. “Today, our Constitutional aspirations remain unfulfilled.”
Inspired by what prosecutors say is the murder of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer on May 25, and its aftermath, the alumni implored the class of 2020 to show better leadership than the example they have been given.
“We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to Duty, Honor, Country,” the letter reads, a direct criticism of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, class of 1986. “Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military. We ask you to join us in working to right the wrongs and to hold each other accountable to the ideals instilled by our alma mater and affirmed by each of us at graduation.”
In addition to ― unwittingly, Esper has said ― participating at in a photo op near the White House on June 1, before which hundreds of protesters were cleared by tear gas and rubber bullets, the defense secretary found himself at odds with Trump over whether to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would have allowed active-duty troops to deploy into Washington to put down mostly peaceful demonstrations.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” the alumni wrote. “Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events.”
Following the photo op and talk of the Insurrection Act, a rash of former military leaders came out against the politicization of the military and its use against American citizens, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis, as well as former Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and former U.S. Central Command boss Army Gen. Joseph Votel, now both retired.
“The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience,” the alumni wrote. “Politicization of the Armed Forces puts at risk the bond of trust between the American military and American society.”
Esper has lamented his role in the photo op, emphasizing that it is harder and harder to keep his department away from politics during this election year.
"Look, I do everything I can to try and stay apolitical, trying to stay out of situations that may appear political,” he said. “And sometimes I’m successful at doing that. And sometimes I’m not as successful.”
For his part, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley apologized Thursday for accompanying Trump, Esper and a White House entourage into Lafayette Square on June 1.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said in a keynote speech at a National Defense University graduation ceremony. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
The West Point grads left the class of 2020 with another piece of advice, inspired by recent events.
“Your commitment to your oath will be tested throughout your career. Your loyalty will be questioned, and some will attempt to use it against you,” they wrote. “Loyalty is the most abused attribute of leadership. Weak or self-serving leaders will emphasize loyalty over duty under the guise of ‘good order and discipline.’”
But leaders would do well not to sacrifice their values to save their hides, they added.
“Unfortunately, some will make a Faustian bargain and endeavor to please their commanders and advance their own careers rather than take care of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in combat — which is not just a problem, it is a disgrace," they wrote. “America needs your leadership.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.