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‘Armed forces exist to protect’ U.S., not police communities, retired general says

President Trump's talk of using military force on people protesting police brutality against black Americans has generated a backlash among a number of former senior military officers. Nick Schifrin gets perspective from retired Army Gen. Carter Ham on why these officials, as well as some who are currently serving, are wary of sending active-duty troops into the United States.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Over the past few days, as protesters have taken to the streets, the president's talk about using military force on the demonstrators has generated a backlash among a number of former senior military officers.

    The secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have also been criticized for their actions and what they have said.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, that criticism has become a chorus, and unlike the last few months, it's all on the record.

    Take a look at this statement from James Mattis, retired secretary of defense: "Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict, a false conflict, between the military and civilian society."

    Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey criticized the current secretary of defense, Mark Esper's words, writing — quote — "America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy."

    And recently retired Commander of Special Operations Command General Tony Thomas: "The battle space of America? Not what America needs to hear."

    To talk about this, I'm joined by retired Army General Carter Ham, who, over his 38-year career, commanded troops in Iraq, ran U.S. Army Europe and U.S. Africa Command.

    General Ham, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much.

    Why is there so much criticism and fear among retired officials, but also some current officials who I'm talking about — who I'm talking to, about the idea of sending active-duty troops into the United States?

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    Well, thanks, Nick. It's a great question.

    And in our nation, we have a long tradition, going back to the founding of the nation, concern even expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and certainly in the Constitution, a concern about the employment of federal active-duty armed forces within the boundaries of the United States for domestic security purposes.

    And so I think that's what we're seeing play out, is that that long-held tradition of concern about using the military inside the U.S. The U.S. armed forces exist to protect the nation. They're not well-suited for policing communities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's been a lot of criticism, as Judy mentioned in the introduction to this segment, of the leadership of the military.

    And let's go back to Monday afternoon, evening. President Trump walks out of the White House. With him is Secretary Esper. And Secretary Esper ends up in a photo-op in front of a burned-out church.

    Now, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, had been in that group, but he hung back while that photo-op happened.

    Do you believe Milley was concerned about the idea of the military being dragged into politics if someone like him ended up in the photo-op?

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    So, all of the secretaries of defense and chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with whom I have had the privilege of serving have all worked very, very hard to keep from politicizing the armed forces of the United States, for understandable purposes, and I think largely have been successful in that regard.

    And so I think, when it became apparent that Monday evening's events were intended for a political purpose, I think it was appropriate for the senior-ranking officer of the armed forces to not participate in that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe, over the last three-plus years, it's been harder for the military to stay out of politics and be seen to stay out of politics?

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    Well, it's always hard, because the — because the decisions regarding the employment of armed forces are — have an inherently political aspect to them.

    And so that makes it quite difficult. That, to me, is very different than using the military for exclusively political purposes. So, it is challenging even in the best of times.

    And I think, certainly, as we have seen over the past few weeks, it has been difficult, particularly on Monday evening, I think, difficult for the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to work hard to keep from politicizing the military.

    You know, that trust that America has in its armed forces is well-earned and, in my opinion, richly deserved, but it's fragile. And so I think the leaders of the military, both civilian and military, understand that and work very, very hard to make sure that nothing interferes in that bond of trust that must exist between the nation and its armed forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    General, I want to take you back to Tuesday, after that photo-op.

    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley wrote this memo. He sent it to the combatant commanders, the service commanders, service chiefs. And he handwrote something: "We all committed our lives to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people."

    How concerned are some military members that you're probably talking to that the active-duty military could be asked to do something that would be against that oath?

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    Well, there is concern.

    So, first of all, let me — I have known Mark Milley for a long time, long before he became a general. And I'm — those handwritten words, that comes from the heart of General Mark Milley.

    He — I'm confident he believes that with all of his heart and soul, and he takes very seriously the oath of office that he and every other person in uniform takes. So, that — I think he was reminding the force, be true to that oath. That's the tie that binds us in tough times.

    Broadly across the force, I think there is concern, you know, that the armed forces, again, are not trained, manned, equipped, prepared for employment in domestic purposes. The National Guard is.

    The men and women of the National Guard of the 50 states and the District and the territories, operating under legitimacy civilian control of the governors, they are the right backstop when law enforcement no longer has the capacity…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Nick Schifrin:

    General, I'm sorry — I'm sorry — I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have only got 30 seconds.

    I want to ask about that point. The National Guard in the states are being led by the governors. We just heard the mayor of Washington, D.C., criticize the fact that the Guard in D.C. have gone from 1,200 to over 4,500.

    Are you — do you believe that so many National Guard on the streets of D.C. could be a problem?

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    Well, you know, the District of Columbia, as the mayor indicated, is a unique environment. It is a federal entity.

    The National Guard in the District of Columbia operates under federal authority. And, as the mayor indicated, that she has questioned some of the policy, the legal authorities for the use of National Guard from other states in the city of Washington, D.C.

    That has yet to play out. It is not, however, uncommon for the National Guard of various states to work very closely together in times of emergency.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    General, sorry. I'm going to — thank you. I'm sorry to cut you off. We're just out of time.

    General Carter Ham, thank you very much, sir.

  • Gen. Carter Ham:

    Thanks, Nick.

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