On Tuesday, the U.S. military’s most senior uniformed leaders issued a rare message to the nation’s armed forces at a critical moment of heightened domestic tension. Less than a week after the assault on the Capitol by mostly Trump-supporting rioters on January 6, the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff issued an extraordinary statement affirming Joe Biden as the lawfully-elected president-elect.
They also condemned last week’s violent riot inside the Capitol as “a direct assault on the U.S. Congress, the Capitol building, and our Constitutional process.”
The statement was signed by America’s most senior general, Mark Milley, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which consists of the military heads of each service branch (now including Space Force) and the National Guard Bureau. The message from the eight general and flag officers was short but pointed.
It opened with a reminder of the role the U.S. Armed Forces have played in protecting the American people and the Constitution for almost 250 years, and the trust they have earned. It also reinforces that the “U.S. military will obey lawful orders from civilian leadership,” and “remain fully committed to protecting and defending the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
In its more misreported section, the statement also said:
We witnessed actions inside the Capitol building that were inconsistent with the rule of law. The rights of freedom of speech and assembly do not give anyone the right to resort to violence, sedition and insurrection.
While some media such as USA Today and NBC News blog immediately jumped to report that the Joint Chiefs were calling the Capitol riot an “insurrection,” the JCS never explicitly stated that. The paragraph was deliberately opaque.
It called the actions inside the Capitol “inconsistent with the rule of law,” but then said separately that — as a general rule — no one has a right to resort to “violence, sedition and insurrection.” In this way, I believe, they left the interpretation open and were treading a fine semantic and legal line, similar to what I have noted previously.
The Capitol riot was clearly criminal and maybe even ‘terroristic’ in its attempt to violently intimidate and influence the political process, but it did not meet the threshold of “armed insurrection” as no one appeared armed or showed the intent to overthrow the government of the United States.
Nevertheless, the JCS warning to U.S. servicemen and women was justifiably clear:
As service members, we must embody the values of the nation. We support and defend the Constitution. Any act to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values, and oath; it is against the law.
Most importantly, as Defense One noted:
That the military’s senior-most uniformed leaders should feel compelled to issue such a message to the force reflects not only deep-seated concerns about the impact bitter national division may have within the force, but also a tacit recognition that the military still remains one of the most trusted organizations in an American deeply divided over its own institutions.