After a week of widespread civil unrest, U.S. military leaders of every service branch have emerged from a Pentagon-imposed silence to speak out publicly about racism in society and within the ranks — and obliquely, about the proper role of armed forces in a country roiled by protest.
Their statements came after President Donald Trump vowed on Monday to put “heavily armed” U.S. troops on city streets to confront protesters and quell violence, had National Guard and federal security personnel forcibly clear peaceful protestors away from the White House, and then surprised onlookers by walking with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and other administration officials through Lafayette Square for a photo op.
Esper, following intense criticism for calling the protests a “battlespace” and participating in the stunt, stepped out to cameras at the Pentagon briefing room on Wednesday morning to claim he was not privy to the decision to clear the park, nor to the plans for Trump’s photo op. Then he announced he had sent a memo to the force about racism, which he hoped would give “space” for other leaders to do the same.
“Racism is real in America, and we must all do our very best to recognize it, to confront it, and to eradicate it,” the secretary said.
Esper’s decision to increase attention on racism also came with an unexpected pushback on Trump’s Monday threat to send “thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers” to quell violence in the nation’s streets. Such an order would likely take place under the 1807 Insurrection Act.
That law should only be invoked “as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire situations,” Esper told Pentagon reporters. “We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.”
This marks the second time in Trump’s presidency that military leaders have tried to ease national tensions about race by making the rare move of speaking up. In 2017, five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued statements soon after the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.
Air Force leaders were the first among their cohort to speak out about George Floyd, who on May 25 became the latest unarmed black man killed by law enforcement officers. Floyd’s death has sparked widespread protests, as well as disturbances and looting, across the country. On Monday, Chief Msgt. Kaleth Wright, the Air Force’s top enlisted official, posted a series of tweets in which he wrote that his “greatest fear” is “that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.”
On Tuesday, Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, joined Wright in a video posted on the service’s social media channels. “I’ve been really outraged, not just for the last week,” Wright said. “It drew up a lot of rage and a lot of anger from the past because I’ve just watched this over and over and over again.”
Goldfein and his fellow service chiefs were reportedly told twice last by Defense Secretary Mark Esper not to speak out on the unrest and its cause — at least until Esper did so. The secretary broke his own silence on the matter in a Tuesday memo that said, “I, like you, am steadfast in my belief that Americans who are frustrated, angry, and seeking to be heard must be ensured that opportunity.”
Later that day, U.S. Space Force’s commander and top enlisted leader, Gen. John Raymond and Chief Master Sgt. Roger Towberman, released a letter “to the Men and Women of Our Nation’s Air and Space Forces. It began: “The tragic death of George Floyd is wrong and goes against the founding principles of our it also serves as a stark reminder that racism and the unequal treatment is a reality for many and a travesty for all.”
On Wednesday, the other service chiefs followed suit, issuing their own calls to eradicate racism from their ranks.
Just after midday, the Army released a joint statement from Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James McConville, and Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston. In it, they said: “Our ability to defend this country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, is founded upon a sacred trust with the American people. Racial division erodes that trust. Though we all aspire to live by the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage, the Army has sometimes fallen short. Because just as we reflect the best of America, we reflect its imperfections as well. We need to work harder to earn the trust of mothers and fathers who hesitate to hand their sons and daughters into our care. How we respond to the anger that has ignited will chart the course of that trust.”
Later, in a self-filmed video, Adm. Mike Gilday, the chief of naval operations, said: “over the past week, after we’ve watched what is going on, we can’t be under any illusions about the fact that racism is alive and well in our country. And I can’t be under any illusions that we don’t have it in our Navy.” The admiral urged sailors to start by reaching out to colleagues “and just listen.”
Commanders and senior enlisted leaders of the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet and Naval Forces Europe/Africa also issued a message, telling sailors “to have the courage to discuss this challenging situation with your colleagues, so we can all gain a better understanding of underlying concerns, as well as find ways to work together to develop and put in place lasting solutions.”
On Wednesday evening, the Air Force’s Goldfein became the first chief to hold a service-wide discussion on the recent events. In a two-hour Facebook town hall, he pledged “a commitment to a campaign, a long-term focused effort on better understanding of each other, a better understanding of what some of our teammates have been living with their entire lives and ensuring that we make the meaningful change that we have to as a profession of arms that the nation depends on in time of crisis.”
“This is not a Minneapolis issue, this is an Air Force issue,” Goldfein said at the beginning of the online gathering. “What goes on on the streets of America, we know is going on to a certain extent inside our Air Force. We’re not perfect. We have to do better and the only way to do better is to take ownership of a problem.”
By early evening, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps had posted and tweeted their statement. “Marines and Sailors, last summer, in my planning guidance, I stated there is no place in our Corps for racists,” said the statement issued by Gen. David Berger and Sgt. Maj. Troy Black. “Current events are a stark reminder that it is not enough for us to remove symbols that cause division – rather, we also must strive to eliminate division itself.”
And at 8:37 p.m. on Wednesday, the service chief whose forces are most entwined with the efforts to quell the protests issued a statement of his own.
“I am sickened by the death of George Floyd,” wrote National Guard chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel in a memo tweeted out by the National Guard Bureau. “And I am enraged that this story…keeps happening in our country, where unarmed men and women of color are the victims of police brutality and extrajudicial violence.”