At first glance, it’s a reminder of the troops around the world. Message: We preserve and defend the Constitution. Any action to disrupt the constitutional process is not only against our traditions, values and oath, but also against the law.
But the chiefs knew full well that the memo would be read around the world, according to some defense officials. They had much to say, and each word was carefully chosen. The bosses are not partisan, but they have a well-tuned antenna for the political climate. They know when it’s time to speak out, as they did after last year’s race riots. And they knew this memo would put them at odds with Trump days before he resigned as commander in chief.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump defended his words, which inspired his supporters to march and riot on Capitol Hill. But the leaders appealed to the rebels, saying the right to freedom of expression and assembly did not entitle anyone to resort to violence, sedition and rebellion – a statement their commander-in-chief rejected.
The memo also stressed that the U.S. military would follow the legitimate orders of civilian leaders. This is probably the most important line to remember. Leaders and warlords around the world have wondered what they would do if Trump issued an illegal order, and the answer is simple: They would not go through with it, according to several Pentagon officials directly familiar with their deliberations.
All American troops are trained to follow only legitimate orders. But in this crowded environment, no one will speak openly about how senior officials would have refused an illegal order, even in the unlikely event that Trump would have issued it. But this is known in high military circles. To be lawful, a military action order must have a valid purpose, it must be moral and ethical, and it must use proportional force.
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Commanders do not drop bombs and missiles or send troops into the danger zone without a good reason to take military action. Presidential orders are subject to various levels of judicial review to ensure that commanders comply with those orders.
But what if the order is illegal? Lawyers and Pentagon officials explain to the president why this order is not legal. If the president still won’t back down, we have no choice. Commanders must resign. The law prohibits them from carrying out illegal orders.
In their statement, the Chiefs of Defense Staff made clear what is at stake, both privately and publicly. But what’s troubling is that no one knows if the president is listening.