Benedict Arnold is still a household name almost 250 years after he famously defected from the Continental Army to the British side. There are not that many people in history who have achieved that level of fame.
But the most famous general by far in American history is still George Washington. Known to the American people as the father of the nation, he was considered by the British at the time of the Revolution to be a traitor.
So, history is a fickle mistress.
More recently, in June of this year, some other American ex-generals wrote a controversial and public letter criticizing—and some would say undermining—the sitting president, and the actions that he was considering taking in the interests of the American people. Are they George Washingtons—or Benedict Arnolds?
In the early stages of the rioting and violence that erupted after the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump signalled that the use of the military might be necessary to quell the growing unrest in many of the Democrat-controlled cities, like Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland. Even at that time it was clear that the violence was growing, and there appeared to be at least some level of organization to it. As Commander in Chief, President Trump bears ultimate responsibility for the peace and safety of the nation and its inhabitants. One of the options on the table was the use of the military to quickly bring the burgeoning violence to an end.
It was exactly at the that time that news came of a highly publicized letter from some retired generals strongly criticizing the president and denouncing the very idea of using military force to nip the violence and mayhem in the bud. Now, many lives and massive property destruction later, it’s quite clear that those ex-generals were wrong, and the president was right. It’s also quite clear that it was a bad idea for a group of disgruntled ex-generals to break with a couple-hundred years of tradition and attempt to rise up against a sitting president.
Here’s how it happened in a bit more detail:
Shortly after it became clear that the protests over the George Floyd incident were turning violent, President Trump suggested that he was inclined to use the Insurrection Act to allow military personnel to put a stop to the alarming violence that was simultaneously erupting on the streets of many cities. That 1807 Act had last been used in 1992 to quickly put an end to the rioting that occurred in the aftermath of the now infamous beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police.
The fact that the use of the Insurrection Act had successfully stopped the Los Angeles violence with no loss of life, and no other harmful consequences, argued strongly in favor of its use in the current situation. There was nothing unusual about a sitting president looking at all of his options to handle what was becoming a volatile and dangerous situation.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote an op-ed in favor of this idea that was published in the New York Times. Then things went slightly crazy. Democrats universally condemned both the idea of the use of the military and Cotton’s op-ed. A mini-revolt took place at the New York Times that resulted in the resignation of an editor and the denunciation of Cotton’s op-ed.
The fact that President Trump was taking the perfectly reasonable step of at least considering the use of the military to end a very real threat was being called “fascist,” “authoritarian,” and many other equally over-the-top names. The fact that this overreaction was quite insane was overlooked.
Then, into this confusion—and in a highly unusual and political act—a number of retired generals inserted themselves into the picture by jointly signing a letter (pdf) denouncing the president’s Insurrection Act idea, and directly criticizing the president.
According to the generals, what was happening on the streets were simply “peaceful protests,” and by threatening to use the military to stop the violence, the president was “tarnishing the military” and had “fanned the flames of anger” within the population. These retired generals chose to have the Biden campaign publicize and exploit their letter.
This very political public rebuke of the president and his plan to stop the violence by using the military had the desired effect. The military option was abandoned, and the rioting, looting, and burning not only continued but also accelerated. The horror that was Kenosha, Wisconsin, is only the latest example of this pandemonium on the streets—pandemonium that is both ugly and organized. It certainly appears that these retired generals were trying to exploit all of the confusion and turmoil. To what end?
It has now become clear that the retired generals were engaging in a highly political game. Their intention was clearly to engage in politics by supporting the Biden campaign against the Trump administration. And—I repeat—it is also abundantly clear that the meddling retired generals were wrong. If Trump had been able to make use of the military—exactly as had been done successfully to end the Rodney King violence—the streets would in all probability be much more peaceful now. The shadowy forces who were both paying for and organizing the violence would probably be locked up, and Americans could feel safe in their own cities.
But were these retired generals attempting to do more than criticize a sitting president and a plan that he was considering? Were they attempting to bring down a sitting president and his administration?
At some point, the anarchy that now prevails on the streets of Democrat-run cities will come to an end. When it does, some hard questions must be asked. After all, there has been a tradition since the union came into being that ex-generals who have done their duty should not criticize the current administration after they retire. It has long been recognized that to do so risks destabilizing the country, and sapping the morale of those actively serving. Ex-generals—like ex-presidents—were expected to refrain from criticizing current administrations.
Perhaps it can be argued that these ex-generals did not do much harm. They are simply not that important. But it can also be argued that their—and other former military leaders—brazen interference has resulted in the death of hundreds of people, massive destruction of property, and great damage to the stability of the country. Not only were many killed trying to stand up to the rioters, but also many pointless deaths resulted from the lawlessness on the streets that followed. If the Insurrection Act had been employed, and the violence and unrest had been quelled early on, many people who are now dead could still be alive. Many businesses that have been completely destroyed would still be viable. The stability of the nation, as it heads into an election, would not be in peril.
So, the question will be: Are these superannuated military people just a group of well-intentioned seniors trying to help, or are they meddlers who must be held to account?
And henceforth should there be legislation codifying the entirely sensible tradition that superannuated ex-generals should not be allowed to interfere in the running of the country?
So, are these retired generals George Washingtons or Benedict Arnolds?
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.