At 1400 on June 1, 2020—a year ago this week—my company was starting our weekly training meeting. The first five months of 2020 had already proved chaotic. Our battalion was activated as an immediate response battalion and deployed to Iraq for two months in January and February. Our redeployment was quickly followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of April and May consisted of minimal manning to accomplish maintenance and recovery operations. The company was looking forward to returning to some form of normalcy and training even with COVID-19 precautions in place.
At 1405, both my first sergeant’s phone and mine went off. Our battalion was part of another immediate response activation. We weren’t going to Iraq this time, though. We were going to the NCR—the National Capitol Region. I was conscious of everything that had happened since George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day, a week earlier—the emotions felt by many Americans and the nationwide protests to express their pain. But at that moment my focus required getting my company out the door as fast as possible. The process of activating the immediate response battalion had taken us twenty-four hours on New Year’s Eve to deploy to Iraq. This time we completed it in seven and were lifting off in UH-60s and CH-47s by 2100.
Around 2330, we landed at Joint Base Andrews and spent that first night in a gymnasium. The next day, we bused to Fort Belvoir and were again given lodging in gymnasiums. We began to receive situation reports on the protests and were given contingency areas of responsibility in case the decision was made for active duty troops to be called upon. At midday on June 3, we were told to pack up and be ready to leave that evening. Right after we finished packing, that order was rescinded, and we had to be back on a ready status by 1700. On June 4, we received the same order and this time the buses showed up—we were back at Fort Bragg early on June 5.
This article is not about the protests in the NCR or about deliberations surrounding whether to activate active duty soldiers in response. Those are both important topics, with vital implications for civil-military relations, and they must be properly addressed. But they are not the focus of this article. Instead, this is about what I learned in that 96-hour period. Three important lessons stand out—things I wish I knew beforehand.
1. Learn about Defense Support of Civil Authorities
During the Captain’s Career Course, my class received one day of instruction on Defense Support to Civil Authority (DSCA). With the amount of material that the Army must prepare its company commanders with, it is understandable that troop-leading procedures and the military decision-making process are prioritized. However, that one day of instruction was insufficient to prepare me for any form of DSCA mission. I wish I had had the foresight to further educate myself.
Three important laws govern the use of military personnel for domestic purposes: the Posse Comitatus Act, the Insurrection Act of 1807, and the Stafford Act of 1988. Posse Comitatus describes how active troops can be used and the Insurrection and Stafford Acts describe when they can be used. All military leaders should familiarize themselves with these laws.
The Posse Comitatus Act became federal law in 1878, following the end of the Reconstruction era in the south, and has been updated in 1956 and 1981. The primary purpose of Posse Comitatus is to restrict the participation of the military in domestic law enforcement activities under most circumstances. This restriction exists to ensure that a standing army does not pose any threat to individual liberties or the sovereignty of the states. The few exceptions to this restriction include the use of the National Guard when acting under state authority, sharing of information and equipment with civilian law enforcement agencies, and the presidential power to quell domestic violence by employing active duty military and federalized National Guard soldiers. This presidential power is found in the Insurrection Act.
The Insurrection Act authorizes the president to use the armed forces to suppress “any insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy” if it obstructs the execution of the laws of a state or of the United States. There is precedent for the Insurrection Act being used. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy used it to enforce civil rights laws in the south. In 1989, the island of St. Croix experienced violence and disorder that exceed the law enforcement resources of the territory following Hurricane Hugo. President George H.W. Bush ordered the violent acts to end and, when they continued, he deployed federal forces. Most recently, Los Angeles experienced widespread rioting after the acquittal of four LAPD officers in 1992. The state’s governor requested federal support and President Bush responded by invoking the Insurrection Act.
Lastly, military personnel can be deployed domestically in response to a natural or man-made disaster under the Stafford Act of 1988, which has been amended more recently. The Stafford Act provides a federal framework for dealing with a disaster on American soil and is primarily focused on actions taken by FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security. But it still provides authorization for the president to employ US armed forces for supporting tasks such as road clearance, distribution of food and water, medical care, and search-and-rescue operations. However, the Stafford Act does not provide authorization to conduct any law enforcement or site security tasks. Additionally, active-duty personnel can only be utilized if the state’s governor has determined state capabilities are insufficient and requests support from the president. The Stafford Act is the most common justification for military personnel to deploy domestically due to the frequency of natural disasters. A recent example is the activation of part of the 82nd Airborne Division to rescue civilians from flooded homes following Hurricane Florence in 2018.
2. Be Nonpartisan, but Understand Political Context
The second lesson involves the political sensitivities of the deployment of troops for DSCA. The US military must be a nonpartisan entity because it serves the state and the American people, not a specific political party. The oath of commission and the oath of enlistment both commit to this by swearing to, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This obligation is further described in Army Doctrine Publication 1 as “subordination to the Nation’s elected civilian leadership and abstain[ing] from public political involvement.” Any action by the military or its leaders that directly supports a political party will undermine the trust of the American people and limit the military’s ability to fulfill its obligation to the Constitution.
However, nonpartisanship should not be equated with being apolitical—although some leaders seem to use the terms interchangeably. To fully ignore political context is to be willfully ignorant of the surrounding environment. Officers must understand this context in order to effectively work within it. This need is captured in Army Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22, Army Leadership: “In today’s politically- and culturally-charged operational environments, even direct leaders may work closely with unified action partners, the media, local civilians, political leaders, police forces, and nongovernmental agencies.” This is most clearly applicable in population-centric missions like stability operations and counterinsurgency but also applies on DSCA missions.
Military activities and advice always occur in a political context and have political implications. This is true when US forces deploy abroad—and when they are handed a mission in the United States. This understanding should free officers to support and speak out on issues that transcend partisanship, remaining mindful of the vital restrictions on partisan activities and knowing the environments where doing so is appropriate. This means, for example, identifying political threats to the Constitution for what they are, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff did with their message to the joint force following the riot at the Capitol in January. It also means reiterating the commitments to the founding principles of our country, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did when he wrote about “the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal and should be treated with respect and dignity” in a June 2, 2020 message to the joint force. In today’s hyperpartisan environment, it is not an easy task to be politically aware while maintaining nonpartisanship both in fact and in public perception, as well. Doing so is enabled by firm and consistent reiteration of the military’s core values—such as respect, selfless service, and integrity—while affirming our obligations to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
3. Embrace the Difficult Discussions
In addition to a duty to the Constitution and the American people, officers have a duty to communicate fully and openly with their soldiers. It is an officer’s sacred duty to ensure that his or her soldiers are prepared and trained for any mission they are given. Trust is foundational to commanders’ relationship with their soldiers. When my company went to the NCR, I was fortunate to have been in position for almost eighteen months, to include multiple training cycles, a rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center, and most formatively a no-notice deployment to Iraq. I knew my soldiers but more importantly my soldiers knew me. As an introvert, engaging with over a hundred soldiers was not always easy for me but I recognized its importance and strived to build a collaborative, flat environment where rank and experience were respected but everyone was invested in the planning and decision-making process.
During this immediate response activation, these relationships came with challenging questions about what our purpose was and why we were there. Some had questions about the legality of soldiers deploying domestically. Some wanted to be standing with the protesters, not potentially standing across from them. All of their concerns were valid, but not easy to address.
In leadership, the temptation to take the easy way out always exists. Here, that would have involved telling my subordinates to just obey orders or to suppress their concerns. While there are time-sensitive situations where those responses may be necessary, such occasions are rare. Good leadership is honest and explains the meaning behind a decision—in US military parlance, this means communicating both the task and the purpose. This authenticity motivates soldiers by arming them with the knowledge and reasoning for the actions they are asked to perform. Additionally, good leadership also empowers everyone, enabling soldiers to act in decentralized environments where they have to make split-second decisions that do not permit seeking approval from higher. Difficult discussions prior to challenging situations can also provide clarity to soldiers so they understand the reality of their current situation.
With significant assistance from my first sergeant, I sought to answer every concern that was voiced by my soldiers. We quickly educated ourselves on the Posse Comitatus and Insurrection Acts and then explained the implications of these laws for our situation. We acknowledged the importance of the First Amendment rights of the protestors and what the responsibilities and limitations of our mission would be if we went into the city. We also familiarized ourselves with riot control tools as opposed to the traditional lethal tools of infantrymen. We did not have perfect answers for every question, but our honesty and existing relationships allowed us to stay focused and cohesive throughout the activation.
Being sent to the NCR was not the type of mission I joined the Army to take part in and I was beyond relieved when we finally left the NCR without going into Washington, DC. However, it was the mission I was assigned. Such domestic missions could become even more common as the military is looked to as the solution to a wide range of nonmilitary problems—whether it is border security, support to pandemic response, or protecting the Capitol. Military officers need to continue to prioritize readiness for large-scale ground combat and understanding the various international threats against which US military power might be brought to bear . But equally, we also have a duty to be ready for any lawful task given by those appointed over us.
Captain Andrew Webster is an active duty infantry officer. He is a 2012 graduate of the United States Military Academy and tweets at @AndrewWeb11.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. First Class Jon Soucy, National Guard