It is interesting living amongst one of our crucial Allies, all of whom are being spun daily a narrative of worsening American conflagration. Depending on the news source, it can appear that the situation is universally grim and that the majority of disturbances after the killing of George Floyd are beyond peaceful. From overseas, it is hard to judge the extent of the reaction or, more importantly, which are the proper immediate steps leaders like you should take.
So how to fight or more appropriately “calm” the current “fire”? Any fire comprises three elements: fuel, oxygen and heat, commonly represented in the “Fire Triangle.” The presence of all three maintains the reaction but remove or restrict one and the process can stop.
Today, we are faced with a great resurgence of the question of race in America. The issue is so complex that it cannot be confronted until a sense of calm is restored. So to know this “fire,” we must break the current troubles in America down to their triangular elements:
Fuel: The economic vulnerability of many, exacerbated by the specter of things to come from Covid-19 closures; lockdown stress; losses of life and our “normality,” and now the brutal death George Floyd, an African American, clearly made by the hands of the “public trust.”
Oxygen: Tunnel vision from engineered social media. The news mosaic is essential to functioning democracy. But in many cases, personalized news feeds exacerbate and harden perspectives instead of providing much needed factual context.
Heat: Words (yes, they matter) – this will not be fixed until the violence stops, but to cease hostilities, the right words from you leaders count. There are the 4Rs: Restraint, Respect and Resilience, and at the same time Responsibility, to hold those who choose violence accountable.
Engaging with additional force or threat, and fetishizing the use of the US Military (it is actually already being used in the District of Colombia) under the Insurrection Act of 1807, without commensurate use of the 4Rs, will only strengthen the “heat” and works counter to the physics of the fire triangle:
1. The suggestion that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) would be in charge violates a tradition of civil-military relations. The Department of Defense (DoD) is not designed to lead law enforcement or Justice, especially on US soil, unless we are defending our country from invasion.
2. Using the military would devalue and demoralize state and local police and National Guard image and roles.
3. The police in many states are already militarized with the excess gear, the spoils of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), DoD forces are not trained but have weapons of a different scale for the mission.
4. The US military is the most socially integrated institution in the United States (in the DoD Demographic report 2018, 31% of forces are minorities). Inserting it into a national social issue is a formula to break this cohesion and to degrade harmony.
5. The military is the most trusted institution in America. If the executive branch does not see the value of this stature, you legislators, who fund the DoD, must make your voices heard to preserve this reputation.
6. Diverting our military’s attention away from external threats reduces our vigilance. Our multipolar power competitors are watching us closely and working to exploit this opportunity.
7. Internationally, our allies would question the use of military force internally (they mostly have gendarme forces) as disproportionate. We will lose the upper hand in moral arguments.
8. Our interagency process and structure are not perfect, but they are the best in the world because we have separate lanes of non-interfering forces.
9. We can reverse the ease at which we recruit our all-volunteer force.
10. The entire media spectrum, including trusted conservative voices such as George Will (at The Washington Post) and the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal, are against such employment of the force.
As Americans, we inherited the structures of our democracy from ancient Athens. We can learn another critical lesson from modern Hellenic history. Greece suffered under a horrible military coup d’état from 1967 to 1974. It ended only after the bloody killing of students at the Athens Polytechnic in 1973, which resulted in the military being effectively ostracized by the public. Greece lost out regionally (others took advantage of the crisis to cause many international problems) as well as losing her stature as a democratic nation. Only recently, after 50 years of patient and humble service, has the Hellenic Military regained its proper stature.
Imagine what harm our enemies, implied and avowed, can do to the United States, were our military to be disempowered by a tragic misdirection of its force toward keeping the current “Fire Triangle” intact?
* Robert Palm retired in 2018 from the US Navy as captain and foreign area officer. He last served as the defense attaché to the US Embassy in Athens, Greece.