Above photo: National Guardsmen block off Sunset Blvd during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 2, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
Some National Guard and active-duty GIs are refusing to deploy to U.S. cities rising up against police-perpetrated killings, saying no to complicity in the repression of the American populace and that they have not been properly trained in riot response or de-escalation tactics on domestic soil.
Veterans and GI rights organizations told Truthout that dozens of GIs are reaching out to assess their options as President Trump orders military and federal police onto the streets of Washington, D.C., and threatens to use the 1807 Insurrection Act to send active-duty military into cities across the U.S. if governors cannot repress dissent in their states.
The National Guard has already mobilized 20,000 members in at least 29 states, and some governors, including Minnesota’s Tim Walz, have already declined Trump’s offer to send in military police. Trump has the authority, however, to deploy the military to states under the Insurrection Act, which would represent a dramatic escalation of Trump’s executive authority and likely spark pushback from state and local officials.
While the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the domestic use of military for law enforcement purposes without specific congressional authorization, the Insurrection Act gives the president authorization to do so under certain circumstances, according to legal experts. The Insurrection Act has been invoked dozens of times in the country’s history, most recently during the 1992 uprising over the Los Angeles police officers’ beating of Rodney King.
But it’s not the legality of the president’s and governors’ deployment orders that is weighing on Guardspersons and active-duty soldiers; it’s the potential moral injury of brutalizing their own communities.
One activated National Guard member who is currently in the process of refusing orders told Truthout that the events of the last few days have shattered his belief that there can be such a thing as a justified use of force. “Most of all, I feel that I cannot be complicit in any way when I’ve seen so many examples of soldiers and police acting in bad faith,” he said via an encrypted text message.
The Guardsman, who is consulting a lawyer, spoke to Truthout on the condition of anonymity to protect against further retaliation for his defection and for speaking to the press. He is relatively new to his unit, having recently graduated training, and says he enlisted in part due to his financial situation.
His unit, he says, has not received any relevant riot response or de-escalation training amid the rapid pace of the unit’s deployment operations. “I learned basic soldiering and rifle skills in Basic Combat Training, and my trainee Military Occupational Specialty is not related to policing or riot response in any way,” he said. “No aspect of my training has touched on this subject. I am told that my unit has conducted riot response periodically in the past. We have not had any training or conversation relating to de-escalation tactics.”
Another Guardsman, a medic in an infantry line company in Pennsylvania who has not yet received orders to deploy, says he plans on refusing if it comes to that and is also currently consulting a lawyer regarding his options.
“I can’t do it. Even looking at my uniform is making me feel sick that I’m associated with this, especially after [the National Guard unit] shot that man who owned that barbecue shop [in Louisville, Kentucky],” he said. “I live in Pennsylvania. I live with the history of Kent State. I’m not being a part of that.”
The Pennsylvania Guardsman is also relatively new, he says; he began basic training in late 2016 and has never deployed. He enlisted because he felt he needed “a sense of purpose, some kind of direction” in life and because he comes from a military family. He originally hoped to join medical missions assisting in natural disasters.
He also hasn’t been trained for a domestic riot response scenario but says his unit would likely receive “some kind of slap-dash training” if it were called to deploy because of the situation’s time sensitivity.
Should they refuse orders to deploy, what consequences might soldiers face? Siri Margerin, a counselor with the GI Rights Hotline, heavily emphasized that there are still a lot of unknowns in regard to how command structures may punish troops who resist, including those who publicly refuse to obey orders, don’t show up to their armories, or deploy but quietly hold their fire.
“We don’t know, because this hasn’t happened in a very long time, and it has never happened with a president like we have right now,” Margerin said.
The GI Rights Network is organizing emergency conscientious objector packets for troops who may have only a matter of hours before they are scheduled to ship out, after orders are given. “Once they have [the conscientious objector packet] in, they should have the right to say that they can turn up at their mobilization point, but they cannot carry a weapon,” Margerin says.
Depending on commanding officers’ tolerance levels, Margerin says troops could face more serious charges ranging from desertion, absent without leave (AWOL) and misconduct charges to less serious consequences, such as separation from the Army with an other-than-honorable discharge. It’s also possible, however, that troops may not be charged at all. In any case, they most certainly risk hostile reactions from their commanders and fellow soldiers.
“People have not been charged with desertion routinely, but that could happen. They could certainly be charged with AWOL. If they’re charged with desertion, that is likely a court martial, and that could certainly mean some severe punishment,” like a dishonorable discharge, Margerin says. “Typically, when people don’t show up where they’re expected to be, they get an other-than-honorable discharge,” she says, again underlining that “that was before now, and now is very different, so we really don’t know.”
Margerin has already fielded a number of emotional calls this week from troops in tears, and says the hotline has received roughly 30 calls in the last five days, mostly consisting of Guard members with questions regarding the consequences for not showing up to their armories. The hotline has received a couple of calls from active-duty soldiers at Fort Bragg in North Carolina who have been mobilized.
Margerin says she’s also receiving inquiries from friends and associates outside the hotline whose relatives are facing the question of whether to deploy to American streets. “The individual soldier has to really decide what their tolerance level is and what their purpose is in [resisting orders],” she says. “There’s a lot of capacity for moral trauma in this and for people to end up doing things that they couldn’t live with if they did do.”
Guardspeople and active-duty soldiers face starkly different questions and challenges in terms of resisting orders. The Pennsylvania Guardsman, for instance, doesn’t fall under the Uniform Code of Military Justice unless he comes under federal orders. Until then, he remains under the purview of the state of Pennsylvania. Still, Margerin says, it’s complicated, because if the president orders the state’s governor to mobilize troops, he will become federally activated while still under the purview of state law.
“Those are different things, and it really is all about who would be punishing them, who would be making those judgments and who would be paying for it,” Margerin says. “So that’s where they’re going to be drawing lines about exactly who’s responsible for whom.”
Other left-leaning, antiwar veteran’s organizations are receiving an influx of inquiries. About Face: Veterans Against the War recently penned an open letter asking activated troops to stand down for Black lives. Since the letter was published, About Face Organizing Director Brittany DeBarros says more than 300 veterans have signed on, and that the organization has received several responses from National Guard members and active-duty troops.
Veterans for Peace Executive Director Garett Reppenhagen, a former Army Cavalry scout, says the organization is likewise receiving an influx of inquiries right now. He personally spoke with an activated National Guard member who didn’t show up to his armory Tuesday morning and to another active-duty Army soldier who doesn’t have current orders but is fielding options.
“It’s a very emergent, messy situation,” says About Face’s DeBarros, a former Army Reserve captain who was investigated by the Army for her criticisms of the military on social media, including her support for Colin Kaepernick’s stand against police-perpetrated violence. She says units’ last-minute riot response training “has a lot of people who maybe even aren’t politicized, or haven’t thought a lot about their service, just saying the kind of obvious, which is, ‘This is really dangerous.’”
DeBarros told Truthout she is receiving reports of troops being handed rules of engagement and somewhat less-than-lethal weapons that they’ve never been trained to use. “Those of us who have experience and training with less-than-lethal weapons know that all of those different weapons systems have distances that can make them lethal, and [troops] need to know those things and be trained on those things.”
Other units are moving so fast that some troops are reporting confusion regarding command structures and being deployed onto American streets without any kind of briefing regarding rules of engagement.
However, the Guardsmen say that many of their fellow soldiers are enthusiastic about deploying domestically, with some newer soldiers eager to get their first “stripes.” DeBarros has seen it before, saying that officers are not thinking soberly and thoughtfully “about the potential moral injury this could create, especially when you’re being asked to look your neighbors in the eye and point a weapon at them.”
Still, others are also expressing hesitation and reticence against turning on their own communities, even if they aren’t quite planning to refuse orders. “A few people seem to be wrestling with their conscience, but they are quiet about it because there is some risk involved with voicing that,” says the activated Guardsman about some officers in his unit.
Reppenhagen and DeBarros say that what is happening domestically is directly linked to the systemic oppression that has fueled the nation’s founding, as well as its expansionary imperialist hegemony abroad.
DeBarros says it’s not exactly that the war on terror is coming home, but that “it’s really more of a circle in that the war as we know it has come home again, we might say. Not only do we have these same institutions that have been used to oppress poor folks, Black folks, Brown folks, Indigenous folks since the founding of the country, but now we have them becoming more and more militarized.”
Reppenhagen adds that when an “armed occupation comes to any place in the world, it invites violent resistance against it because people don’t like to see an oppressive force in their community and will do almost anything to get rid of it because of the humiliation and the threat that it presents.”
Troops are now occupying American communities, and are faced with a choice about whether they want to stoke more violence and take actions that could haunt them for the rest of their lives.
“I can say from experience that the moral cost, the cost to your soul of following an order that you wish that you hadn’t, is far greater and far more sustained than whatever the military can do to you in the short run,” DeBarros said.
The Guardsman in Pennsylvania also cautioned his fellow soldiers to think twice before deploying. “In this moment, the people who stay in need to very much think about what side of history they want to be on,” he said. “They really need to sit down and think about what they’re willing to do for an oath that means trampling on their neighbors.”