David R. Irvine: Today’s generals should learn the lessons of the past

(AP file photo) In this Aug. 22, 1972, photo, Former President Lyndon Johnson is shown at the LBJ Ranch, in Stonewall, Texas. The LBJ Ranch is where Johnson was born, lived and died. It influenced his views on poverty and inequality. It served as the Texas White House.

Washington Post writer Karen Tumulty unearthed an LBJ quote to capture the moment we’re living through: “President Lyndon B. Johnson said something profound and prescient in 1968, when cities across the country erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the preeminent leader of the civil rights movement. ‘What did you expect?’ Johnson told an aide. ‘I don’t know why we’re surprised. When you put your foot on a man’s neck and hold him down for 300 years, and then you let him up, what’s he going to do? He’s going to knock your block off.’”

Events of the week brought memories of the Sixties into sharp focus. President Johnson lost his way in Vietnam. Candidate Richard Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace talks to prolong the conflict (and thousands more soldier deaths) for an election victory.

Current Republican Senators repeatedly ignore all of Trump’s dumpster fires. It says a lot that conservative icon George Will called this week for their utter defeat in November: “[W]e are the sum of our choices. Congressional Republicans have made theirs for more than 1,200 days. We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration. Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.”

It’s been called the most disgraceful presidential photo-op ever: Trump’s violent, armed incursion into an otherwise peaceful protest in Lafayette Park so that he could strut like a conqueror, satraps in tow, to St. John’s Episcopal Church and display a Christian Bible as a trophy of war.

His secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (in battle fatigues), tagged along. Esper had told the nation’s governors that morning, in a discussion of American protesters in American cities: “We need to dominate the battle space.”

Whoa! Lafayette Park? Washington Square in downtown Salt Lake City? These are now American “battle spaces?”

It’s hard to imagine even Trump dropping the 82d Airborne into an American city, but who knows? His perfidy is boundless.

No good reputations survive close contact with Donald Trump, and Gen. John Kelly is Exhibit A. The Army’s mission is not to be the political pawn of any president. The military’s approval ratings exceed any of the three branches of government. That can turn on a dime if the generals and their troops are seen to be politicized.

If billy club leadership can only offer, “It’s OK to protest but not to loot,” that’s just stating the obvious, and everyone says it. After 52 years, real leaders at all levels of government have to listen and effect real change. If they don’t, the Trump ego and his enablers could easily take the nation back to 1968.

The Joint Chiefs are surely mindful of another tragedy involving one of their own in 1968. Gen. Harold K. Johnson was the Army chief of staff, and he was adamantly opposed to LBJ’s decision to expand the Vietnam War without calling up reservists.

In “We Were Soldiers Once and Young,” Lt. Gen. Hal Moore recounts Gen. Johnson’s decision to resign in protest. He ordered his car and driver to take him to the White House, and he removed his stars, intending to hand them over to LBJ. At the last minute, with the White House gates in sight, he had second thoughts, and ordered the driver to go back to the Pentagon. He thought he could do more to shape the course of the war from the inside than from the outside. That’s where the story in the book ends.

Later in his life he wrote that he would go to his grave regretting his decision to not resign. “It was the worst decision I ever made,” wrote this decorated survivor of the Bataan Death March, Korea and Vietnam. Milley and Barr could do worse than ponder that on their late evening strolls with photographers around the Washington, D.C., “battle space.”

Not that Barr gives a fig.

David Irvine

David Irvine is a Salt Lake City attorney and a retired Army brigadier general.