In war, urban military operations are exceedingly difficult. At home, during times of peace, they can be appallingly tragic. In 1967 a national guardsman deployed to help Detroit police maintain law and order feared a sniper was active locally and fired a heavy-calibre machine gun through an apartment window, killing a four-year-old girl and seriously injuring her aunt.

During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, a police sergeant approaching a house said “cover me” to an accompanying marine corporal and was surprised when the marine ordered his section to lay down sustained covering fire. As US history has shown, large-scale domestic military deployments are a blunt instrument: better at sandbagging flood levies than deftly managing lawful protesters and unlawful looters.

US President Donald Trump walks back to the White House escorted by the Secret Service after appearing outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, DC
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This week US President Donald Trump threatened to use the Insurrection Act to federalise the national guard and deploy it to shut down the protests and widespread lawlessness that has broken out across at least 23 states since George Floyd was killed while under police arrest in Minneapolis.

In a conference call, Trump told state governors they were weak, while his Secretary of Defence spoke of the need to “dominate the battlespace”. Overnight the Pentagon flew 1600 soldiers from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and 1st Infantry Division to staging points in Washington DC while masked and uniformed national guardsmen took up positions on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

On each occasion the military has largely delivered – helping surround Trump with the potent symbols of national power, projecting American strength, and showing the President as a man of action.

Time and time again, Trump has resorted to the military to serve his policy and political ends. He’s drafted generals to serve as his senior political staff, diverted military funds to build the wall on the Mexican border, pardoned soldiers convicted of or accused of war crimes, sent cruise missiles into Syria, assassinated Iranian military leaders in the driveway of the Baghdad International Airport, and rallied in front of troops on military bases. On each occasion the military has largely delivered – helping surround Trump with the potent symbols of national power, projecting American strength, and showing the President as a man of action.

But now the President has over-reached and the military is unlikely to save him from this national crisis. For a start, the legality of widespread military deployments is contested. Some experts argue the President cannot impinge on state sovereignty by federalising the national guard against the wishes of state governors.

Already the governors of Minnesota, New York and Illinois have rejected the idea that the White House could order military deployments in their cities. The Insurrection Act and other laws do give the President some authority to use the military to enforce federal laws, but only in cases where state authorities have been shown to be unable or unwilling to do so. Not since the civil rights fights of the 1960s has the US federal government deployed the military to enforce federal laws against the wishes of state governors.

As a friend and ally of America and someone who has fought alongside US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to watch what is happening in the US and not feel like it is the end days of an empire.

Some military leaders have outright rejected the need for the military. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chief of the joint staff, writes this week: “I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. We must endeavour to see American cities and towns as our homes and our neighbourhoods. They are not 'battle spaces' to be dominated, and must never become so.”

Secretary of Defence Mark Esper was also forced to justify the involvement of the current Joint Chiefs Chairman in Trump’s visit to the St John's Church. That visit belied the image of strength and dominance the President is trying to project. To walk no more than 200 metres from the front gate of the White House required what looked to be a company of military police, in addition to the President’s normal security detail.

To address the nation, the commander in chief had police charge innocent protesters in Lafayette Park, during which an Australian news cameraman was punched by a police officer.

Planning for military response to protests in Washington during President Johnson’s era, the then undersecretary of the army concluded “our objective is to show the world that in troubled times this nation is strong enough and confident enough to permit expressions of criticism which few other governments would dare tolerate”. Today, America’s adversaries and competitors in China and Iran are broadcasting their concern for human rights on the streets of America’s capital.

As a friend and ally of America and someone who has fought alongside US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is hard to watch what is happening in the US and not feel like it is the end days of an empire. Seventy-five cities on fire, 100,000 dead from a disease, military-enforced curfews, and a deeply divided citizenry.

But America’s disunity and individual resilience has often proved its strength. Australia should hope that America can steer a better path through this crisis.