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Retired Generals warn segments of the military could support a future coup


As we approach the first anniversary of the January 6 Capital riot, three retired U.S. generals are warning that another insurrection could occur after the next presidential election in 2024. And they are sounding the alarm that next time, it could come from the military. They made their case in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

And joining us now is one of the authors - retired Army Major General Paul Eaton. General Eaton, welcome.

PAUL EATON: Mary Louise, thank you very much for having me.

KELLY: So the scenario that you imagine is that after 2024 election, a losing candidate could - what? - could contest the results, claim to be commander in chief and some members of the military might take orders from them?

EATON: Mary Louise, the real question is, does everybody understand who the duly elected president is? If that is not a clear-cut understanding, that can infect the rank and file or at any level in the U.S. military. So if you have that kind of confusion around the 2020 election, it is not outlandish to consider that you're going to have a little bit of confusion and that confusion could slip into the ranks of the U.S. military.

KELLY: And to understand exactly what you're concerned about, are you more worried about rank-and-file soldiers who might sympathize with anti-democratic views, are you more worried about officers giving their units orders that would be unconstitutional, what?

EATON: Frankly, it could be a little bit of all of the above because we saw it in 2020. And the concern is to ensure that we have a very clear understanding of the support and defend the Constitution of the United States part of our oath and that everybody in the U.S. military truly understands how that oath works and how to understand the civilian leadership of the U.S. military.

KELLY: You said it's not outlandish to contemplate a scenario like this, but I - it is outlandish. I mean, this is the United States of America. As you noted, we have civilian control of the military. It's required by law. On a scale of 1 to 10, how worried actually are you about the possibility of a military insurrection following a contested result in 2024?

EATON: I see it as a low probability, high impact. I hesitate to put a number on it, but it's an eventuality that we need to prepare for. In the military, we do a lot of war-gaming to ferret out what might happen. You may have heard of the Transition Integrity Project that occurred about six months before the last election. We played four scenarios. And what we did not play is a U.S. military compromised; not to the degree that the United States is compromised today as far as 39% of the Republican party refusing to accept President Biden as president, but a compromise nonetheless. So we advocate that that particular scenario needs to be addressed in a future war-game held well in advance of 2024.

KELLY: It sounds like you're sounding an alarm bell saying I hope this doesn't happen; I think it's low probability that this will happen, but if there's any chance, we need to work now to ensure that everything that could possibly be done to prevent things going so far off the rails gets done now. Is that right?

EATON: That's a good assessment.

KELLY: So what do you recommend the military do to ensure this scenario does not unfold?

EATON: I had a conversation with somebody about my age who - we were talking about civics and the development of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution. And I believe that bears a reteach to make sure that each and every 18-year-old American truly understands the Constitution of the United States, how we got there, how we developed it, what our forefathers wanted us to understand years down the road. That's an important bit of education that I think that we need to readdress. The fact that we were caught completely unprepared militarily and from a policing function on January 6 is incomprehensible.

KELLY: When you talk about civics classes, when you talk about war-gaming, that all sounds reasonable. It sounds smart. It also sounds like a very weak tea to stave off potential insurrection by the military.

EATON: A component is that beyond that, unsaid, is that we all know each other very well. And if there is any doubt in the loyalty and the willingness to follow the oath of the United States, the support and defend part of the U.S. Constitution, then those folks need to be identified and addressed in some capacity. But when you talk to a squad leader, a staff sergeant, a nine-man rifle squad, he knows his men and women very, very well.

KELLY: Paul Eaton, retired U.S. Army Major General, thank you.

EATON: Mary Louise, thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.