Reviews | General Milley and the appropriate role of the military
New book reports that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unduly restricted the President of the United States’ ability to use military force and pledged to warn China, an American adversary , of any impending US military action against this. If Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s book “Peril” accurately recounts General Milley’s behavior, his actions could be a blatant series of violations of the standards that govern civil-military relations in the United States.
The context surrounding General Milley’s actions is unclear and may be exculpatory. For example, while the Washington Post’s description of “a pair of secret phone calls” suggests stealth behavior, Fox News correspondent Jennifer Griffin reports that there has been 15 people on appeals, including representatives of the State Department. It is possible that the calls were not secret from his civilian superiors, but carried this classification because any conversation with a foreign counterpart would. And the authors of “Peril” are unlikely to know whether the Chinese general “took the president at his word”, although they claim it.
There are also other potential explanations for General Milley’s actions that are less salacious than those of Woodward and Costa. But the problem goes beyond the details of General Milley’s actions and points to problems for the relationship between our military and the civilians they are supposed to serve.
A phone call between General Milley and Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, was reported several months ago as General Milley explained to the second in order of succession to the presidency the legal procedures for the president to trigger nuclear war, something precious to reaffirm.
While the president is the commander-in-chief, Congress also provides civilian oversight of the military and requires every two-star general to commit to informing them of their concerns about the actions of the executive. Thus, General Milley discussing the soundness of the President with the Speaker of the House, while improper, could be understood to be fulfilling his constitutional responsibilities.
It is also true that the US-China military relationship is not well established, so it would be wise to minimize the miscalculation of the Chinese military, which probably misunderstands the US political process, in the confusion that followed the events of January 6.
Yet General Milley’s actions apparently surprised at least part of the Trump administration’s national security. officials. Whether it is an underground movement of the president or simply a routine dysfunction of a poorly managed administration is difficult to assess. We may never know the whole story: General Milley or other military leaders are unlikely to publicly refute the narrative, as it would draw them further into the glamor of civilian politics.
But while Woodward and Costa’s account sensationalizes General Milley’s actions, his choices are problematic for civil-military relations. Account after account of the Trump administration, friends and colleagues of General Milley describe his conversations and attribute the noblest motives to him. Either General Milley has Washington’s most intrusive circle of acquaintances or he allows him to reshape his image.
One can sympathize with the general’s frustration at having as a legacy the image of him walking around Lafayette Square in riot gear alongside a president who threatens to use the military against American citizens and still thinks he is unseemly for the president’s senior military adviser to be so actively presenting himself as the savior of the Republic.
The problem is not only optical. As Carrie Lee rightly assesses in The Washington Post, General Milley speaks of his role both damaging the trust civilians have in the military and encouraging further politicization of the military itself. Presidents who believe the military is working against them or is unable to maintain confidentiality will discredit military advice. And future military leaders with less noble motives will be less confined by the civil-military standards that General Milley’s choices weaken.
In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger asked military leaders to check with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing a nuclear launch order from President Nixon. Costa and Woodward’s book compares General Milley’s actions to this. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not part of the chain of command, but in General Milley’s case, most of the civilian control of the Pentagon was unconfirmed at the time – and probably not. confirmed – by Congress.
Some argue that military leaders standing between the president and politically motivated war is the less bad choice. Even in the extreme circumstances of an extremely erratic president attempting to use the military to prevent succession to power, it is dangerous to see military leaders subvert civilian control of the military as a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs suggests. “Pulling a Schlesinger”. A weak president is a danger to democracy, but an army that sees itself as the arbiter of the legitimate authorities of elected leaders is also a danger to democracy.
America’s leaders in uniform have done a remarkable job of ensuring our military stays out of politics during and after a contested election. They deserve immense credit for this professionalism and this service to the nation. They would deserve even more credit if they stopped publishing it.