Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley arrives before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations on Capitol Hill on September 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images)
Four-star General Mark A. Milley, 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and highest-ranking officer in the United States Armed Forces, is a walking answer to the unasked question, “What if Jim Mattis were fat and dumb?”
With his fellow four-star and President Trump’s first secretary of defense, Milley shares a powerful but muted arrogance, a strong but less than rabid hawkishness, a clear political ambition that nonetheless defies immediate identification, and the obvious desire to be seen as a 21st-century warrior-scholar. He does not share with Mattis the requisite intelligence to uphold these delusions of soldier-sagehood, nor the basic capacities required to competently lead men and fight wars.
Milley’s warfighting incompetence—shared by almost all the top military brass—was on full display in the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal executed last month, and the chairman, along with CENTCOM commander General Kenneth McKenzie and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (himself a retired four-star), was called yesterday before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee to answer for the failure.
While granting an equivocal admission that “it is clear, it is obvious, the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted, with the Taliban now in power in Kabul,” Milley left it unclear whether he would have let the war end on any terms at all, if it were up to him. After suggesting that he had played a part in killing President Trump’s initial order to end the war by January 2021, Milley recounted:
On 17 November , we received a new order to reduce levels to 2,500, plus enabling forces, no later than 15 January . When President Biden was inaugurated [on 20 January] there were approximately 3,500 U.S. troops, 5,400 NATO troops, and 6,300 contractors in Afghanistan with the specified task of train, advise, and assist, along with a small contingent of counterterrorism forces. The strategic situation at inauguration was stalemate.
In other words: Either deliberately or through a fundamental inability to carry out their basic responsibilities, the chairman and other military leaders had failed to meet the president’s ordered drawdown target by a full thousand troops. (It seems no senator noticed this discrepancy, as none pressed the general further on the matter.) Further, Milley, McKenzie, and Austin all testified repeatedly that they had continued to advise in favor of that residual force of 2,500—the reduction to which they had spectacularly failed to execute the first time it was ordered by their commander-in-chief—up to the bitter end, and apparently in perpetuity.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed Secretary Austin on what exactly this meant. To Warren’s questioning on what another year in Afghanistan would have looked like, Austin answered simply: “If you stayed there at a posture of 2,500 certainly you’d be in a fight with the Taliban and you’d have to reinforce yourself.” That is, the safe, modest presence for security and support has always been a lie; any presence past the withdrawal deadline would have meant renewed war with the Taliban, revamped deployment of American service members, and further combat casualties in America’s longest and most fruitless war.
Senator Warren also drove home that fruitlessness, pointing out the fact that the Taliban takeover was well underway long before the withdrawal of American troops, and that neither the Afghan nor the American people had anything to show for two decades of nation building. What’s more, she effectively forced Austin to admit that the failure to execute the withdrawal safely was entirely the fault of military leaders, and not the civilian authorities.
And yet, speaking to that botched withdrawal, Milley managed to simultaneously pat himself and his buddies on the back and pander to patriotic impulse with the dead American troops as props:
Although the NEO [noncombatant evacuation operation] was unprecedented as the largest air evacuation in history, evacuating 124,000 people, it came at an incredible cost of 11 marines, one soldier, and a Navy corpsman. Those 13 gave their lives so that people they never met will have an opportunity to live in freedom.
Maybe Milley really is that much of a naive idealist. But it seems much more likely that the general knows those 13 Americans gave their lives because he and his peers could not, or would not, do their jobs properly. Abstractions about some universal “opportunity to live in freedom” in a homogenized global liberal order are what got us into this mess in the first place.
But Milley is predictably hesitant to take much of the blame:
Over the course of four presidents, 12 secretaries of defense, seven chairmen, ten CENTCOM commanders, 20 commanders in Afghanistan, hundreds of congressional delegation visits, and 20 years of congressional oversight, there are many lessons to be learned. Two specific to the military that we need to take a look at, and we will, is [sic] “Did we mirror-image the development of the Afghan National Army?” and the second is the rapid collapse, unprecedented rapid collapse of the Afghan military in only 11 days in August.
Many lessons to be learned from two decades of war, two trillion dollars spent, and thousands upon thousands of lives snuffed out; of those lessons, exactly two must be learned by Milley himself and dealt with in his job. Two. Don’t hold your breath for any meaningful reform.
Milley then pivoted to pander once again: “However, one lesson must never be forgotten: Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine who served there in Afghanistan for 20 consecutive years protected our country from attack by terrorists, and for that they should be forever proud and we should be forever grateful.” Of course, this sentence does more to legitimize the misadventure directed by Milley and his ilk (on the grounds that it hypothetically might have “protected our country from attack by terrorists,” thus justifying the human and financial costs) than to actually thank the men and woman whose lives and wellbeing they sacrificed. (Nor was this the only pseudo-sentimental piffle the general trotted out on Tuesday; asked why American intelligence and military leaders failed to predict the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and military, Milley answered, “You can’t measure the human heart with a machine.”)
Perhaps the most significant part of Milley’s testimony, though, was his answer to allegations in the media—taken from the Bobs Woodward and Costa’s forthcoming book Peril—that he had promised to warn China if the president ever ordered an attack against them, and that he had made senior military officials swear an oath not to take orders from the commander-in-chief unless Milley himself was involved.
Regarding China, the Princeton-educated Milley assured the committee that he was merely taking necessary steps to prevent conflict between “great powers that are armed with the world’s most deadliest weapons.” He insisted that the two calls in question were well within his routine responsibilities as chairman, but simply neglected to comment on the allegations that he had promised to warn his Chinese counterpart of any U.S. action—which, of course, had been the most concerning part of the report by far.
As far as the extra-constitutional oath supposedly extracted from other officers, Milley said that the meeting in question was routine and that he had gone over communication protocols, but did not comment on whether any such oath had taken place. Concerning his January 8 call with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Milley suggested that he had disagreed with the speaker where he could, or perhaps tried to stay above the fray, without addressing one of the key lines from the transcript: “I agree with you on everything.”
All in all, the general’s congressional testimony reinforced what many have speculated ever since reports emerged that SecDef Esper had in fact known about the “secret” calls to China: That in talking to Woodward, Costa, and others, Milley exaggerated his own role as a Resistance hero, perhaps underestimating the blowback from the right and others interested in civilian control of the military.
It’s worth considering why he might have done that. The American Enterprise Institutes’s Kori Schake was quoted in the New York Times on Monday pointing out: “I have yet to read a book about policymaking in the Trump administration that doesn’t quote General Milley directly, or quote friends of Milley casting his actions in the best possible light.” By all appearances, the chairman of the joint chiefs has been actively courting the media, and carefully (so to speak) curating his public political image.
The Times‘ explanation for this is that the soldier simply wants to make up for crossing Lafayette Square with President Trump on June 1, 2020. Even as late Monday, the paper was republishing the long-discredited lie that “troops had used chemical spray to clear the area of protesters so that the president could walk, untroubled, through the park to St. John’s Church.” Thus, Milley “is still trying to make amends” for appearing to dabble in politics, and in a less than opportune moment optically. (The park had actually been cleared in accordance with a preexisting plan to push the security barrier back further from the White House, but images of protestors being pushed out soon before the president, the general, and others crossed the square—and the false narrative crafted around them—stuck.)
But why was the general participating in a fundamentally political photo op to begin with? (Worth noting briefly: alongside Milley in the infamous pictures from that day, President Trump looks thin, Bill Barr looks bulimic, and Jared Kushner simply disappears—another key testament to the general’s inadequacy as a soldier.) It cannot have had anything to do with his job as the chief military advisor to the president. But it can be easily understood as a bungled installment in a balancing act between perceived neutrality and perceived Trump loyalism. His presence on June 1 only makes sense if we assume he wanted to curry political favor with the right.
Characteristically, he failed. But now, in light these latest revelations, Milley has become a darling of the neocon and NeverTrumper media. Those who despise the previous president have come to consider Milley something of a hero, the sole “adult in the room” who managed to counteract the commander-in-chief who had appointed him. To those interested in extending the United States’ overseas commitments, Milley can be counted on to ensure that endless war stays that way.
These are two very powerful constituencies, and the long-converging combination of neoconservative money with popular anti-Trump sentiment on the center-left and center-right could prove formidable in the future. This could be worth keeping in mind, given that the general’s activity—courting powerful factions of the race-obsessed left, appending himself to key politicians of both parties, chasing media attention left and right—suggests he does not intend to pursue the quiet life of military-industrial complex sinecures automatically reserved for retiring four-stars.
At 63, Milley’s days in uniform are numbered—but 2024 is just around the corner.