How Will JCS Chairman Milley Deal With the Trump’s Pentagon Chaos? Like Lieutenant Colonel Vindman
It was somewhat unusual when Army General Mark Milley was named as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in December 2018. Why unusual? First, when Trump made the Milley announcement the serving chairman, Marine General Joseph Dunford, had nearly ten months left in his tenure. Normally, such announcements are made much closer to the incumbent’s departure.
Second, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis had not recommended Milley for the top military position. Mattis’ preference was supposedly the Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein. Given that Mattis himself was a retired Marine General, and fully familiar with all of his fellow four-star officers, his opinion would seem to carry considerable weight. But, in this case, evidently not enough, undoubtedly related to the fact that Mattis and the president were at odds over American policy in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. In fact, Mattis submitted his resignation ten days after the Milley announcement.
Lastly, Milley had already served as the Army Chief of Staff for three years, and would hold the job for a full four years before beginning his tour as the Chairman. Usually if a service chief is moving up to the chairman position it occurs much earlier in their service chief tenure. Admiral Mike Mullen, had only served two years as the Navy Chief before becoming the Chairman in 2007, and his successor, General Martin Dempsey, stepped into the role after a mere five months as the Army Chief.
So why did General Milley get the nod? An obvious answer would be that Trump wanted to reinforce his unhappiness with Secretary Mattis in a most open way. But it is also likely that Trump felt Milley was, simply put, his sort of guy. General Milley had a reputation for being blunt, straight-talking and straight shooting. In other words, Trump likely saw Milley as someone likely to be and do what Trump always desires — be loyal to him and be malleable to his desires. Unfortunately for Trump, that’s not a quality of military men in general and General Milley in specific.
One of the more remarkable moments during Trump’s impeachment process in the fall of 2019 was the appearance before Congressman Adam’s Schiff’s Committee of National Security Council staff member Alexander Vindman. Although the NSC expert on Ukraine, and himself a native Ukrainian, Vindman was also an active duty Army Lieutenant Colonel. Vindman had listenied to Trump’s telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and recognized that the conversation was highly inappropriate. He also knew that the official transcript of the call released by the White House was both incomplete and misleading. Once Vindman’s role surfaced, Schiff’s panel subpoenaed him.
Unlike many others the White House ordered not to do so, Vindman appeared before the Schiff committee and testified as to what he had observed and what he knew. He also demurred on a few occasions when asked to offer his views on items where he had no personal knowledge or information. Unsurprisingly, once the Senate voted to allow Trump to stay in office, Vindman — along with his twin brother — were quickly fired from their NSC staff positions.
By any reasonable measure, Vindman was courageous. He was testifying against a sitting president on whose staff he was serving. He knew that president would undoubtedly be vindictive and retaliate in some way for his action. He knew he was placing a promising career at great risk. But he also knew that his ultimate loyalty was to the US Constitution — and to the truth about what he knew. And Vindman paid a major price, being forced into retirement this past July, ending a promising career as he was on the verge of a well-deserved promotion.
Why did he do it? Because as it says in the West Point fight song, “That’s the fearless Army way.” Such behavior reflects the ethos of American military culture — service to the American people, loyalty to the US Constitution, opposition to enemies both foreign and domestic.
Which brings us to General Milley. Milley, even more than Vindman, is an adherent to the military ethos. Indeed, as a service chief and now the Chairman he is, in no small way, its custodian and exemplar. Back in June, when Trump used tear gas to clear Lafayette Square so that he could stage a strange photo op in front of St. John’s Church, General Milley was seen on camera walking with the president past the square’s equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson. Milley realized that he was being used as a political prop and quickly removed himself from camera view. Receiving considerable criticism afterwards from numerous quarters, he took the unusual step of recording a personal apology as part of a presentation given to officers attending the National Defense University. Since then, particularly during the difficult weeks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he has taken advantage of numerous opportunities to reinforce the message that the military is and must be apolitical. It has an appropriate role to play in the nation’s defense and security, and it cannot be used in inappropriate ways. Vindman and Milley are bookends on the foundational American military ethos.
Following the recent presidential election many have expressed concerns that President Trump, who has so far refused to accept the election results despite a convincing loss, might refuse to leave office. Some have suggested he might attempt to declare martial law and then use the military to stay in office and retain power. Such fears were recently magnified when Trump removed Defense Secretary Mark Esper from office and replaced him and two other senior officials with largely unqualified loyalists. The odd nature of this move was accentuated by the fact that the person named to replace Esper was not the Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Norquist, but a little known retired military officer who a year ago was three levels below the Defense Secretary. In addition, retired Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, a controversial Fox News commentator whom Trump had previously nominated as the U.S. ambassador to Germany, was brought aboard as a special advisor.
All of this has made many nervous. The Washington Post even ran an article under the headline “How To Cover a Coup — Or Whatever It Is Trump Is Attempting?” Trump may be contemplating something dramatic in policy terms, such as an early, precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, or completely giving up on Iraq as has been hinted at by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or perhaps to simply complicate the transition to a new defense team, but a military coup is not something Americans should worry about.
Military coups have happened with a degree of frequency in various countries, some of them close US allies. South Korea experienced military coups in 1960, 1979, and 1980. Perhaps more interesting were the military coups in Turkey in 1960 and 1980. There was another failed Turkish coup in 2016. The Turkish military, stretching back to the days of the founder of the modern Turkish republic, General Mustafa Kemal, commonly known as Ataturk, has had as an ethos that it should step in to preserve the country when political leaders are creating chaos. The Turkish military sees itself as an active guardian of the state — or did until 2016. It will step in if it believes politicians are not stepping up.
The United States military has no such ethos. Indeed the ethos it does have is one that is fully apolitical. The American military is loyal to the Constitution of the United States, not to any person or political party. General Milley, somewhat bluntly, reinforced that reality in his comments at the recent Veterans Day dedication of the new Army Museum, and did so with Trump’s newly named acting Defense Secretary, Christopher Miller, seated on the dais next to him.
The 2016 attempted Turkish coup is worth consideration. It was poorly organized against the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who the coup leaders believed was insufficiently committed to the secular rule that had characterized Turkey since the days of Ataturk. Although 300 across the country were killed in the effort, and thousands eventually arrested, the coup failed in no small part because Erdoğan was able to use social media to rally mass opposition. At least in modern times, one of the first things done during a coup is to seize control of the major communications means, primarily radio and television stations. But as the attempted Turkey coup demonstrated, in the era of social media controlling mass communications is a near impossibility.
In May of 1989 a major student demonstration erupted in China’s famous Tiananmen Square that challenged the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. This was certainly not a coup attempt, but two elements of it do have a degree of relevance. One was the famous photo that emerged of a single Chinese citizen blocking the advance of a column of army tanks. It has never been accurately known who “Tank Man” was, or what became of him, but this confrontation between a single citizen and tons of armored combat power became world famous. It showed that even in a most un-democratic society, committed citizens will stand up against what they see as an improper use of military power.
But perhaps of greater significance, why did the Chinese tank crew not simply run over Tank Man? Perhaps the answer can be found in the position taken by a famous Chinese soldier. General Song Shilun had been the senior Chinese commander in the Korean War, and commanded the troops that fought against American soldiers and marines at the famous battle around the Chosin Resevoir in late 1950. Song was a tough commander, and frequently committed his troops to assaults that were essentially suicidal. But when the Chinese Communist Party was considering how to deal with the protesters in Tiananmen, Song joined with a handful of former leaders in issuing a letter that said in part: “the People’s Army belongs to the people, it cannot stand against the people.”
General Mark Milley and his military ethics bookend, Colonel Vindman, would fully agree with that sentiment. America’s armed forces are pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. They are the servants of the American people and defenders of the American Constitution. They respect and trust its structures and procedures. They believe in the rule of law. At this moment of uncertainty, Americans can be certain of that.