Undermining civilian rule of the military and promising the military commander of our chief geopolitical adversary that we would notify him in advance of an attack is not “abnormal at all,” according to one general — one of several who came out to voice their support for Joint Chiefs of Staff head Gen. Mark Milley over the past few days.
Amid allegations in Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s upcoming book “Peril,” set to be released Tuesday, that Milley told his Chinese counterpart that he’d give him warning of any impending American military action and that he told his officers that they weren’t to launch a nuke on then-President Donald Trump’s orders until getting an OK from Milley, there were plenty of retired top brass closing ranks around him.
The conversations were first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday. In the first call with Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army on Oct. 30, Milley sought to ratchet down tensions with Beijing by giving Li an absurd pledge.
The book quotes Milley as saying, “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise,” according to the Post.
This came dangerously close to the textbook definition of treason. If the United States was in a position to attack China, that would, by the very nature of the action, make them our enemy. By committing to alerting them, Milley was, in effect, promising a potential foe that he would telegraph our moves.
After the second conversation with Li, which came following the Jan. 6 Capitol incursion, Milley “summoned senior officers to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons, saying the president alone could give the order — but, crucially, that he, Milley, also had to be involved,” the Post reported.
“Looking each in the eye, Milley asked the officers to affirm that they had understood, the authors write, in what he considered an ‘oath.’”
Civilian control of the military is a key tenet of any free society, particularly ours. By acting to remove it, even though his authority to do so was in question and the use of nuclear weapons wasn’t even on the table, Milley had undermined democracy.
And yet, the key takeaway from former top military brass contacted by the media was that this wasn’t any big thing.
Should Gen. Milley resign?
Take retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from October 2007 to the end of September 2011 — from the final year of the George W. Bush presidency through most of the first three years of Barack Obama’s first term.
During an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday morning, he shrugged the allegations in “Peril” off as basically business as usual.
“Having communications with counterparts around the world is routine, and even having them now with China,” Mullen told host Martha Raddatz.
“There was a time when we had no communications with China, or we’d have a problem with China, they’d cut off all [military-to-military] connections. And so, actually, I’m encouraged at the fact that the line of communication is there.
“And this was routine. I think it was also overseen, certainly listened to by many others in the interagency process. So, Milley wasn’t out there by himself.”
Raddatz then paraphrased the line about Milley calling China to warn of a U.S. attack — which Mullen found slightly problematic, but still not a huge deal.
“Yes, well, I’m hopeful that actually, that part of it isn’t true, per se,” Mullen said. “But, at the same time, having the conversation is really critical. What’s a little bit alarming to me, though, is that the Chinese would read the situation, as they did, as really chaotic and as if we were going to possibly strike.”
As for Milley’s action that undermined civilian control of the military, again, nothing major, according to Mullen.
“It’s fairly routine that you would look everybody in the eye and say, ‘Do you get that?’ particularly for something this serious,” Mullen said. “I didn’t consider that abnormal at all.”
In a piece for CNN published Friday, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling — a vehemently anti-Trump contributor to the network who served 37 years in the military and was, at one point, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe — wrote the “cries of outrage have been hyperbolic, vitriolic.”
“But Milley is emphatically not a traitor. His actions also don’t rise to the level of heroics, as some on the left are proclaiming,” he wrote. “Rather, I’d say the Chairman was acting rightly on intelligence that America’s adversaries and friends were extremely concerned about the violent turmoil surrounding the presidential transition — and the uncertainty about what Trump might do before leaving office.
“Given that the former president had already made worrisome comments about summarily pulling US forces out of various areas around the world, and given media reports of Trump’s earlier threats to attack other nations, Milley found it necessary to communicate directly with his counterparts overseas, with whom he had a professional relationship.”
Hertling added that Milley “was reacting to the realities on the ground. Straight talk with our allies and partners, lowering the temperature when tensions are rising, is critical to avoiding misunderstandings and perhaps deadly unintentional consequences.”
Except China is decidedly not an “ally,” and, in this situation, could hardly be considered a “partner.” If the situation rose to the point of shooting, it would be neither.
And while Hertling may have been under the impression that undermining civilian control of the military and assuring China they’d be the first to know about a military attack upon them lowered the temperature geopolitically, it hasn’t done so at home, rightly concerning Americans about what they can expect from their generals.
And, indeed, perhaps that’s the catch: The military supports its own under the (usually correct) assumption they act according to America’s best interests. That’s likely a big part of the reason three retired generals living near Fort Hood, Texas, contacted by the hometown Killeen Daily Herald either supported Milley outright or were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think we should give him his due and get all the facts first,” retired Lt. Gen. Paul Funk told the newspaper. “I’m not inclined to believe Mr. Woodward, because I don’t think he’s given us any reason to trust him. I’m not going to prejudge [Milley], but pretty sure it’s not how it’s been portrayed in the media.”
Time will tell on that. But the fact that Milley hasn’t outright denied the reporting in Woodward and Costa’s book is a fairly solid indication that it’s substantively accurate.
And if that’s truly the case, there’s a serious argument to be made that Milley did not act in the best interests of the country — even if we’re to accept that his motivations were as pure as the driven snow.
Unfortunately, Milley has given at least half of the country reason to suspect his motivations. It’s been apparent for some time that the Joint Chiefs chair has now gone woke, from his dubious repudiation of his own appearance with Trump outside a church in Washington in June 2020 to more recently throwing his support behind critical race theory training and infamously telling Congress that part of his reasoning was that he wanted to understand “white rage.”
Whatever his military qualifications — and no one gets to be Joint Chiefs chairman without having a lot on the ball — Milley has proven himself to be a political creature. The actions reported in “Peril,” and the fact that they have not been denied, indicate politics is operating in the United States military in a manner that should be repugnant to every American — even retired military brass.
The chances Milley ever sees a court-martial for this may indeed be slim, but he must resign or be fired. It’s that simple. The military may want to close ranks around him, but if the book’s allegations are true, this remains a disgraceful act by a man who can no longer remain in his current position.