Revelation of the decision by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, to assure his counterpart in China that he would circumvent any decision by President Trump to use nuclear force to attack our nation’s Asian rival strikes at the core of the primacy of civilian rule in our American democracy.
However, I am torn about whether to condemn or praise our top military officer as he dealt with the threat of potentially destructive actions by a president engaged in increasingly erratic actions during the last few months of his term in office. It was this president who was seeking to overturn a legitimate election, claiming fraud where there was none, going so far to incite an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
Still, Milley overstepped his authority by thrusting himself into politics. He circumvented his chain-in-command. He did what he thought was best to protect our country amid the unpredictable, impulsive behavior of a madman.
“Perils,” a book written by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, along with another book and “New Yorker” article, discloses two conversations that Milley had with his counterpart, one before the election and one after the Jan. 6 assault on the nation’s capital. He initially sought to assure General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army that he need not worry about aggression by the United States.
Context is important.
Trump’s propensity to act against accepted norms and entangle his subordinates in questionable, unethical behavior was well-known. The reputations of his associates were always at stake. Many chose to resign, such as Gen. John Kelly, his chief of staff, John Bolton, his National Security Council advisor, and Gen. Jim Mattis, his secretary of defense.
The question then arises whether Milley should have resigned and written a sharply worded letter as Mattis did to express his criticism of Trump’s decision to withdraw all forces from Syria and betray our Kurdish allies. Mattis’ letter so infuriated the president that he demanded that Mattis leave his position as secretary of defense earlier than the agreed upon time.
After spending more than 30 years in uniform, I view the premise of civilian control of the military as inviolate, established by General George Washington’s resignation at the end of the Revolutionary War. Political considerations must come into play at times during go or no-go tactical decisions. Though I well understand the natural tension between civilian leaders and high-ranking generals, I have always considered the fraught relationship as necessary and useful as a check and balance.
I still do.
Though Trump had no respect for the appropriate use of the military, as demonstrated by his enlistment of General Milley in his walk in June 2020 to St. John’s Episcopal Church amid the Black Lives Matters protests in Washington, he served as commander-in-chief, albeit an irresponsible one.
Milley was sworn to protect our country and Constitution, as he understands fully well. His service has been superior. Unfortunately, he violated the separation between civilian control and military acquiescence.
While I commend President Biden’s support of, and admiration for Milley, I question the general’s ability to remain as Joint Chiefs chair. His credibility, unfortunately, as an apolitical military officer has diminished.
General Milley must resign. He did not commit treason, as Trump alleges. Just the opposite. Instead, he committed an act of honor and integrity. He acted heroically. He no longer could trust his commander-in-chief, understandably so. Nonetheless, he crossed the line of propriety.
He was right to disrespect a reckless president. He was wrong not to resign and state his reasons as forcefully and honorably as he believed necessary.
He made the wrong decision for the right reasons.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.