I try so hard to avoid writing about our former President, Donald Trump, whose form of governing threatened our nation and its democracy. A reading of a recent article in the New Yorker, “Inside the War Between Trump and His Generals,” which portrays Chairman of the Joint Staff, General Mark Milley, as a reluctant hero, broke my resolve.
I must address a frightening episode in recent history. I cannot desist. Naively, I hope that Trump backers will agree that General Milley protected our country as no one could have imagined.
Trump threatened the Constitutional underpinnings of our country. Military leaders understood the severe danger facing our country during the harrowing months between the Nov. 3, 2020, election and the Jan. 20, 2021, inauguration. A normal transition was anything but. While I knew about the turmoil and unhinged behavior happening in the White House, I was unaware of unusual behind-the-scenes actions conducted by Milley and senior military officers.
At the risk of exaggeration, I suggest that Milley, aided and abetted by unlikely civilian allies, refused to allow the president and his crazy enablers to deploy the military against American citizens and initiate illegal interference in an already decided election. These public servants also prevented an unprovoked attack on Iran.
The ship of state was wobbly. Dangerously so.
It is important to understand the military value system. As embodied by Milley, it bespeaks duty and honor at all costs. It demands loyalty to its civilian chain of command. It requires a refusal to follow illegal orders. It requires an apolitical culture. As a longtime officer in the Maryland National Guard, I deeply respect the military’s service-first-and-always ethic. I also realize that our nation’s military forces are far from flawless. “Heat-of-battle” actions can be immoral and violate the Geneva Convention.
Use of the military to further a president’s political ambitions is anathema to the military value system. Using the military, as an example, for a career-enhancing photo op demeans the military. That was the case at Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020.
Inhabited by warrior-veterans, the military seeks peace above all else.
The civilian-military nexus calls for mutual respect and understanding. Though trained to obey high-ranking civilians, general officers will not hesitate to object to ill-advised actions that place soldiers (used generically) in harm’s way without sound thinking.
Responsible civilian leadership knows that the military is a diplomatic tool of last resort. This creed applies to domestic as well as foreign crises.
Trump showed little if any concern about the appropriate use of troops during his presidency. His thinking was always transactional, sadly lacking a moral center. He cared not a bit about proposing that the military be perceived as an authoritarian force used by a wannabe autocrat. Our military serves the Constitution and American citizens, reporting presumably to a president who acts legally and responsibly.
General Milley and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, a West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, had no choice but to resist Trump’s efforts to disrupt election results by seizing voting machines. They had no choice but to oppose the bombing of Iran. Establishing an unexpected partnership with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was publicly and privately obsequious to Trump, Milley determined to save our democracy following the 2020 election, even at the daily threat of being fired. He understood the danger posed by a soulless president.
A combat veteran, Milley never could have anticipated serving a president so untethered to reality and rational behavior. He faced the consequences of a democracy under attack. So did the country.
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.