Gen. Mark Milley
is a courageous and honorable man who has served his country with uncommon gallantry. There are few less edifying spectacles in modern life than to watch those whose military experience never went beyond playing with GI Joes sneerily denounce the actions of men who have repeatedly put their lives on the line for their country. Like all top military leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has played the politics of Washington like a finely-tuned harp, but he has also served multiple tours of active duty. In a nation that canonizes violent criminals and beatifies self-absorbed celebrities, the general is a living reminder of the qualities that actually made this country great.
But his repeatedly demonstrated valor shouldn’t inoculate him from accountability for his words. By all accounts Gen. Milley is a thoughtful man and that should equip him to understand that he has made a grave mistake that risks great harm to his own reputation and to the trust Americans place in the integrity of their military.
This isn’t a complaint about his apparent genuflection to the postmodern cultural orthodoxy of inherent white sinfulness (though the report published last week and reported in these pages about the U.S. Navy’s readiness—or lack thereof—puts some flesh on the bones of the criticism that the politically sensitive modern American military hasn’t got its priorities in order).
The more immediate damage Gen. Milley risks stems from his decision to spend much of the past six months apparently scripting his own
remake for the benefit of eager journalists and his approving masters in the White House. In the past week we’ve had breathless accounts from a proliferation of books by reporters about
final hours in office that cast the general as the hero-soldier of “Six Days in January,” a real-life movie in which he saves the nation from—I think I have this right—World War III, a coup d’état and the desecration of the Constitution.
Gen. Milley is a keen student of history, and in these florid accounts we are invited to see a man who identifies with
and his fellow revolutionaries in ”all hanging together” against President Trump, and who lets us know that if only he’d been around in 1933, the Reichstag Fire wouldn’t have led to the Nazis’ seizure of power.
The most curious claim is the one that he somehow restrained Mr. Trump from starting a war with Iran. According to an article by
—based on reporting she and her husband,
did for a forthcoming book on the last days of Mr. Trump’s presidency—the general believed that the president’s interest in striking at Iran late last year was a way of helping him stay in office after he lost the election. “You’re going to have a f—ing war,” Gen. Milley says, living up to
observation that “an army without profanity couldn’t fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.”
There’s quite a lot of rhetorical smoke on this battlefield, but as I read the account, it seems that this is what happened: The president convened a series of meetings to discuss military and other options for Iran after its repeated provocations against U.S. interests in the Middle East. At the last of these, on Jan. 3, it was agreed that it was too late to do anything. There was no military strike on Iran.
That’s it. (Except that, a month after taking office, President Biden authorized strikes against Iranian targets in the region.)
The more serious allegation from Gen. Milley is the familiar one that Mr. Trump was orchestrating a coup to keep himself in office. “They may try to stage a coup but they’re not going to f—ing succeed,” he tells his subordinates, again channeling Old Blood and Guts.
I’ve argued many times on these pages that Mr. Trump’s behavior after the election was reprehensible, and no doubt it alarmed many of those who worked for him. But the larger point here is the propriety of a serving general speaking out explicitly so soon after the events.
Whatever Mr. Trump’s failings, to characterize many of his supporters as “brownshirts,” as Gen. Milley has been quoted, can only intensify the sense among millions of Americans that the institutions of their government regard their grievances as treasonous—and that Gen. Milley’s Army has enlisted on a political side. One of the accounts has him at
“No one has a bigger smile today than I do.”
Speak softly and carry a big stick, a famous soldier turned politician once said. It’s an axiom that applies to domestic politics as much as to global matters. It would be better for everyone if the nation’s leading military officers respected it.
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