I’ve had it out for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Mark Milley, of late. My dislike for the man might even constitute an intellectual blind spot. Count me guilty as charged. I’ve mistrusted this character – who brilliantly weaves both plainspoken soldier’s bluster with a veneer of intellectualism – ever since he addressed the West Point faculty, of which I was then a member, back in 2014.
His basic thesis: the cadets, the army as a whole, needed to get back to the basics of war-fighting, and avoid the distraction of "too much" scholarly diversion. Milley, unlike most army chiefs, didn’t attend West Point himself. No doubt some combination of the standard insecurity associated with that, and typical resentment of "ring-knocking" academy elitists, drove this not-too-subtle dig at we professors. Only I sensed there was more to his postulation, something grander and more disturbing: a conscious pivot back to tactics masquerading as strategy.
In what universe, I recall thinking – and venting to my fellow "elitist" "geeks" on the history faculty – do our future officer students, with America trapped in ill-advised quagmires across a distant region, need less intellectual curiosity and stimulation? A drill sergeant can teach a clever monkey to shoot straight or drive a tank. The United States Military Academy (USMA) – which regularly ranks as the top public university in the nation and rates comparably with Ivy League schools – ought to aspire to better, I’d then believed: to outputs of critical thinking; a broad, diverse knowledge base; cultural awareness; and strategic sense.
So, way back in 2014, Milley disappointed many of us – I was far from alone in that analysis. He proved then, and has only doubled down on that since, that "intelligence," as typically defined, does not necessarily equate to sober strategy or ethical consistency. On paper, the general appears to be one of the quintessential "Best and the Brightest" – though we know how that worked out for the Vietnam generation – being a graduate of Princeton and Columbia Universities. Recently, Noam Chomsky – using climate change as his model – questioned the very efficacy of, and capacity for, human intelligence to solve existential problems. Well, Chomsky’s well-reasoned doubts apply quite well to General Milley and his slew of his flag officer underlings charged to "advise" one Donald J. Trump.
Milley and company have done their subordinate soldiers, and the American people, a great disservice by repeatedly supporting Trump’s worst misdeeds, moral failings, and utter lack of coherent national security strategy. In a sense, of course, in their unwillingness to publicly dissent and/or resign, Milley and his boys are in good company. An entire generation of generals have been utterly derelict in their duty to the Constitution, to the nation, since at least September 12, 2001, by sheepishly going along with one unwinnable, falsely-justified war after another. Still, there’s something unique about Trump – his perfect storm of erratic temperament, ignorance, and laziness – and, by extension, about his top general Mark Milley.
Nothing better exposes Milley’s perfidy than his own, and his support for the entire administration’s, evolving – and plainly deceitful – justifications for the egregious and unprecedented assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. Nonetheless, Milley’s ethical and strategic failings regarding Iran are only the latest in a litany of dereliction that has defined his service at the military’s highest ranks.
Still, let us begin with the Soleimani execution. First off, the relevant context: from start to finish the last ten or so days have exposed the rank chicanery of every top Trump national security leader, as – one after the other – each has provided ever evolving justifications (absent any real evidence) for an assassination that was tantamount to war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stretched the English language to its breaking point with the fluidity of his definition of "imminence." Defense Secretary Mark Esper has even contradicted President Trump, stating that he’s seen no "hard evidence" (read: intelligence) of an Iranian threat to U.S. embassies. And, in a particularly preposterous bout of absurdity, Vice President Mike Pence (odd, isn’t it, that this administration is seemingly run by only Mikes and Marks) audaciously (and falsely) linked Soleimani to the 9/11 attacks.
Enter Mark Milley. The Chairman has veritably staked his professional and ethical reputation on the latest Iran debacle. He’s repeatedly, and most vigorously, defended Trump’s actions and the what Milley called the supposedly "exquisite" intelligence that drove them. So confident is Milley in that intelligence that he even announced his willingness to release it, though, predictably, he refused to say when.
However, he’s off to an inauspicious start. When Milley took the lead in a closed session briefing to Congress (after the fact), even some Republicans were unimpressed. Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul even described Milley’s shared performance as "the worst briefing" they’d ever heard "on a military issue," with Paul adding that “There was no specific information given to us of a specific attack…I didn’t learn anything…that I hadn’t seen in a newspaper already." So much for "exquisite" intelligence. In a final, yet profound, bit of criticism, Lee called the way the briefing played out “un-American” and “completely unacceptable."
Then, after Iran retaliated for the Soleimani execution with a decidedly muted and ineffective missile attack on U.S. bases in Iraq, Milley rather vigorously rebuked various anonymous defense officials who’d insisted that Iran may have purposefully missed American targets. Personally, given Iran’s long history of restraint in response to American militarism, I found such reports credible. If it turns out Milley was wrong, and Iran did seek to limit damage to US personnel, the general will have a lot to answer for, and shouldn’t escape with his integrity intact.
What’s more, all of Milley’s apologism, obfuscation, and briefing incompetence fits squarely with his general behavior as Trump’s top military adviser. Back in November, when Trump undercut the military’s very system of discipline and due process with his (largely) preemptive war crimes pardons, Milley – who knows better than anyone the importance of accountability and self-control to military readiness – offered a quick and full-throated defense of the president’s decision. It was embarrassing to watch.
Then, less than a month later, when the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers of my generation, the Afghan Papers, which implicated Milley and many many others in the fully 18-years of deception, misrepresentation, and statistical manipulation that personified America’s longest ever war, the Chairman rejected any suggestion that any officials had lied at any point. His certainty bordered on the farcical. Even a cursory reading of the papers’ primary sources demonstrates just how patently untrue was Milley’s assertion.
As a final insult to those of us who toiled in the mountains and valleys of that hellhole, Milley had the gall to pronounce – as if he’s qualified to do so – that, fear not, more than 2,000 Americans lives had "absolutely not" been sacrificed "in vain" during the ongoing Afghan War. Well, of course! Milley has largely built his career upon the myth of "progress" in Afghanistan, and has regularly defended the continuance of the US military mission there – against mountains of empirical evidence to the contrary.
All of which leads to a logical conclusion about the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: either Milley is strategically inept and honestly buys the Trump-line, or, (as I suspect and fear) he knows better but carries water (and deceitful baggage) for this administration anyway. Neither circumstance bodes well for this crumbling republic of ours.
Milley certainly won’t read this little piece of mine. If he did, he’d likely dismiss it – assured that he doesn’t have to answer to some washed-up former major. Tell you what though, he does answer to the thousands of soldiers from Fort Bragg who recently boarded planes bound for the Mideast…and to the families who watched them go. Whatever happens to those kids is, in large part, on Milley’s hands. I sure hope he can live with himself when these glory-days-at-the-top of his are all over…
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet. Check out his professional website for contact info, scheduling speeches, and/or access to the full corpus of his writing and media appearances.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen