October 2, 2021

General Mark Milley’s Contretemps

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below


Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, in consultation and coordination with other top Defense Department officials, took steps to guard against a possible Wag-the-Dog attack on China by a defeated, irrational, and erratic American President. General Milley’s decision has generated a lot of heat, especially among Trump followers, but among others as well. While the precedent for stopping an illegal order is well established, interfering with a hypothetical illegal order that hasn’t been issued is, well, a sail into somewhat uncharted waters.

However, in light of the failed Trump-encouraged insurrection at the Capitol, as well as Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat, and intelligence reports that the Chinese were growing concerned about the stability of American governance, erring on the side of Milley’s actions is a reasonable call. After all, some military attack orders can’t be called back once missiles are hurtling toward a target.

Concern about a rogue order by a rogue president to launch nuclear missiles hasn’t been contemplated in our country in the last forty-five years. Former President Trump declared before the election that he could only lose if the election about to take place was rigged. Military intelligence knew the Chinese were growing very nervous about the Trump-caused chaos leading up to the election and following the election.

General Milley in consultation and coordination with other top Defense and State Department officials made two calls to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng. The first call, On October 30th, was at Secretary of Defense Esper’s direction. Eight people sat in on that call with General Milley. On December 31st, the Chinese requested another call with General Milley. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific helped coordinate that call, which was then scheduled for January 8th.

Eleven Defense Department staff were on that call and readouts of the call were provided to the participants. Then General Milley personally informed both Secretary of State Pompeo and White House Chief of Staff Meadows about the call. Acting Secretary Miller was also briefed on the call.

General Milley, assured Gen. Li Zuocheng, that the United States was not planning to launch an unprovoked attack against China. It is good that these men know and trust one another. And it is reasonable that General Milley called upon that trust to calm Chinese jitters. Far-right suggestions that General Milley was, in effect, acting alone and plotting with the enemy are ridiculous.

General Milley’s concern as well as that of other Defense Department officials was not without justification. Never before in our history had a President, without a shred of justification, gone to war against the result of an election by refusing to concede, by calling, without a shred of credible evidence, an American election a hoax, and by inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol to stop the constitutionally mandated tabulation of electoral ballots that had been duly certified by every state in the nation.

While certainly controversial, General Milley’s instructions to the brass at the pentagon are also certainly defensible. An order to nuke another nation, once implemented, can not be called back or undone. General Milley’s instructions were simply to ensure that such an unprovoked order was not issued by the defeated and highly agitated President for his own political purposes.

When the January 6th mob stormed the Capitol of the United States with the encouragement of former President Trump and with the intent of interfering with the peaceful transfer of power, General Milley took steps to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. He did the right thing because his oath of office is to do just that—to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States. General Milley’s cause was just, and the steps he, in coordination with other key Defense Department personnel, took were measured and appropriate, given the irrational and unprecedented behavior of a defeated president in the waning days of his administration.

From General Milley’s vantage point, and that of other Defense Department officials, there was genuine concern that former President Trump, who refused to acknowledge his defeat, was capable of doing something catastrophic and something that could not be called back once initiated. After all, he was openly calling for his Vice President, Mike Pence, to refuse to do his constitutionally mandated duty to announce the electoral votes that had been unanimously certified by every state in the country. The former President was cajoling a crowd to fight like hell to stop the constitutional counting of electoral votes and inciting his followers that the country was being stolen from them. And before the day was over, the Capitol of the United States was stormed and sacked by a mob of rioters, many carrying Trump banners, who believed the defeated President sent them. Indeed, the defeated President gave them ample reason to feel they were doing his bidding.

Other military officers have, on occasion, and with justification, also given orders for which there was little or no precedent. When their judgment was justified, they were not punished by their superiors nor condemned by publicity-hungry politicians. When their cause was just, they were, instead, honored and decorated. Readers, at least as old as me, might remember Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson. He was an American warrior who disobeyed orders. He even threatened to open fire on American troops if they carried out orders at My Lai, Viet Nam, 54 years ago. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his actions. Okay, former President Trump hadn’t ordered an unprovoked attack on China or any other nation, but there was real concern that he might.

His outrageous and unprecedented behavior in encouraging participants at his Stop the Steal Rally to fight like hell to stop the constitutional process underway at the Capitol and his promised “wild day” in Washington was a clear and present danger to our constitutional democracy. Our intelligence people were reporting that the Chinese had become very concerned that Trump would do whatever he had to do to stay in power. Milley took steps to assure the Chinese that no hostile action was being contemplated, nor would such an unprovoked sneak attack be undertaken.

This is not the first time orders were given out of concern that an enraged president would initiate a wag-the-dog war to serve his personal interests. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger did precisely that in 1974 when President Nixon was also acting irrationally. Schlesinger instructed the military not to follow any presidential nuclear order without first checking with him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Unprecedented and bizarre circumstances sometimes might require unprecedented judgments.  

Our system works when men of honor hold our highest offices. When self-interest and self-aggrandizement, rather than honor, are the driving and motivating forces that bring men or women to leadership in America, the entire American experiment is at risk.

James Madison, at the Virginia Ratifying Convention on June 20, 1788, gave wise counsel. It was true then, and it is just as true today. Listen to him: “But I go on this great republican principle, that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation…”

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the essay’s subject or are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.

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One response to “General Mark Milley’s Contretemps”

  1. sheila says:

    Hal, I agree 100% with your entire essay. Milley did what he had to do to protect our country – and he did it with the full knowledge of key Trump officials: the Secretary of State, the Acting Secretary of Defense and the Chief of Staff. Milley is nothing less than a hero, in my opinion.

    We should only be so lucky to have a General Milley around should we ever find ourselves in a similar potentially catastrophic position again. My fear is that given the current redistricting efforts and voter suppression laws which will be enacted in 18 states, the “wretched situation” described by James Madison in your example, will win out in the end.

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