What the Milley Affair Says About the State of Our Politics

Our virulent politics has corroded the norms of intercourse between the people, politicians, and military professionals.

While it won’t be another week until the accused is called to testify, the charges have been laid and, for many, sentence already passed in the case of Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The hearing will nominally be about the Afghanistan withdrawal, but he will likely face questions both about recent claims regarding his actions in the final days of the Trump administration and about previous statements that have opened him to accusations of “woke-ism,” an unpardonable and equally unprovable principal offense for which proof isn’t really necessary, for only the guilty are accused.

The Milley affair might well mark a Rubicon moment in American civil-military affairs: not a coup or a crisis of control, but the point where our increasingly virulent politics has so corroded the traditional model and norms of intercourse between the people, politicians, and military professionals that it may be broken beyond repair. In a world where justice, science, even mathematics are subsumed under politics, people in uniform cannot expect to stand apart, above the fray.

Milley’s singularly unhappy saga is worth recapping, as it provides a case study in the collapse of the norms that have governed American civil-military relations since World War II and which have made the “all-volunteer” force an unprecedented success, not only on the battlefield but as a social experiment. The creation of a large “standing army” was not merely a post-Vietnam expedient but a leap of political faith; the armed forces were acknowledged to be “professionals” and granted wide latitude to exercise their “best military judgment.” In return, civilians were recognized as the sole legitimate source of policy decisions, including, in Peter Feaver’s apt phrase, the “right to be wrong.”

Milley has seemed to be in over his head since President Trump announced (by tweet during the 2018 Army-Navy football game) that he’d chosen the then-Army chief of staff to become the 20th JCS chairman, overturning the recommendation of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis—whose feud with Trump was again escalating—that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein get the job. Indeed, Trump had been poisoning the civil-military waters since his election. He had delighted in pushing “Mad Dog” Mattis, a retired Marine general who had distinguished himself in the post-9/11 wars both for his combat record and his colorful quotes, to be secretary of defense, despite the fact that it required an exception to law to confirm a candidate so recently retired from the military. Trump talked openly of “his generals,”—as though they were his praetorians rather than the servants of the nation and the Constitution. This was Milley’s cross to bear from the start.

Milley first got into hot water for accompanying Trump as he strode across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. In the hectic events of that afternoon, Milley was snapped wearing his combat uniform, creating an icon of Trump authoritarianism. “General Milley is here,” swaggered Trump. “He’s head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a fighter, a war hero, a lot of victories and no losses, and he hates to see the way it’s being handled in the various states, and I just put him in charge.” 

Milley later apologized, saying his “presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.” But his critics had already seized the moment and were not appeased. Film director Eric Morris took Milley to task in The Atlantic: “It’s more than just a perception. It is the reality of mixing the military and politics. And not just any sort of politics. Racist politics. The real problem with Milley’s presence … is not that he’s there giving orders; it’s that he allowed himself, the principal military adviser to the president, to be depicted as part of this administration’s campaign against constitutionally protected assembly and protest, part of its White Panic.” 

This past June, Milley was converted overnight from a symbol of white supremacy to an avatar of white self-loathing in an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Michael Waltz, like Milley a veteran of Army Special Forces, and other members of the panel prodded the chairman on the subject of critical race theory in military academies and training materials in the wake of the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. “I want to understand white rage—and I’m white,” Milley barked. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What caused that? I want to find that out. I want to maintain an open mind here. And I do want to understand that.” 

Conservative culture warriors immediately leapt into the fray. “Has the military gone ‘woke’?” asked the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. In The Federalist, Helen Raleigh argued that the general was “defend[ing] racist indoctrination” rather than defending the country against external threats. The debate got even more heated once Democrats and leftists rallied to Milley’s defense; even Rolling Stone saw Milley’s statements as a “powerful defense” of military open-mindedness. For his part, Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared Milley “not just a pig. He’s stupid.”

Carlson claimed the general’s promotion was due to the fact that “he knows how to suck up and he’s more than happy to do it,” perhaps forgetting that it was Trump—who found Milley’s testimony “pathetic”—who apparently fell for Milley’s flattery.

The humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan transformed the right-wing snark into calls for Milley’s resignation, firing and court-martial. National Review called on Milley to resign; while acknowledging that the fiasco was primarily the work of President Biden, the magazine editors argued that Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—another retired general—should, for the sake of “accountability,” go down with the ship.

What has brought the Milley affair to a full-blown boil was a revelation in the latest Bob Woodward book, Peril, written with fellow Washington Post reporter Robert Costa, the third in a trilogy on the Trump years. The most incendiary incident was a January 8, 2021, phone call from the chairman to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng. In the aftermath of the Capitol riot, and in the context of large-scale and long-planned U.S. military exercises—and, perhaps, because of Beijing’s own strategic anxiety—intelligence analysts had concluded that the Chinese were worried that an angry Trump might order some sort of strike. Although subsequent reporting—including interviews with Woodward and Costa—has put the call in proper context as routine reassurance, Peril records Milley as telling Li, “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.” 

There was a second contretemps stemming from the book, as well.  Also on January 8, 2021, Milley took a phone call from House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi. “[W]hat precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike?” she demanded. Milley told Pelosi there were “a lot of checks in the system,” but she insisted that Trump was “crazy,” and referred to the riots as confirmation.

Conservative outrage at the revelations reached new heights. The Federalist repeatedly rehearsed the litany of Milley’s offenses, running numerous articles calling for Milley’s dismissal or court martial. Appearing on New Hampshire television, Sen. Marco Rubio called Milley’s actions “treasonous,” as did Fox News host Sean Hannity. Anti-Trump pundits including Late Show host Stephen Colbert and Morning Joe star—and former congressman—Joe Scarborough rushed to Milley’s defense.

Milley is to appear before Congress on September 28, but it is beyond his power to repair the damage done. The general is, in many ways, typical of the generation of post-Desert Storm officers, men and women who have grown too comfortable with the guilty admiration Americans have accorded them for their sacrifices, likewise too secure in the belief that they are history’s best fighting force and their pedestal far above the level of grubby politicians. 

And yet, it is we civilians who are most to blame for the crumbling of our country’s civil-military norms; we have led the way in defining the relationship downward. A common thread among Milley’s missteps is that they were perceived—rightly or wrongly—as political in nature. And judging by the reaction, we don’t seem even to want an apolitical military; like Milley, either they’re members of our tribe or a threat to democracy. This is more than a Trump problem: A lack of trust has corroded all our politics, all our dealings, and it is now corroding our trust in our armed forces and theirs in us.

Giselle Donnelly is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.