Let’s leave the military out of our polarized politics
It appears that our nation’s polarized politics have now been extended to an institution that has thus far pretty much escaped controversy: The United States military.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was under attack before two congressional committees this week. The chairman was caught in the middle of political fireworks, a place he did not want to be.
Milley had earlier apologized after having been used as a prop by President Donald Trump for a photo-op across from the White House last year during Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Milley claimed that his involvement was a mistake and that “the military should not get involved in domestic politics.”
More recently, the book “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa portrays Milley as having made calls to his Chinese counterpart after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to “reassure” him that the U.S. had no plans to attack and would maintain “strategic stability.” Pro-Trump members of Congress have accused him of everything from treason to warning the enemy. His alleged purpose was to avoid a preemptive attack by China during a period of upheaval and great uncertainty.
Both Milley and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had earlier testified before Congress expressing their concern about white supremacists and other extremists within the ranks. Austin declared that he is “developing strategies to root out and punish” those who act on those views. Conservative commentators who take great umbrage when accused of racism strongly objected, apparently to the commitment to root out extreme racism!
Even after the tragic loss of 13 courageous troops in the evacuation of Afghanistan, military discipline became a political issue when Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller criticized his superiors for poor tactical decision making. He was relieved of duty and many who claimed to be pro-military complained bitterly.
One conservative pundit wrote on this site that Schiller’s superiors were “donkeys” who weren’t worthy to command such “lions” as Schiller. Then, contributing further to the deep divisions within the country, the writer alleged that the “donkeys are disproportionately drawn from our elites and our lions disproportionately from our working class…” That, he said without a hint of irony, “bespeaks an important truth regarding our country’s ominous and worsening class conflict.”
The American military has long been a model institution in its respect for civilian control. These incidents have reinforced that ethic, yet the attacks on Austin, Milley and others trying to maintain discipline raise serious questions about the sustainability of this vital democratic ethos.
The American military, despite its deployments into troublesome scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan has never been stronger as an institution. The service academies are recruiting some of America’s top students. Budgets remain high and the services are equipped with first-rate systems. The challenge at this juncture seems more related to the external pressures of our polarized politics.
In my experience in government, the U.S. military is uniquely capable of offering both security and life-saving assistance in dire humanitarian crises in partnership with USAID. The White House sent me into the Eastern Congo area near the town of Goma in 1994, after 2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees streamed into that area, escaping Tutsi troops.
I went on American television in a studio in Nairobi and said that only the U.S. military was capable of saving thousands of lives. The Pentagon, I was told, was unhappy that I had used the airwaves to circumvent the decision process, but the matter was urgent and the president sent the troops to Goma. They helped save thousands of lives.
Our service academies today do a superb job of reinforcing professional and constitutional behavior and they do not hesitate to review mistakes of the past. There is no effort, for example, to bury the history of court martial such as that of Lt. William Calley, who ordered the killing of innocents in a village in Vietnam. The academies deliver courses on the Geneva Conventions on the rules of war and the U.N. Charter on human rights.
Donald Trump, who avoided the Vietnam War and military service with a claim of bone spurs, liked being surrounded by tough retired generals. His chief of Staff, John Kelly, and his secretary of Defense, James Mattis, were former Marine generals. Trump apparently learned little from them about the military culture; they both resigned deeply disillusioned over Trump’s disregard for the rule of law.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and the electoral process constituted an attempt to overthrow our democracy. There was deep concern at the time that Trump, who had fired the secretary of Defense and replaced him with loyalists who could use any means, including starting a war, to retain power.
That is what Milley was facing when he insisted on being in the chain of command if a decision was made to launch nuclear weapons. That is why he called his Chinese counterpart to prevent them from miscalculating and taking preemptive action. I, for one, appreciate his actions.
There is much to be gained in a civil debate between conservatives and liberals, but attacking our military in disputes over its role and its efforts to maintain discipline should be out of bounds. Some of the greatest American leaders — Washington, Grant and Eisenhower — were former generals and effective commanders-in-chief because they understood these limits. They never would have placed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the position he found himself at the end of the Trump administration.
Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration and was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993.