Trump’s last Defense secretary takes on the ‘American war machine’

Two decades before Chris Miller became then-President Trump’s acting Defense secretary, overseeing the Pentagon as an insurrection played out in Washington, D.C., he was on a C-17 airplane headed out of Iraq, shortly after U.S. forces had captured Baghdad.

By June 2003, Miller had worked 657 days straight as a group operations commander of a special forces battalion, and as the battle grew more distant on his way to a German base, his thoughts turned dark.

He had long hoped to fight for his country. But not like this.

“The more I thought, the more I was horrified,” Miller writes in “Soldier Secretary,” a memoir released this week. “We invaded a sovereign nation, killed and maimed a lot of Iraqis, and lost some of the greatest American patriots to ever live — all for a goddamned lie.”

“Soldier Secretary” offers an insight into the life of an American soldier who rose — briefly — to the top of the Pentagon as he grew increasingly resentful of the U.S. military-industrial complex, which he writes has now become a “hydra-headed monster” with “virtually no brakes on the American war machine.”

Still, Miller is hopeful that the next generation of Americans can shake the U.S. out of foreign entanglements and the idea of policing the rest of the world.

In an interview with The Hill, Miller said there is a pressing need for accountability in the upper ranks of the Pentagon and with military leadership for the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“That really bothers me. Our young soldiers see the hypocrisy in that … if they end up being late for work, they get in a lot of trouble. Or let’s say they mess up a piece of paperwork for a supply request, there’s a possibility they can be kicked out of the service,” he said. 

“And then there’s the people who lose wars and end up advancing on to other positions of power and wealth,” Miller adds. “And that’s what really bugs me.”

Miller spent his childhood in Delaware and Iowa, with news about the Vietnam War blaring on the TV every night. 

His father and uncles were combat veterans, and Miller enlisted in the Army in April 1980, at the age of 17. He scored high marks on a military aptitude test that opened a plethora of opportunities, but just wanted to serve in the infantry.

“I want to carry a gun,” Miller writes in the book, recalling what he told a recruiter. “Go on patrols. You know, be a soldier.”

But for more than a decade, he missed opportunities to fight despite being stationed in  Kuwait (after the Gulf War) and during the civil war in Bosnia (where he was mostly responsible for monitoring and intelligence).

Then terrorists took down the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, and he was sent into Afghanistan to serve as a special forces company commander.

It was during his next assignment to Iraq that the seeds of doubt about the U.S. military-industrial complex began sprouting. 

“The recognition that so many sacrifices were ultimately made in the service of a lie, as in Iraq, or to further a delusion, as in the neoconservatives’ utopian fantasy of a democratic Middle East,” he writes. “It still makes my blood boil, and it probably will until the day I die.”

By the end of his last tour in Iraq, from 2006 to 2007, Miller had grown distrustful of the military establishment: the Defense Department, defense contractors, Democrats, Republicans, think tanks. Even the mainstream media is often “cheering on American missile strikes and urging greater involvement in conflicts America has no business fighting,” he writes. 

Miller studied at the Army War College in 2009 and trained with the CIA before he became the deputy to the civilian head of special operations, two positions removed from the Defense secretary in the Pentagon.

His views on the U.S. role in global conflicts led to plenty of petty conflicts in the defense bureaucracy. But he found an ally in Trump, who tapped him in March 2018 as special assistant to the president for counterterrorism and transnational threats at the National Security Council. 

“The political side and the domestic stuff that everyone focuses on overshadows the great successes he had with his worldview,” Miller said of Trump. “He didn’t get us into any wars and did not increase our military presence.”

This non-engagement worldview can seem out of step with the current threats posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s increasing belligerence toward Taiwan. 

But Miller says the U.S. should combat foreign adversaries through irregular warfare, a military strategy designed around intelligence and winning the loyalty or cooperation of local populations.

“We’re doing the same old thing again and the world situation has changed,” Miller says. “Instead of doing what they want us to do and expect us to do, which plays into their hands, I want us to be more sophisticated. Maybe not take the bait every time.”

In November 2020, Miller was appointed by Trump to be the acting secretary of Defense, just two months before the Capitol riot.

In the leadup to what became an attempted insurrection, Miller helped organize the D.C. National Guard, which eventually helped quell the thousands of pro-Trump rioters who stormed the Capitol in a bid to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

Miller says Jan. 6 was “embarrassing” and concedes that Trump’s actions on that day were not helpful, but pulls up short of condemning his former boss’s behavior. 

“It’s beyond comprehension to me the way they created this narrative,” Miller says of the claims that Trump was responsible for the violence that day. “I’ll totally let the courts figure this one out. If there’s new information I would change my mind. I stand by my comments that he was absolutely not helpful … [but] the politics of this has spun out of control.”

The career military man takes a notably both-sides view of the growing partisanship that defines American politics. He writes that culture wars are “splitting Americans into warring factions” and empowering China and Russia, but doesn’t place particular blame on either party. 

How does Miller propose to overcome this? 

For one, require every American to serve with the AmeriCorps program to bring citizens together, with the option to serve through the military or an agency like the National Park Service. Two, secure the border with military force to stop cartels from flooding American streets with illicit drugs. And three, upgrade the nation’s nuclear arsenal to serve as a deterrence. 

Miller also offers a series of reforms to the military, from holding military leaders accountable to creating a leaner and more nimble fighting force to slashing the Pentagon’s nearly trillion-dollar budget in half.

House Republicans have tabled defense cuts as part of negotiations over the debt ceiling, but largely focused on “woke” programs like diversity training that make up a tiny fraction of overall spending. 

Progressive lawmakers have long been critical of bloated defense spending, but Miller doesn’t think Congress is quite ready to meet in the middle anytime soon.

“There’s no incentive to reduce military spending,” he says. “I think there’s whispers, but [we need] someone with the courage and experience to get in there and force it.”

Tags Chris Miller Chris Miller Donald Trump Jan. 6 Capitol riot military-industrial complex

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