Gen. Mark Milley represents everything that is wrong with America’s senior military leadership today. He is the kind of political general that George Washington despised. After Gen. Horatio Gates disgracefully fled the field after losing the Battle of Camden during the Revolutionary War, Mr. Washington ensured that Mr. Gates never held command again. Mr. Washington knew of Mr. Gates’ role in the Conway Cabal in which he secretly conspired with members of the Continental Congress to undermine Mr. Washington, his Commander-in-Chief. Mr. Washington declined to have Mr. Gates hauled before a court-martial in the interest of national unity. At least Mr. Gates was never accused of conspiring with the enemy. Mr. Milley topped him there.
The recent revelation that he secretly communicated with China’s top military leader to assure him that Mr. Milley would block any military action against that country ordered by his President -Donald Trump- may not constitute treason, but it borders on it. At best, it represents gross insubordination that is not tolerated in more junior officers. A Marine Lieutenant Colonel was recently relieved of his command for insubordination by daring to publicly challenge the competence of many senior military officers for the debacle in Afghanistan. Still, Mr. Milley is being feted by the Washington Post as a hero for undermining President Trump.
Let us review Gen. Milley’s performance as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the last year. In addition to secretly communicating with the Chinese, Mr. Milley also held phone conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is second in the line of succession to the presidency. Mr. Milley reportedly feared that Mr. Trump had become mentally unstable following the November 2020 election. Other than the evidence that his actions could be construed as sedition at best or treason at worst, Mr. Milley had exceeded his authority. He is not in the military chain of command; he is merely the senior military advisor to the National Command Authority, that being the President and the Secretary of Defense.
Having covered his ample posterior as the Biden administration came in, the general, realizing President Joe Biden’s dislike of the military, Mr. Milley acquiesced to his new president’s plan for a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan even though he had advised President Trump against such a move. He did not object to the premature abandonment of the Bagram airbase, which was the most logical evacuation site for the thousands of Americans and Afghan allies and would have allowed a professional and somewhat dignified end to American and NATO participation in the Afghan conflict. Mr. Milley may not have been in the chain of command for the resulting fiasco, but he was a chief enabler. Since then, he has been justifying his actions rather than taking responsibility for them.
As the senior military advisor to two presidents, what should Mr. Milley have done differently? If he genuinely believed that Mr. Trump was mentally unhinged, he could have publicly resigned and used the gravity of that action to suggest that the 25th Amendment be invoked to remove Mr. Trump. Instead, he conspired with the President’s foreign and domestic rivals to undermine his Commander-in-Chief in a manner reminiscent of the Caine Mutiny.
As the Afghan fiasco unfolded, Mr. Milley could have again weighed in on the flawed Afghan withdrawal plan and quietly offered to resign if he indeed believed it to be the wrong course of action. Mr. Biden, being a consummate politician, would likely have caved. The fact that Mr. Milley did not leads to one of two conclusions: Either he is incompetent, or he is a craven careerist.
Mark Milley is a product of a military promotion and education system for senior officers that is broken and badly in need of reform. He has multiple Master of Arts degrees and has passed through every wicket required by the badly flawed Goldwater-Nichols military reform legislation of the 1980s. The system encourages the kind of ticket punching careerism that allows the likes of Mr. Milley to rise to the top of their profession effortlessly. It is unlikely that anyone from our sitting president on down will be held accountable for the Afghan debacle in the near term as both the President and the Congress are of the same party. Still, Goldwater-Nichols and the current military promotion and education system needs to be replaced with serious military reform, which could become a truly bipartisan issue.
The military reformers of the 1980s hoped to create a system that would make senior military officers such as George Marshalls and Dwight Eisenhower. Instead, we got a modern version of Horatio Gates.
• Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Colonel who served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and a Civilian Senior Governance Advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.