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Mark Milley’s Impossible Job
Being chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a hard enough job even without partisan political pressures.
TODAY IS A SPECIAL DAY at Joint Base Myer–Henderson Hall, the military post abutting Arlington National Cemetery and overlooking our nation’s capital. As the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), the nation’s highest military office, changes hands, there will be a simultaneous farewell for Army Gen. Mark Milley and hail (that’s military for “welcome”) for Air Force Gen. Charles Q. “CQ” Brown. After almost 45 years wearing the cloth of the country in peace and war, the last four of which were as CJCS under two very different presidents, Gen. Milley will be briefly feted by several dignitaries and then walk off Summerall Field with his spouse and begin retirement.
This “hail and farewell” may seem very similar in its pomp and parade to the change of command ceremonies that other officers get. But there is an important difference. In most change of command ceremonies, commanders assume legal authority over and direct responsibility for the troopers standing before them. In today’s ceremony in Arlington, the ceremonial unit from the Army’s Old Guard and the representative formations from each of the military’s services are not beholden to any operational orders given by either Gen. Milley or Gen. Brown. That’s because the duties and responsibilities of the CJCS are different from those wielded by a typical military commander.
Since the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which revamped the National Defense Security Act of 1947 to incorporate many of the recommendations of President Reagan’s Packard Commission, the CJCS does not hold what the military refers to as “command authority.” Instead, the CJCS serves as the principle military adviser to the secretary of defense and the president, giving advice and counsel regarding the use of U.S. military power around the globe. This is somewhat unusual, historically speaking. Traditionally, the highest-ranking military officer in a military is also the top commander. When the Prussians invented the concept of a general staff, the idea was to centralize and rationalize command over the entire military enterprise. Instead, in the American system, the chairman, as the senior officer, commands no one. Per the language of Goldwater-Nichols, the CJCS “may not exercise military command over the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the armed forces.”
Instead, beyond primarily providing advice to the civilian secretary of defense and the president (as commander in chief), the CJCS coordinates the actions of the combatant commanders conducting operations around the globe and the service chiefs (the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) running the military branches that recruit, train, and equip forces for them. Rather than commanding the “COCOMS” and services, the CJCS serves them by integrating their complex and extensive challenges, recommendations, needs, and requirements.
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SERVING AS THE CHAIRMAN of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is an extremely demanding job requiring a robust staff. The Joint Staff, as it is called, consists of members of all services, plus civilians, who manage myriad requirements and address multiple challenges: the contingency plans spanning the spectrum of operations; the engagement plans for working with allies and partners, competitors, and foes; the deployment of forces and equipment; the budgeting of hundreds of billions of dollars; the balancing of modernization and acquisition decisions; the care for over 2.1 million military personnel, their families, and civilian employees; and the constant flow of intelligence to inform all of these decisions. The National Military Command Center in the Pentagon monitors security concerns and world events and the “tank” (where the Joint Chiefs meet) allows for interservice coordination and mission planning among the four-stars. The chairman travels to the White House grounds several times a week, as he serves as the military adviser to the National Security Council and counsels the president on national security issues.
I’ve worked directly for two chairmen as a primary member of the Joint Staff, and I have the honor of being close friends with a third. While each has his own distinctive personality, they all handled the duties and responsibilities of the position with aplomb. Chairmen travel the world extensively during their congressionally mandated four-year tour. Meeting people and seeing things in person aids their decision-making and advice-giving regarding operations, alliances, partnerships, and, just as importantly, the terrain and the actions of potential foes. They know, as all the military does, that seeing things in context and talking “coffee-breath close” with those on the front line contribute to better advice to the president and secretary of defense.
The chairman must maintain relationships not just with his civilian bosses and fellow officers in all the services and those of our allies, but also with members of Congress, the press, other cabinet officials, and key leaders in the private sector. The chairman’s daily focus continuously shifts between ongoing operations and deployments (most Americans would be surprised by the number of U.S. military personnel serving in dozens of different places around the globe), future readiness, budget allocations, security cooperation with other nations, and the care for members of the force. That last item can take more time and attention than you might expect: One of the chairmen I knew would send a handwritten note every day to some trooper or family member—a soldier at some outpost, a sailor on a ship at sea, an airman at some remote duty station, a Marine in an embassy, a spouse working for the USO. Did it matter, considering the size of the force? You bet it did.
I KNOW GEN. MILLEY, but not well. We come from different tribes in the Army, he from infantry and special forces, me from the tankers and conventional operations. Though he served in this job as a nonpartisan adviser and continuously dedicated himself to the oath he has taken so many times, he’s been pilloried by those on the left (for being duped into appearing to support President Donald Trump’s violent eviction of protesters from Lafayette Park, which he admits was a mistake, and for not speaking up more during the Trump years) and by those on the right (for speaking up too much, taking the responsibility for failures, and rightly describing the strength of the military to those who would decry it as “woke”).
After four years of tough decision-making and taking even tougher actions, with the critics pointing out how many times he stumbled or how he should have done better, Gen. Milley appears tired and haggard. He should be. There aren’t a lot of people who could have served for four years in this role, in a profession that deals every day in life and death, and who would look good at the end.
Gen. Milley is a soldier. For decades, he’s worn the uniform of the United States Army, and he has been taught to be a nonpartisan professional accountable to lawful orders from his chain of command and to the Constitution to which he swore an oath. “I’m a soldier, and fundamental to this republic is for the military to stay out of politics,” he recently told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, explaining his regret over the Lafayette Square incident. But in the months that followed, when Milley was involved in politics, it was because politics came for him and required him to live his oath. Goldberg argues that, during the messy aftermath of the 2020 election, “Milley did as much as, or more than, any other American to defend the constitutional order, to prevent the military from being deployed against the American people, and to forestall the eruption of wars with America’s nuclear-armed adversaries.”
I don’t know if Milley adopted his predecessor’s practice of sending a letter to a servicemember or family member every day, but I know he took his responsibility to care for the force very seriously. He wasn’t their commander and he didn’t have the legal authority to issue orders that would make him legally responsible for what happened to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and guardians around the world. But Milley took responsibility for the entire military as an institution—one that reflects the nation from which it draws and on which that nation relies. In the fullness of time, when the memoirs are written and the documents are declassified, historians and scholars might decide if Milley could have handled the turbulent days of 2020 and 2021 better, or if anyone could have. In the meantime, we should all as Americans ask ourselves why we put him in that position.
Meanwhile, Gen. Brown has a great reputation for pragmatic and thoughtful leadership, and all indications are that his airmen loved and trusted him in his most recent role as chief of staff of the Air Force. He’ll start early Monday morning facing all sorts of new challenges, and he’ll likely become a terrific chairman, like so many who went before him. What will Gen. Milley do on Monday morning? He’ll likely sleep in for the first time in four years. God bless them both.