Ten days after Gen. Mark Milley appeared in combat fatigues on the streets of Washington, D.C., alongside National Guard troops deployed to quell civil unrest — and with his very presence, appearing to endorse President Donald Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s Church and the forcible clearing of protestors that enabled it — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has acknowledged he screwed up.
“I should not have been there,” Milley said Thursday in a pre-taped speech to new graduates of National Defense University. In his remarks, which were leaked to a few national news outlets, Milley denounced George Floyd’s killing and supported the nationwide peaceful protests it sparked. He spoke at length about the U.S. military’s checkered history with racism, its persistent inability to promote minorities into the seniormost ranks of generals and admirals, and the steps the service branches would begin taking to do so.
By acknowledging systemic racism in America, admitting his error, and stating plainly that the U.S. military should be used to defend the Constitution and kept out of politics, Milley aligned himself with a growing phalanx of serving and retired senior officers — and Trump administration officials — who have felt compelled in recent days to make similar statements, all designed to assure the American people that their military is not a private security force for this president or any other.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and that I sincerely hope we all can learn from… We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation, and we must hold dear the principle of an apolitical institution.”
In no other presidency in modern history, or at least since Vietnam, have U.S. military leaders had to take such extraordinary steps to keep that institution out of the White House’s politics. Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper put his own political neck on the block in defense of the Constitution, publicly opposing Trump simply by stating that he felt that active duty U.S. troops should not be called in to quell domestic protests. The National Guard, which the states control, were doing enough, Esper said. Soon enough, he was preparing a resignation letter and Trump was talking about firing him, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the violence in the streets subsided, and the secretary kept his job.
Esper received covering fire in the form of public comments by four of the country’s most revered former four-star Marines: former Trump administration officials Jim Mattis and John Kelly, former Commandant of the Marine Corps Robert Neller, and former top Afghanistan War commander John Allen. Added to that list were two other retired Joint Chiefs chairmen — Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey — and several other retired flag officers.
Anyone who worries that a military coup might help keep Trump in the White House if he loses his November re-election bid should take comfort in these recent events.
There are two separate issues at play for military officers. One is the use of military force in domestic strife, whether for a president’s political gain or not. That’s what drew most of these officers to step into the public forum. The other is race. While many of these officers have said all the right things about race in America, others have gone farther to call for renaming Army bases named for Confederate generals, and for banning the Confederate battle flag from public displays, as the Marine Corps (and even NASCAR) have done.
Trump has not pushed back on the use of active duty troops, but even as Milley’s recorded remarks began to fill the screens of cable-news viewers, the president tweeted: “Our great National Guard Troops who took care of the area around the White House could hardly believe how easy it was. ‘A walk in the park’, one said. The protesters, agitators, anarchists (ANTIFA), and others, were handled VERY easily by the Guard, D.C. Police, & S.S. GREAT JOB!”
The president will bark away and this issue will peter out soon enough. There’s no one left to apologize, the violence long stopped, and the protests are dwindling. But the issue of race and Confederate fetishism will persist, by Trump’s own insistence, and challenge the military’s apolitical tightrope walk even further. “My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations…” he tweeted on Wednesday.
But Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, a Trump appointee who is also a holdover from the Obama era who staffed under Robert Gates, already said he was open to a bipartisan renaming effort. On Wednesday evening, the Senate Armed Services Committee adopted by voice vote an amendment to the defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to rename the bases within three years. (Chairman Jim Inhofe, of Oklahoma, said he wants the states to weigh in on the federal installation names, but did not oppose the measure.) And Milley, in his NDU speech, said he was directing the entire military to undergo a comprehensive review and rethink of race in its ranks. Through a spokeswoman, Trump vowed to sign no legislation that would rename the bases.
It’s hard to imagine this president being able to resist the Joint Chiefs, his own service secretaries, the House, the GOP-controlled Senate, NASCAR, and the arc of history on behalf of the Confederacy. Still, if Trump wins the election, who knows how far he’ll go to appease the extreme right, or how far the nation’s retired and active military leaders will go with him.
In his speech on Thursday, Milley offered his hand to those Americans so bitterly angry at him for making that streetwalk with Trump, perhaps as best as a sitting officer could be expected to do, without going against the president. “I am outraged by the senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd,” he said, supporting peaceful protests and recounting America’s history with slavery and discrimination. “Peaceful protest means that American freedom is working.” He made no comment about the National Guardsmen who helped clear the streets, nor about the military helicopters that later dropped below rooftop level to assault protesters with rotorwash, nor about Trump’s celebration of them. He made no comment on base renaming. He did not say “black lives matter.”
What he did say: “The diversity of America is one of the core strengths of our nation, and it is therefore one of the core strengths of our military. And while the military sets an example for civil society through our inclusiveness, we too have not gone far enough. We all need to do better.”
The nation’s top military officer may have an even more challenging task ahead of him as he — and other leaders in the military and veteran community — goes to battle with racism in the ranks, in America, and in this commander in chief, bending the arc of one of America’s most beloved institutions even further toward justice.
Something is happening in the military. Something is happening in our world.