Lt. Gen. Michael Minihan (since promoted to full general) speaks with airmen before to piloting a C-130J Super Hercules flight at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, on Sept. 17, 2021.

Lt. Gen. Michael Minihan (since promoted to full general) speaks with airmen before to piloting a C-130J Super Hercules flight at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, on Sept. 17, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Senior Airman Jayden Ford

When Lippy Generals Challenge Civilian Control

Was Air Force Gen. Minihan’s memo dangerous or just dumb?

News outlets, major and minor, have been quick to jump on and report the controversial memorandum Gen. Michael Minihan, commander of U.S. Air Mobility Command, issued recently to the troops under his command. 

The memo, “February 2023 Orders in Preparation for—The Next Fight,” was unclassified. On top of that, Minihan is a big boy, having served in various senior command and staff positions. So, he knew full well that his words would emerge in the public domain and grab headlines of both approbation and disapprobation. We can safely assume that’s exactly how he wanted it.

Minihan is just the latest flag officer to present national command authorities—the Defense Secretary and the President—with a recurring dilemma: whether and how to assert civilian control over the military when faced with outspoken generals and admirals. Relieve them (and thereby end their career)? Coddle them (and treat them as cutesy, attention-grabbing novelties)? Or ignore them (in the hope that they have created nothing more than a momentary tempest in a teapot)?

Whenever a flag officer succumbs to the seductive allure of celebrity, the vital question is whether the remarks in question pose a bona fide danger to the affairs of state, or whether they are simply a dumb reflection of ignorance, insensitivity, and political inconvenience.  

It is the prospect of looming danger in Minihan’s remarks that has so quickly grabbed the media’s attention and fed a measure of qualified alarm. At the same time, perceptions of incipient danger have fed and fed off of one of two major tropes that more generally define today’s national security environment: that the world we now inhabit is characterized by the U.S. contest with revisionist powers, most notably China, that seek to unseat us from our position of global supremacy.  

Minihan is a reasonably senior acolyte whose words reflect his embrace of the received truth of great power competition. He contends with deadly seriousness—“My gut tells me”—that we are headed for war with China by 2025 (less than two years out). All the stars of the firmament, he seems convinced, are aligning in that direction: Xi Jinping’s aspirations and entrenched power, presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan, a distracted America. 

In judging their potential danger, we and others must ask whether such pronouncements represent actual U.S. policy, aims, and intentions. Is Minihan speaking on behalf of the Biden administration and the country as a whole, perhaps sending a trial balloon to test the waters of great-power conflict potential? Or is he a wild card, a rogue warmonger, a snake-oil salesman in uniform, a crackpot ideologue who can be written off as an aberration? 

Let us recognize that, though Minihan is, shall we say, an upper mid-level bureaucratic actor, he is a relatively minor player in the grander scheme of things. He isn’t a combatant commander or a service chief who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff; he is simply the head of a supporting command that enables others to more directly wage war and employ force abroad. 

His words inadvertently highlight a number of rhetorical and substantive contradictions worth noting. First, though the military obsessively extols the intrinsic importance of good order and discipline, Minihan exemplifies a lack of rhetorical discipline that could lead to unexpected and unwanted disorder, depending on how others—allies and adversaries, audiences domestic and international—choose to interpret what he says, through their perceptual lenses, for their own particular purposes. 

Second, in today’s media-driven, postmodern environment, there is increasingly little to distinguish words from actions; words are actions. Clearly, Minihan’s words are a far cry from a physical act by U.S. forces such as penetrating China’s territorial waters or airspace; from statements that represent a middle ground between words and actions, such as openly advocating Taiwanese independence; or even more pointed and precise words, as when, for example, a U.S. official states that we are prepared to use nuclear weapons if China invades Taiwan.

Third, there is the enduring question of whether particular words are more likely to contribute to deterrence and reassurance in the minds of various audiences or to provocation and escalation. Is saying that we face the prospect of war within two years likely to be an inevitable, self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-motivating challenge to be sufficiently prepared so that war can’t help but be prevented?

Fourth, we must ask ourselves how others are likely to distinguish actual motive—that of Minihan and that of the United States—from the expectable consequences his words might precipitate. In the final analysis, objectively speaking, Minihan’s words can’t be said to represent a serious danger, though the ultimate determination of that will be made by others. This isn’t like President Truman’s relief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War for the general’s outspoken criticism of administration policy and his calls for taking the war to China and introducing nuclear weapons. It isn’t like the forced early retirement of Adm. William “Fox” Fallon for being out of step with the Bush administration’s bellicose posture toward Iran. 

This is more like President Obama’s relief of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, not for substantive disagreement over troop strength in Afghanistan, but for a widely publicized Rolling Stone article that quoted McChrystal aides, emboldened by the locker-room climate he had established, making childish disparaging comments about Obama administration officials, including then-Vice President Biden (“Did you say Biden or ‘Bite Me’?”).

What really deserves our attention and concern, then, is the dumbness of Minihan’s inflated rhetoric: locker room talk unworthy of the elevated discourse one should expect of a strategically minded general officer in charge of a major command. His memo is replete with muscle-flexing, chest-thumping, manly-man hyperbole. He directs his troops to “fire a clip into a 7-meter target”—and “aim for the head”—“with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most.” “When you can kill your enemy,” he asserts, “every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.”

This is where motive matters, and also where the second of the two major tropes that define today’s national security environment comes into play: that all who serve in uniform are, by definition, warfighters—be they trigger-pullers or desk jockeys, front-line combatants or rear-area paper pushers or bean counters. Given a choice of self-image between bombastic George C. Scott (as either Patton or Buck Turgidson) or silent, stoic Gary Cooper (as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon), Minihan seems to have opted for the former, though his real-world role model seems closest to former Defense Secretary and Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who sanctified lethality in the 2018 National Defense Strategy and sought to embellish his warfighter image with such rhetorical flourishes as “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet” and “It’s quite fun to shoot them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.”  

Thus far the Pentagon has tentatively sought to distance itself from Minihan’s statements. What seems most in order in the longer run is that Minihan  be taken to the woodshed, scolded, and reminded of his proper place in the cosmos. He should be enjoined to stop pontificating on strategic matters that are beyond his ken, jettison the warfighter talk, hold his tongue, and simply do the job he is expected to do—silently, dutifully, and anonymously. And, because he has threatened to issue more memos—presumably with the continuing intent to prepare for “the fight”—we can only hope he is brought quickly to the realization that he isn’t the “tip of the spear.”

Gregory D. Foster is a professor at the National Defense University.