Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has received widespread praise for the sentiments he expressed at the farewell ceremony on September 29, marking his retirement. The dominant narrative quickly emerged that he had provided a vigorous defense of democracy, emphasized that the military would always revere the Constitution, and delivered an implicit rebuke to former President Donald Trump. Several passages in his speech support that conclusion, but Milley’s conduct as JCS chairman also should create some uneasiness.
He asserted that the Constitution should be the moral “North Star” for everyone who serves in the military. “We are unique among the world’s militaries. We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion. We don’t take an oath to a king or a queen or to a tyrant or a dictator.” In an unsubtle swipe at Trump, Milley added: “And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don’t take an oath to an individual.” Instead, “we take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it”
Noble sentiments indeed, but as with most such statements, the devil is in the details.
Milley’s actions during the final months of Trump’s presidency confirmed that not only was he prepared to disobey the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, but also to instruct subordinates not to obey such orders unless he confirmed them. He has openly admitted doing so. Such conduct is very problematic in terms of the Constitution and could be fatally disruptive to the chain of command in a crisis.
This is a highly complex issue. We certainly do not want high-level military officers robotically obeying flagrantly illegal or unconstitutional orders. Their own oaths to the Constitution preclude them from doing so, which was Milley’s implicit message.
But there is a key question about the proper response. Resigning and then going public with warnings about the president’s allegedly unconstitutional actions certainly would be both warranted and noble. Staying on in a powerful post but acting as a political or ideological fifth columnist to undermine the president’s authority is decidedly less so. The elected president is the military’s commander-in-chief; neither Milley nor any other officer has been given that status.
We face two worrisome dangers. One is an attempt by an elected president or prime minister to stage an executive coup to remain in power. That is the threat that Milley and his admirers stress, and there are multiple examples worldwide that confirm the danger. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., declared martial law in 1972 and proceeded to extinguish his country’s democratic system. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has waged a slow-motion coup to do the same. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez set in motion a similar process, which his successor as president, Nicolas Maduro, has largely completed. Critics charge that Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is systematically undermining democracy in his country and achieving dictatorial powers.
However, there is a far greater number of cases – literally dozens – in which a country’s military elite ousted an elected government. Indeed, there has been a wave of such episodes throughout sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years, most recently in Niger. Worse, most of the perpetrators have been military officers that the United States trained. Presumably, they received the same training and respect for elected civilian leaders that Gen. Milley and his colleagues received.
This is not a new problem nor is it confined to fragile Third World democracies. South Korea had two coups (1960 and 1980) that U.S.-trained and equipped troops executed. Worse, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea in 1980 clearly sympathized with the leaders of the new junta, asserting that Koreans were “like lemmings” and needed a strong leader. Democratic European countries have not been immune from the danger that rogue militaries pose either. Greece’s military overthrew that country’s elected government in 1967 and maintained extraordinarily brutal rule into 1974. Chile’s military, with not only Washington’s blessing but its assistance, overthrew the elected leftist president, Salvador Allende. This list barely scratches the surface.
The shocking abundance of such episodes suggests that we must not be casual about the highest-ranking military officer in the United States deciding that it was appropriate to disobey or undermine the orders of the elected president. I have little doubt that Gen. Milley is deeply committed to the Constitution and was sincere regarding his fears about Donald Trump’s ambitions. Nevertheless, he effectively anointed himself as the sole judge of which presidential orders were constitutional and which ones were not. Such an attitude has the potential to be profoundly dangerous. One of Milley’s successors may be tempted to do the same simply because he believes that his judgment is much superior to the president’s.
Americans do not think that they have to worry about the emergence of a rogue military, given the long-standing respect for the Constitution and democratic civilian governance. However, a powerful standing military, except during the existential crises of the Civil War and the two world wars, is relatively new in the United States. That situation has been the norm only since the end of the 1940s. We incur a grave risk if we allow generals to decide which presidential orders they can defy without resigning. Mark Milley leaves behind a decidedly mixed legacy. We should all ponder that ambivalence and not mindlessly cheer his retirement comments.
About the Author
Ted Galen Carpenter is a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022)