I didn’t know much about General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint ‘Chiefs of Staff, appointed by Trump. I saw him marching from the White House in his fatigues with the Fake President and a number of his lackeys on their way to St. John’s church where Trump would hold a bible upside down in a meaningless photo shoot. Just before, U.S. Park Police and Secret Service had attacked the peaceful protesters in Lafeyette Square with excessive force without even ordering them to disperse. On whose orders one might wonder. So, I did not have the best impression of this leader of the nation’s military, although he later apologized for his participation having muddled the traditional separation of the military from domestic politics.
My opinion of General Milley would change considerably as I heard of his actions around the time of the election and its aftermath. My sense is that General Milley is a traditional military officer caught up in a gigantic political mess. He had long since taken an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, and his actions during the transfer of presidential authority demonstrated that he intended to fully honor that oath.
Dilemmas of Dealing with a Deranged President
The military bureaucracy experiences all the same complexities and potential corruption that you can find in any other governmental orcorporate organization. As one might imagine, the Pentagon is a hotbed of “office politics,” with all sorts of internal struggles for position, policy, and power. However, as any veteran knows, many officers and enlisted men and women carry an ingrained commitment to the Constitution and to the proper role of the military, which is unlike any commitment to principles in other bureaucracies. It is a matter of honor as well as pragmatism.
Bob Woodward and Robert Costa based their new book, Peril, reporting the struggles by Trump and his cronies to overthrow the election of Joe Biden to the presidency, on interviews with over two hundred people and analysis of six thousand pages of transcripts. One of their key revelations involved the actions of General Milley as he observed Trump becoming increasingly unhinged in the face of the unavoidable yet unacceptable fact that he was losing the election.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, called General Milley, bluntly expressing concern that Trump was crazy and might instigate some international incident as an excuse to declare martial law and remain in office. Milley told her not to worry because “we have procedures.”
However, Milley realized that it was not that simple. He feared that because the president has final authority for a ordering a military attack, Trump might take extreme action, such as order a nuclear strike on Iran or China, or incite some other international crisis he could exploit to stay in office.
Saving the Constitution from Pathological Politics
Institutions operate effectively when their members agree on how they operate and on what authority they make decisions. I have often criticized the bureaucratic behavior of institutional officials who rigidly follow imperfect ‘procedures’ instead of making a reasoned decision that would lead to a much better outcome for all involved.
I have never been much of a fan of military bureaucracy, nor that of corporations either. As the science of organizations makes clear, the best outcomes result when as much authority is delegated, as is responsibility. Too often, people accept responsibility for getting a job done, but are not given the authority to make decisions necessary to do the best job possible.
In the case of the line of authority for initiating a military action, the Constitution authorizes only Congress to declare war. That limit has decayed since 9/11. Presidential power has increased, de facto, as Congress allowed the president to initiate various “military actions” under the rubric, the “War on Terror,” which remains ambiguously defined in terms of who might be an enemy combatant (terrorist) at any particular time or place. The line of authority from the President (Commander in Chief) through the military line of command has remained relatively open. Presidents have routinely ordered drone strikes and assassinations without consulting Congress.
However, neither the Constitution nor any law specifies how authority for military action works if the president is or becomes unstable, irrational, or otherwise deranged and gives an order that contradicts basic policy, risks nuclear war, and flies in the face of common sense and the national interest. That is precisely what Milley, Pelosi, and a number of Trump’s own advisors feared.
Milley called in the senior officers from the National Military Command Center to review the procedures for launching nuclear weapons. He had each one assure him that he would be involved in any group decision on executing a nuclear strike order if the increasingly unstable president tried something so dangerous and stupid. (The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is technically a staff position not in the line of command, although he is the highest ranking military officer.) He had received intelligence reports that the Chinese feared that the U.S. was preparing to attack China. So, he took the initiative to call his Chinese counterpart and assured him that the U.S. had no intention to attack China. General Li apparently believed him.
General Mark Milley took decisive action that went beyond any formal procedure as part of his official assigned duty. He saw what could become an extreme crisis and acted personally to avert a potential disaster.
Transition or Tragedy: Can Institutionalists Save Democracy?
It is now clear that Trump was entertaining just about every line of illicit action that he might exploit to stay in office despite losing the election. Each of his gambits failed. Federal judges threw out the dozens of cases his lawyers brought to courts all over the country claiming “election fraud” without any evidence whatsoever. Dan Quayle of all people convinced Mike Pence that the vice president had zero authority to try and “decertify” the election instead of just counting the Electoral College votes. The insurrectionist assault Trump incited on the Capitol failed despite his refusing to call off his thugs until the assault had begun to fizzle after Capitol Police moved members of the House and Senate to secure locations.
But the fight is not over. Fascists do not quit easily since they are fanatics drunk with their own pretensions to power. Remember, “vigilance is the price of liberty.” It is also the price of retaining a democratic republic, if we can. I am glad that Mark Milley is on our side.