His critics see a “woke” military that’s losing its edge as left-wing social activism and an obsession with diversity and political correctness take root inside the Pentagon.
But Gen. Mark A. Milley sees a fighting force that is by far the most well-prepared, efficient and deadly on the planet — a reality that he says even America’s most determined enemies must acknowledge.
“There’s no doubt, zero doubt in my mind, and there’s no doubt in the Russians’ mind and there’s no doubt in the Chinese mind, that the United States military is strong, it’s powerful. It’s big, and it’s ready,” the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview.
Gen. Milley carefully avoided getting into a direct back-and-forth with his detractors in Congress. But his subtext was clear: Accusations that the U.S. military has gotten soft, distracted or less capable over his four-year tenure are simply false.
“I’m telling you, we’re on a different plane,” he said.
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The blunt-talking Massachusetts native and Princeton alumnus has been atop the military during one of its most tumultuous periods in recent history, one that included a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, the end of the nation’s two-decade war in Afghanistan, the start of a new conflict in Europe between Russia and Ukraine, and China‘s steady rise as America’s leading adversary.
But it’s the intersection of military and political affairs that, to at least some extent, may ultimately define his time as the country’s top general. And that intersection began early on.
His appearance in uniform alongside then-President Donald Trump outside the White House in June 2020, as protests raged on the streets of Washington after the death of George Floyd, sparked outrage. Days later, Gen. Milley publicly apologized amid criticism that his presence may have fueled the perception that the military was involving itself in domestic politics.
The incident came less than a year after Gen. Milley took the job as chairman, though it was only the first in what would be a string of political dust-ups.
Military analysts who have closely watched Gen. Milley‘s term as chairman say that he’s partly been a victim of timing, having started his watch during the wildly unconventional Trump presidency and concluding it in the midst of a renewed culture war, with the military as a chief flash point.
“Milley‘s misfortune is getting caught in the partisan politics of the day,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel.
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“Trump maneuvered him into the Lafayette Square incident, where he appeared to give support to Trump’s message criticizing demonstrators,” Mr. Cancian said of Gen. Milley. “Under Biden, he presided over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which he probably could not have prevented, but that still happened on his watch. Finally, he had to defend the Biden administration’s social activism, which did not sit well with conservatives.”
Indeed, in the years since Lafayette Square, most of the incoming fire aimed at Gen. Milley has come from the Republican side of the aisle. In the summer of 2021, Gen. Milley made headlines for seeming to imply there may have been a racial element to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” he told Congress in June 2021. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States?”
Recent books have also said that Gen. Milley and other officers developed behind-the-scenes plans to keep Mr. Trump from staging a military coup to stay in power past Jan. 20, 2021, sorely testing the principle of civilian control of the military. One such book, by a pair of Washington Post reporters, suggested that Gen. Milley took steps to limit Mr. Trump’s ability to quickly order a nuclear strike or other major military action during his final chaotic weeks in power.
Gen. Milley acknowledged calling his Chinese military counterpart on his own initiative twice in late 2020 to assure him that — despite the soaring tensions and confusion in Washington in the wake of the November vote — the U.S, was not preparing military action against Beijing, but repeatedly insisted he never broke the chain of command or sought to undermine Mr. Trump’s position as commander in chief in any way.
Mr. Trump said later he never knew about the China calls and dismissed Gen. Milley as a “complete nutjob” who “put our country in a very dangerous position.”
The ‘woke’ war
Conservative commentators, GOP lawmakers and even Republican presidential candidates accuse the military under Gen. Milley‘s watch of drifting to the progressive left and in the process gradually losing its advantage over competitors like China.
Asked directly about the criticism, Gen. Milley quickly turned the discussion back to the effectiveness of the American military.
“I’m not going to engage in that debate,” he said. “What I’m telling you is the United States military … is demonstrably very ready, very capable and very powerful and our opponents know it. If you want to know the true measure of your readiness, look at what your opponents and what they think,” Gen. Milley said.
“Our submarine force is unbelievable, unbelievable,” he continued. “Our Air Force will clean the skies of any country that they go up against, guaranteed. Our Air Force is absolutely second to none. Our naval aviators are unbelievable. Our attack helicopter pilots are incredible. Our Marines are awesome. Our light infantry and our armored forces are a force to be reckoned with. Our Special Forces, none comes better. Nobody’s better than Delta, or SEAL Team Six, or the Rangers. I’m telling you, we’re on a different plane.”
Privately, other Pentagon officials are more blunt in their rejection of the woke narrative and offer specific data points to counter the arguments made by some Republicans. Critics have pointed to drag shows on military bases as evidence of the military’s leftward lean, but defense officials say that only a handful of such events have even been planned. Some were canceled once senior military leadership learned of them.
Gen. Milley himself was far more pointed in some heated exchanges at an extraordinary House Armed Services Committee budget hearing in the summer of 2021.
“I personally find it offensive that we are accusing the United States military … of being ‘woke’ or something else because we’re studying some theories that are out there,” Gen. Milley said.
Detractors point to a major new focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs in the Pentagon as another example. Defense officials say that equity and inclusion have always been central to the modern military’s mission and acceptance of various religions and sexual orientations, among other things, is crucial to cohesion in the ranks.
Critics blast military academies for allegedly teaching controversial critical race theory to future officers. Privately, Pentagon officials argue that such curricula are rarely taught in academy classrooms, and when they are, the counter-argument is presented soon after — an example of a proper, balanced education in America, they say.
Some analysts agree.
“There’s a real misunderstanding here. The military does not teach CRT in the sense of indoctrinating military officers with CRT. They teach about CRT,” said Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who studies civil-military relations.
But the pushback only underscores what increasingly seems like two conflicting realities. Even if the number of drag shows on military bases can be counted on one hand, critics say the fact that any have ever even been contemplated at all proves the armed forces have moved to the left. Any discussion of CRT in academy classrooms, they say, is improper.
Far too much time has been spent on diversity programs, or anti-extremism initiatives, or teaching service members to use proper pronouns, those critics say.
Indeed, some Republicans believe that top officers in the Pentagon are either unaware or choosing to ignore the issue.
“There’s a massive disconnect. I think you have to be almost willfully blind to it,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House’s Select Committee on China, told The Times in an interview last December, summing up the Republican argument against the so-called woke military.
“We’ve had so many high-profile incidents that you can no longer deny it’s happening,” he said. “Reasonable adults could disagree about the impact and utility of the woke agenda, but you can no longer deny that it exists.”
More recently, the Pentagon invited anger from conservatives with its controversial new abortion policy, which offers paid time off and financial reimbursement for female service members who travel out of state for abortions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision striking down Roe v. Wade. Republicans are seeking to overturn the policy as part of ongoing defense spending bill negotiations, and Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville has infuriated the Pentagon and the White House by putting a “hold” on Senate action on all military promotions and confirmations in protest of the policy.
Critics say that policy is a clear example of the military’s entanglement with politics. That entanglement, they say, is a key reason why several recent polls have shown declining confidence in the U.S. military among the American public.
Mr. Feaver, the Duke professor, said the decline can largely be attributed to Republicans, who make up the bulk of citizens now reporting less confidence in the military than in years past.
“There’s a decline in confidence across the board in every institution and the military is not immune,” Mr. Feaver said. “Part of the story is that for decades, Republicans had such high confidence in the military. It was almost an identity for them.”
Whatever the reasons for the decline, Gen. Milley said it’s based on “perception, as opposed to reality.”
“I know what I’m looking at. The United States military is an extraordinarily capable, competent, powerful military force,” he told The Times. “That’s not bragging. That’s fact.”