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Buck Turgidson Enters Mark Milley's Chat
I don't think it's quite fair to condemn the whole program because of a single slip up
It means a lot more.
We haven’t begun to understand the strangeness of the Mark Milley vs. Donald Trump moment. I’ve written about it recently, and David Harsanyi has now written about it with considerable wisdom, but no one has come close to mining all of the meaning from the increasingly public conflict. I doubt anyone will, until the archives are fully unlocked and we can see all of the context for the open pissing match between our former elected commander-in-chief and our soon-to-be-former top uniformed officer. The whole thing suggests the presence of undetected institutional decay, or underdetected institutional decay, and the appearance of narrative screens — or a “world-concealing layer of diversionary and illogical and internally inconsistent noise, under which the world exists somewhere.”
For now, let’s start with three important pieces of context that begin to make some sense of the thing.
First, to say something I say here pretty often, it’s not unprecedented, or a major break from normal, for flag officers to publicly fight with political leaders, or to have those fights become extremely public. Reliably, Politico suggests that it is:
But if Milley’s efforts to protect the military from political chaos are about a deep desire to preserve the pre-Trump, constitutional version of normal, the profile he cuts in Washington is a daily reminder of how far we are from that normal.
At a time of peace, it’s not normal for the senior general in the U.S. military to be famous. In a country where all military officers take an oath to the Constitution, it’s not normal for a general to come across as transgressive for praising that Constitution’s most famous amendment. And while the hero’s welcome accorded Milley in some circles isn’t especially common, the feelings about Milley at the opposite end of the spectrum are even more notable: It’s profoundly abnormal, in the annals of the modern American military, for a sitting general to attract the kind of partisan vitriol that Milley does.
It is normal, against the grain of a cultural tradition that pretends it isn’t. (More about that cultural tradition later, because it’s the second piece of context.) Uniformed leaders have repeatedly tried to steer the political ship, and have openly battled with presidents and senior presidential appointees.
Harry Truman faced an extraordinarily underhanded admiral’s revolt in 1949 in which the leadership of the US Navy tried to destroy the Secretary of Defense in an interservice battle over funding.
A few years later, Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgway frequently, publicly, and unguardedly argued — here’s a sample headline — that the president he served didn’t understand modern warfare and wasn’t properly structuring the Cold War military. Of course, the president Ridgway served was a guy named Eisenhower.
Then we have to deal with this odd piece of framing from Politico before we go on: “At a time of peace, it’s not normal for the senior general in the U.S. military to be famous.” It is, of course, not a time of peace. Milley oversaw the collapse of the long American war in Afghanistan, an event we seem to be choosing to forget, and now provides military counsel to the civilian leaders of the armed forces during an increasingly dangerous proxy war with Russia. So let’s discard that frame, and keep making comparisons.
Abraham Lincoln fired General George McClellan in 1862, then faced his own fired general as the Democratic nominee for president in 1864.
During World War I, “Black Jack” Pershing and many other military officials were confident that it was proper to carry out the execution of two young soldiers caught sleeping on guard duty in an exceptionally dangerous portion of the front line, while President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker quite publicly rolled their eyes at the savagery of a bunch of atavistic soldiers. Army Chief of Staff Peyton March wrote that the men had betrayed their colleagues: “The safety not only of the sentinel’s company but of the entire command is absolutely dependent on the vigilant performance of his duties.” Declining to accept the sentence, Baker replied with a discussion of the standards applied by “a humane and intelligent civilization,” a thing he implicitly placed in opposition to the military. The civilian leaders thought the soldiers were dumb and backward, and said so; the soldiers thought the civilian leaders were naive and incapable of practical thought, and said so, in a fight that very much played out in the newspapers.
And Harry Truman fired MacArthur, and famously said this about it: “I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
Oh, and one more: “At a time of peace, it’s not normal for the senior general in the U.S. military to be famous,” or for “a sitting general to attract the kind of partisan vitriol that Milley does.” Curtis LeMay was so famous during the semi-peacetime of the Cold War that he showed up on the screen in a single movie as two fictional characters1, attracting considerable partisan vitriol.
So Politico is laboring to make the moment extraordinary, in the service of the reliable Trump is destroying all of our political norms theme, but they — and the rest of the news media and the political establishment — decline to notice that Mark Milley is not the first general who thought he worked for a fool. He’s not even the first general to say it out loud. The Trump-era breach of tradition isn’t a breach of tradition; it’s a recurrence of a not-wholly-unusual conflict in military-civil affairs. Sometimes the admirals and generals think they’re smarter than the politicians, and sometimes they tell everybody.
The actual shift in norms is in the response, and the hagiographic treatment of Milley’s allegedly glorious act of brave resistance. The moment drove me back to Samuel P. Huntington and the normative The Soldier and the State, which mostly reminded me that I tend to sigh heavily while reading books by Samuel P. Huntington. In that standard-setting text, Huntington defined military officers as professionals, comparable to doctors and lawyers, who are rigidly bound by the standards of their professional ethics: obedience, self-sacrifice, self-control, judiciousness. They submit to authority, and don’t argue with the boss.
The book was first published in 1957, right into the face of the army leadership’s open argument with Eisenhower, but it still established a premise that military officers have at least declared as a representation of the true nature of their duty. During the Iraq War, for an example of the invocation of the supposed norm, the retired army officer Andrew Bacevich lambasted a group of retired flag officers for criticizing the Bush administration’s management of the conflict — while also lamenting the appearance of the Appeal for Redress that circulated in the ranks:
So flag officers have always been political, the thing we’re now pretending is new, but have always pretended not to be, the thing we’re now discarding to celebrate a general who rebuked and impeded the President of the United States. The change is Milley’s self-promotional openness, the degree to which he makes the rounds to allow reporters to profile him as a hero. We have always preferred for our highly political military leaders to pretend to be politically reticent, and we seem to have given that up.
Finally, the precise thing that’s most remarkable about Milley’s celebration of his own political magnificence is that he has not been notably successful at his military tasks, the core of his function. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a tactical disaster, and people who are smarter than me argue that it was an avoidable disaster:
From the opinion piece:
Nowhere in the months leading up to the withdrawal did a senior military leader question the choice of Kabul's Karzai International Airport over the more defensible Bagram military air base.
The military chain of command knew an evacuation was imminent for months, and the Kabul airport was even more vulnerable to attack than the disastrous French position at Dien Bien Phu during the first Vietnam war. Despite that, not a single general officer, beginning with the secretary of defense -- a retired general -- raised an objection to the State Department's choice of the Kabul Airport. One of two things happened here: Either they lacked the moral courage to speak up, or they did not know.
See also this recent reporting about the focus of military leaders in the moment of that crisis:
So military leaders, focused on politically fashionable topics as an avoidable military disaster unfolded, now watch as their senior uniformed leader departs into the spotlight of a political conflict in which he is very carefully hailed as a hero because of his political acts rather than for the quality of his practical military wisdom.
All of that seems to me to amount to a metastasizing and increasingly open politicization of a long-political institution that has always tried to pretend that it isn’t political, and the movement toward a more openly political military seems to be appearing as the tactical and strategic skill of military leaders declines.
There’s a lot here. To be continued.
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[On the phone, in the War Room] Well, look baby, I can't, can't talk to you now, but... My president needs me. Of course Bucky would rather be there with you. Of course it isn't only physical. I deeply respect you as a human being! Someday I'm gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!