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The Armchair General Takes a Seat

In a 43-year career, the only action Mark Milley ever saw was in the war against the American people and their duly elected president.

Secretary Of Defense Austin And Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Miley Give Press Briefing At The Pentagon
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a press briefing after a virtual Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at the Pentagon on November 16, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Mark Milley ended 43 years of service Friday with little fanfare and less awareness of the extreme dishonor with which he conducted his military career, especially the final years in which he served at the nation’s highest uniformed post.

Long before he became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley was formed by circumstances that instilled a unique blend of incompetence and arrogance. Born to the upper-middle classes in suburban Boston, the young Mark was saddled with the shared affliction of every soft man of the liberal left: a domineering mother. As a teen, he attended the very expensive, all-boys Belmont Hill School, eagerly participating in both sports and student council. (Milley was the quarterback of the varsity football team; his linebacker, one Richard Levine, would also achieve four-star rank, though under a different name.) From Belmont Hill, Milley sailed on to Princeton, where he studied politics and enrolled in ROTC.


In 1980, Milley commissioned into an Army that had already settled decidedly into its post-Vietnam bureaucratic malaise. Like Lloyd Austin and others now at the top of America’s military apparatus, he fell into a dangerous generational gap: too young to have experienced Vietnam, too old to experience the War on Terror as anything but a senior officer. 

Admittedly, the charge of many critics that Milley has never seen combat or won a war is slightly exaggerated—but only slightly. He was stateside throughout the First Gulf War, the only large-scale engagement during his career in which the U.S. Armed Forces can claim anything like victory. He was deployed in support of some minor imperial adventures, including those in Panama and Haiti. Tucked among the many (mostly frivolous) medals on his hefty chest is a Combat Infantryman’s Badge with one star, suggesting the soldier engaged in two live-fire exchanges over four decades of service.

But the general point is a fair one. Mark Milley became a full-bird colonel in the first year of the War on Terror. He has spent the entirety of America’s longest war as a field-grade officer, responsible for the life and death of countless American soldiers without any serious experience of full-scale conflict as a soldier on the ground. It is a problem that has always plagued modern armies, especially the Army of the well-insulated United States: When a full generation passes between substantial military engagements, the senior-most officers in wartime are necessarily going to be men who rose through the ranks as peacetime bureaucrats. This is a systemic problem, and the worst of the in-service mismanagement in Iraq and Afghanistan can be attributed largely to the aging-out of the last brass who had served as company-grade officers in Vietnam.

Still, Mark Milley was an egregious case. The Princeton-educated general, because he was not a wartime soldier, had to become something else; he chose to become a political operative, an arm of the regime with four stars on the shoulder.

There are the obvious offenses: the faux-panic over “white rage,” the pandering over transgenderism and other “gender-inclusive” initiatives in the services. But there is a deeper problem: a sincere and sanctimonious commitment to the kind of limitless, progressive liberalism that drives both such domestic revolutions and the neoconservative crusades overseas.


The outgoing general mouthed the creed one last time on Friday in a highly political farewell address. In the speech’s most-reported moment, Milley noted that “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 a tyrant, or a dictator.”

He added: “And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. 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.”

Milley is an officer, so this is technically true. The oath that I and every other enlisted soldier have taken for generations is slightly different: It does include an explicit commitment to “obey the orders of the President of the United States.”

Regardless, the fealty to the Constitution ensured by both oaths very obviously includes an obligation of obedience to the man it places in charge of the Armed Forces. Milley surely knows this, but it did not prevent him from taking unprecedented steps to undermine the constitutional powers of the duly elected commander-in-chief from within the walls of Trump’s own Pentagon.

After tens of thousands of Americans and an undisclosed number of federal agents gathered at the Capitol to demonstrate against irregularities in the 2020 election, Milley worked outside the limits of both tradition and the Constitution to preempt any action from the president of the United States, in concert not just with other Pentagon bureaucrats but with the leader of the political opposition and the top brass of our foremost military rival.

In that one week, Milley made a phone call to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which the two discussed possible ways to stymie the authority of the lawful commander-in-chief and Milley assured the radical Democrat, “I agree with you on everything.” He also drew senior military leaders into a secret meeting where he demanded each man swear a personal oath not to follow orders from the president unless Milley himself was involved—ironically, exactly the kind of grave misconduct he attributes to a nebulous “wannabe dictator.” Lastly, he called the top general of the Chinese Communist Party and assured our adversary that he would give them advance warning if the commander-in-chief found it necessary to engage in any military actions.

Just last week, President Trump noted on Truth Social that such actions from senior military commanders would have carried the death penalty for most of human history, while also swiping at Milley for his colossal bungling of the Afghanistan withdrawal (which he had tried to avoid altogether in spite of the commander-in-chief’s clear orders to bring American forces home). This basic fact no doubt contributed to the general’s decision to play the martyr one last time in Friday’s speech.

Sanctimony aside, the record is clear: Mark Milley believes he is entitled—even obligated—to do whatever he feels is necessary for the defense and advancement of institutional liberalism. If this means he must shirk the limits of his office and the confines of tradition, so be it. If this means he must place himself unilaterally at the top of the weightiest command structure in the history of human organization, he will not hesitate.

The fact is especially terrifying in light of current political circumstances. The Democrats are in a tight spot, and their one and only priority is ensuring the American people are not allowed to restore Donald Trump to power. Joe Biden, whom they used to this end three years ago, is likely to go the way of Dianne Feinstein before they get another chance. Kamala’s dreams are already just as dead. If Gavin Newsom falls short, Milley may see his wish become reality.


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