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The Decline of Our Nation’s Generals

Once powerful titans of policy, today no one knows who they are. Given all the mistakes they've made, is it any wonder?
mark milley

One of the lesser, but nonetheless not inconsequential changes to the national security landscape over the past 30 years has been the marginalization of the nation’s senior military leadership.

Once upon a time, whether for better or for worse, the service chiefs wielded real clout on matters related to basic policy. Today, unless you are a serving member of the armed forces, it’s unlikely that you can even name the uniformed heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Maybe one—but all four?

Back in the days of George Marshall or Arleigh Burke or Curtis LeMay, the chiefs mattered. Today their influence trails behind that of John Bolton’s lesser deputies. 

Just last week, the admiral tapped to become the next chief of naval operations abruptly retired, his decision apparently prompted by some oblique involvement in a sexual harassment case. The press barely took notice. After all, who cares? Another old sea dog will be found to take his place.

For a brief period from the mid-1980s through the 1990s, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff partially filled the vacuum created by the de facto demotion of the service chiefs. As JCS chairman from 1989 to 1993, Colin Powell certainly figured as someone to reckon with. In terms of prestige and pull, only the president himself outranked this media savvy and politically adept U.S. Army general. 

Yet few if any of Powell’s successors have left much of a mark. I don’t expect history to remember Generals Hugh Shelton, Richard Myers, and Peter Pace. If it does, it will be for concurring in a series of remarkably ill-advised military misadventures.

Now a new JCS chairman is about to take office. Compared with the headlines generated by the “squad” of House progressives who have attracted the ire of both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump, the process of installing General Mark Milley in this once-important post has received negligible attention.

This is unfortunate. General Milley’s views—presumably the basis of the “professional military advice” that he will offer the commander-in-chief and the Congress—speak volumes about the present-day inadequacy of U.S. military thinking. 

Why precisely President Trump has chosen General Milley for this job is anyone’s guess. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a similarity in their physical profiles may have played a factor. They both tend toward stout. 

Yet for our purposes, the relevant question is not Milley’s waist size but the strength of his character and the quality of his mind. In the hearings called by the Senate Armed Services Committee to consider his nomination, he offered hints of both.

Such hearings always contain a large element of ritual, as nominees swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but, when summoned to testify before Congress. In practice, their advice comes packaged with politics, both partisan and bureaucratic. These number among the agreed-upon deceptions to which official Washington has long since become party. Throughout his testimony, Milley signaled his willingness to participate in this charade, offering not candor but carefully crafted evasiveness.

Committee members collaborated with Milley in avoiding topics that might have led to a serious critical evaluation of the U.S. military’s performance in recent wars. Sexual harassment received senatorial attention, but, remarkably, not the Iraq war, in which Milley served as a brigade commander just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was turning into a protracted catastrophe. A journalist friend of mine who covered Iraq during that period recalls Colonel Milley “standing one evening in front a row of hooded detainees alongside his [headquarters], cigar in mouth and congratulating some officer for his ‘good haul tonight’.”  

It would be useful to know if General Milley’s grasp of war has advanced beyond Colonel Milley’s. 

Milley’s understanding of war did come up, if only obliquely, when Afghanistan received passing mention. Milley described that war, the longest in U.S. history and still ongoing, as “successful to date.” U.S. efforts to transform Afghanistan into a stable and functioning state have manifestly failed. So too have U.S. efforts to defeat the militants threatening the Afghan government. But for Milley, all that matters is the absence of any post-9/11 terrorist attacks launched from Afghan soil. Based on that narrow and contrived criterion, he puts Afghanistan in the win column.

In truth, our next JCS chairman is less interested in the past than in the future. In his opening statement, Milley portentously declared that “the fundamental character of war is changing rapidly.” Now anyone even remotely familiar with what passes for thinking among senior military officers will recognize this as a standard line that the Pentagon has regularly trotted out since at least the 1950s. Substantively, it means the following: we want lots of new stuff and will therefore will need lots more money. 

“We must adapt faster,” Milley added, and “continue to accelerate the U.S. military’s modernization. By having a lethal, ready, modern force, the United States military will continue to be a vital element of national power to secure peace through strength.”

The clichés poured forth from Milley’s lips with all the practiced smarminess of a car salesman promoting a new line of pickup trucks. But what does this mean in practice, Senator James Inhofe, Senate Armed Services Committee chair, wanted to know? What is General Milley’s top priority?

“The very number one for me,” Milley replied, “is the modernization, recapitalization of the nation’s nuclear triad.”

Now pause here for a moment. The triad—the claim that the safety and security of the United States requires a nuclear strike force consisting of long-range bombers and long-range land-based missiles and missile-firing submarines—represented fresh thinking some 60 years ago. That was when ICBMs and Polaris submarines were entering service to complement Strategic Air Command’s fleet of B47s and B52s. If indeed “the fundamental character of war is changing rapidly,” how can it be that Milley’s conception of originality is to field glitzier versions of weapons dating back to when he was born? To make such a claim is on a par with arguing that what the U.S. Army needed in 1940 was more horses and the U.S. Navy more battleships.

It is small wonder that so few observers pay serious attention to what senior military officers have to say. What they say is mostly drivel.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large and a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.