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Monday, September 20, 2021

What's going on with our generals?

Silverfiddle Rant!

General Milley Continues to Take Heat...

"Milley’s actions show that America’s top military officers have reached another level of delusion. They fancy themselves a new praetorian guard to protect the nation." (Deep State - Deep Trouble)

Much is being made of Milley's supposed usurpation of power and quiet subversion of President Trump's direction on Syria and Afghanistan, phone calls assuring Chinese generals he would warn them before we attack them, and holding a secret cabal of generals to seize ultimate control of our nuclear arsenal.  

While I think the rhetoric is a little much, here is one summary  Another one demands Gen. Milley must go for subverting of civilian control of the military

This article says Milley made the call to China at SecDef Esper's request.  If true, that means Milley did nothing wrong by making that phone call.  He was a good soldier obeying orders of the civilians appointed over him.

By all accounts, General Milley was a heroic soldier on the battlefield and many who served under him praised his leadership as a battalion commander when he was a lieutenant colonel.  

Something has gone wrong since then...

Desert Storm tank commander H. R. McMaster (he won a Silver Star for his brilliant leadership in a decisive battle) wrote a book in 1997, Dereliction of Duty, making the case...
"that during the 1960s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff betrayed their constitutional duties by failing to provide their honest military judgment to President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as they plunged into the quagmire of Vietnam. When McMaster’s book was published in 1997, during the Clinton administration, Gen. Hugh Shelton, then the JCS chairman, ordered all his service chiefs and commanders to read it and follow its lessons to the letter—to express disagreements to their superiors, even at the risk of getting yelled at." (The Revolt against Donald Rumsfeld)
Lt Gen (Ret) McMaster has been lauded by leaders and peers as the kind of innovative thinker we need in the flag officer ranks. His book has been required reading in the officer ranks.

Mackubin Owens made an opposing case back in 2006, mounting a defense of Rumsfeld and civilian control of the military.

The Ghost of Don Rumsfeld

I caught Hugh Hewett on the way to work a few days ago.  Retired Admiral James Stavridis was singing Milley's praises and bragging about appointing him to brief Rumsfeld back when Stavridus was an admiral at the Pentagon and Milley was a Colonel serving under him. He gushed over Milley, calling him stubborn, highly intelligent and brave, one of the few officers able to go one-on-one with with Rumsfeld.  The admiral was essentially lauding Milley's high-level bureaucratic skills, and that is when it hit me... 
What's "wrong" with Milley is what went "wrong" with warrior generals Franks, McChrystal, Petraeus and so many other flag officers of their generation:  Rummy tainted and broke them.

I am not damning those men. They did the best they could with what the civilians handed them.  Whether at one point or another they should have thrown their stars on the table is not an easy judgment, but once you've been made to eat shit and like it, or once you have been "made," as in a mafia made man, justification mechanisms must kick in.  It's human nature.

Some men did push back:  Generals Shinseki and Newbold while they were still on active duty, and Generals Zinni and Eaton after retirement.

So, we are left with an age old question:  What do senior generals do when handed an impossible mission cooked up by the ignorant fools appointed over them?


  1. What do senior generals do when handed an impossible mission cooked up by the ignorant fools appointed over them?

    Resign, is what they SHOULD do.

  2. What do senior generals do when handed an impossible mission....

    Advise civilian leadership, offer alternative course of action, mitigate adverse consequences.....dust off their resume.

    The American Mind OpEd is a level of hyperbolic garbage unfit for birdcage lining...but it will appeal to the emotionally driven, low-information reader that seems to make up a large majority of the electorate.

  3. An interesting article that considers the catalyst for Milley contacting his Chinese counterpart, having been instigated by civilian leadership [Esper]:

    Jonathan Swan of Axios is inarguably one of the most respected reporters in Washington today. He is trusted across parties and has incredible sources. According to his reporting, Trump’s secretary of defense, Mike Esper, received intelligence reports the Chinese expected Trump to attack. According to Swan, Esper knew the Chinese intelligence was flawed and feared they might make a preemptive strike of their own.

    Esper requested his deputies use back channels to ensure the Chinese knew we knew what their intelligence said and that their intelligence was wrong. Esper further ordered a postponement of some American naval activities in the Pacific so the Chinese did not get spooked. Milley was one of the people who worked back channels to defuse the situation.


  4. As always, in this hyperpartisan environment, almost all commentary is now shaded and tainted by partisan ideology. That is why I included that Yahoo article the basically says what CI linked to. That Millie didn't just make that phone call on his own, he was following orders

    As I said, I didn't write this to damn any of those men. My point really was summed up in the last short paragraph. It's an eternal question that will never be solved. Imo

  5. Few could explain an officer’s duty better than Douglas MacArthur, whose Duty, Honor, Country speech is a gemstone for understanding our expectations of military leaders. You can read MacArthur’s address here:


    It isn’t necessary to fawn over MacArthur; the man had his flaws (we all do), but we are foolish not to think about what he said on the eve of his retirement, particularly, “ ... an old soldier who tried to do his duty, as God gave him the light to see that duty.” Duty. Honor. Country. No military leader has an obligation to obey any order that they believe is unlawful or stupid. Of course, there are consequences to such refusals, but I am speaking now of duty vs. political favor or opportunity. I don’t know anything about what happened with Milley, beyond what I’ve read in the press. I’m not sitting in judgment. I’m simply suggesting that too many of our senior-most officers have forgotten (if they ever knew) what their duty requires of them. It requires unshakeable integrity. I fear that far too many of our flag officers have decided not to allow duty/integrity to get in the way of a much coveted promotion.

    The drone strike that killed ten Afghanis who, as it turned out were not Taliban — again, I have no facts — but if it is true that the military commander advised against the attack on the basis of his low confidence in available intelligence, but was ordered to proceed anyway, that commander had this option: “No sir. Not under my watch. If you insist, here’s my resignation.” That, IMO, would be a demonstration of courage under (political) fire. I think it would be far easier to live with oneself having refused to obey a stupid order than to live with the consequences of killing innocents. To answer your question, then, “What’s going on with our generals?” — They are failing to do their duty.

    1. The recent drone strike in AFG is a good example, but we have to remember that only certain strikes have POTUS level approval criteria [such as strikes against state-backed militia's in Iraq & Syria. That is rarely the case in AFG, though admittedly, I'm not aware if that GO/NO-GO decision process had changed during the withdrawal.

      Too often, when the general public rails against the upper echelons of the DoD, implying unprofessional subservience or insubordination to a political leader, it's without the benefit of knowledge of where actions reside in the chain of command.

      I know that you know how it usually works, but I shook my head and sighed when people came out of the woodwork and claimed - for example - that "Biden ordered X, Y or Z".....knowing that the delegated authority and decision point lay with someone like Gen McKenzie, ADM Vasely or MG Donohue.

      This does not excuse flag officers who have indeed lost their way, and forgotten their oath....but our public criticism would be much better informed if we had a media that sought to inform vice sensationalize.

    2. The bureaucratic infighting has already begun on the drone strike. CNN Reports:

      CIA warned children were possibly present seconds before US missile killed 10

      I doubt we had the assets in place to get this right. We'll never know the truth...

  6. The line between projecting defense-in-depth.....and inventing/inheriting fruitless and unsolvable international problems, has bedeviled nations since the epoch of foreign policy.

    Once civilian control of the military became SOP in industrialized and [relatively] free nations.....it only exacerbated the dilemma.

  7. What happens when you have a CIC who thinks the world is his own little Jonestown?

  8. So, we are left with an age old question: What do senior generals do when handed an impossible mission cooked up by the ignorant fools appointed over them?

    Basic training should involve calling in artillery and airstrikes on obstacle courses that can't be walked around.

  9. I'm just not sure we have a lot of options. I've argued here and elsewhere that if the "leaders" have issues, they need to resign in the moment or keep quiet.

    The Boltons, Kellys, et al of the Trump Admin have done America wrong, if they truly believed what they said after leaving the Admin, keeping quiet til the books came out, etc.

    That said, how should we fight wars these days?

    There is a group of Americans who believe we should bomb people back "to the stone age". And others who think we should be able to kill only the bad guys and never lose a civilian.

    I was disgusted to see the Kabul drone strike called a massacre in some news outlets. Was it bad? 100%. Was it intentional? Not at all like My Lai. My Lai was a massacre. Kabul, a cluster you know what.

    All that said, our military knows how to fight a war. We train them to kill and we can do it well. But that model seems designed for a massive attack on the US by a specific enemy whom we can identify and is led by a central authority.

    How do generals steeped in a hierarchy of fighting that does not exist, lead an army in the 21st Century and do it effectively?

    1. Though there is robust debate within military circles, we are actually fairly proficient in counter-insurgency tactics....far better at least, than in 2001.

      In fact, professional debates of late have centered around our relative lack of readiness to defend/defeat engagements with peer competitors.

  10. CI: I did note your comment. " Shed teats" was indeed a classic.


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