Though the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation’s highest-ranking military officer, he isn’t in the chain of command.
“I don't make decisions,” Gen. Mark Milley, the 20th and current holder of that office, said at Duke Friday. “And you have to be very careful about that.”
Instead, the chairman’s role is to provide “considered, rigorous, well thought-out” advice to the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council about the use of the U.S. military, Milley said.
“We are not allowed by law, nor should we be making decisions,” he said. “That is the proper role of the civilian leadership.”
Despite holding a nominally advisory role, however, the chairman holds tremendous influence in how the U.S military is deployed. Milley discussed his work in that role with Peter Feaver, director of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy and professor of political science and public policy at Duke, at Page Auditorium. He spoke as part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Series.
Milley’s daylong campus visit also included meetings with ROTC units and visits to Duke laboratories that are conducting research with funding from the Department of Defense.
Feaver questioned Milley – who has held the office since 2019 -- on myriad topics regarding his work in the role during a tumultuous period for the country. Here are some excerpts:
On what he called the “strategic failure” of the U.S. in Afghanistan:
“That is a set of decisions that occurred over 20 years. That result – with the Taliban occupying Kabul, and the collapse of the Afghan government – that wasn't the result of 20 days of evacuation. That's the result of years of war, in which we should have went left or should have went right at certain points in time. And it's a cumulative effect of multiple decisions. It's not a singular set of decisions in the last 20 days. Those soldiers, those Marines, those sailors, those airmen that executed that mission, I think they performed extraordinarily well.”
On why he didn’t resign when President Biden did not follow his advice regarding the withdrawal from Afghanistan:
“We don't want military officers, general officers, resigning every time your advice is not taken.”
“There's a lot of times that I don't like things, but you don't just throw in the towel just because you don't like it.”
“And if the decision-maker chooses to go in a different direction, that's the decision-maker’s prerogative. Our obligation, our legal obligation, is to execute that decision to the best of our knowledge.”
On why he considers China the most significant military threat to the U.S. over the coming decades:
“(China’s) rise in terms of economic growth and economic power and a system over the last 40 years is a phenomenon that is rarely seen in history. So that's a fact. In the wake of that economic rise has come a military that has changed from a peasant-based army to a very sophisticated military that can operate in all the domains, in space and cyber, and then land, sea, air and undersea. And we've seen a military that has at least regional ambitions and arguably global ambitions to fulfill the Chinese national dream. That is going to be – we may or may not like it – but that is a fact that is going to be with us for years and decades and we're going to have to come to grips with as a nation.”
On his apology for being present at then-president Donald Trump’s notorious photo op in Lafayette Square during protests over the killing of George Floyd:
“That event was a political act. Politicians can do political acts, they can do whatever they want to do, but I can't. And so I thought it very important for me, as the senior military officer to explain to the formation, the units, plus the American people that we in uniform have no business in domestic politics. So I did that. And that apology was part of a broader speech, but I think it's critically important that those of us in uniform remember that we follow the legal, lawful orders of the civilians that are appointed over us. That is law, that is tradition, and that's the way it should be. That's what the American people expect of us. And we should never under any circumstances, enter into actual U.S. domestic politics. It's verboten. We can’t do that.”
On the role of the military in the peaceful transfer of power in the U.S.:
“We don't have a role. The United States military does not have a role in domestic electoral politics. The American people have a voice, they go to the polls, and they vote when they vote for whatever candidate they vote for. Their votes are counted. And if the election is contested, then the next step is to go to the courts. [When the] courts are done, then it goes to the legislature, the legislature certifies the election. At no point is the United States military involved in any of that.”