Mark Milley's Last Mistake

This guy simply should not have been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His final attempt to build the U.S. military of the future is gibberish.

Mark Milley's Last Mistake
Mark Milley on his way to a meeting with the Joint Chiefs in Arlington, Va.

Edited by Sam Thielman

I PROMISE I AM NOT GOING TO WRITE too much about this. After composing 3000 words on the CIA in Congo, I said in Tuesday's edition that this one would feature quick-and-dirty blogging. I am trying to keep that promise, but Joint Forces Quarterlyjust published Army Gen. Mark Milley's final article as the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and my head hurts.

First, a little background. Milley has done significant damage to the U.S. military since 2020 simply by remaining in it. Three years ago, when police backed by National Guardsmen cleared Lafayette Park of Black Lives Matter protesters so President Trump could stroll to St. John's Church for a Bible-thumping photo op, Milley, wearing his combat uniform, accompanied Trump. Doing so, as any chairman of the Joint Chiefs must be expected to understand, represented the U.S. military endorsing violence against American citizens exercising their constitutional rights—and in this case, violence against people demanding freedom from racist policing—violence that was on its way. "Milley should have resigned rather than participate in yesterday’s fascist political stunt," Paul Yingling, a retired Army colonel renowned for his integrity, told me the day after it happened.

Milley apologized—but he did so more than a week later, after the defense secretary's rapid apology, and after retired military luminaries like Jim Mattis publicly broke with Trump over the protest crackdown. More importantly, Milley did not recognize that his complicity, despite whatever it was Milley may have meant, was a disqualifying event. On some level, I suspect, he knows that, and that explains his subsequent narrative to elite journalists that he was secretly a bulwark against Trump pulling an auto-golpe. That smells like bullshit to me—whatever he groused to his staff, there is no evidence of Milley acting as such a bulwark; he certainly didn’t prevent the Pentagon's intransigence on January 6. But his erratic political pinballing says to me that Milley cannot help but be a political general. All general/flag officers are politicians, but Milley is simply bad at it.

The Air Force's C.Q. Brown is set to turn the page on the Milley era. But President Biden missed an opportunity to reinforce the prohibition on uniformed involvement in domestic politics, at a time when public faith in the military is falling back to earth, by not relieving Milley in 2021.

Recently Joint Forces Quarterly printed Milley's final article as chairman. And it underscores that Milley is no better a general than he is a politician. His article contextualizes his final moves as chairman to shape the military for the future of conflict, something known as a force-generation concept. It both fails on its own terms and cops out, in Milleyesque fashion, on the crucial questions of what the U.S. military will be in the future that he and his colleagues atop the Security State are producing.  

Milley writes that the military is at an "inflection point," a favorite phrase of security officials who wish to signal urgency without overcommitting to whatever the inflection actually points toward. He insists that the character of warfare—the incorporation of emergent technology into superior battlefield effect through best exploiting the advantages it offers—is changing in "fundamental ways." His presentation of those changes seems briefing-slide deep. Artificial intelligence, for instance, heralds a future of "ubiquitous sensors with mass data collection and processing ability," which seems to me an unimaginative and tactical way of understanding militarized AI.

Then, despite talking about all the "seismic changes" and "fundamental" transformations to the character of warfare that we're on the precipice of seeing, Milley neither proposes a vision for specific exploitation—that is, guidance for what technological incorporation is supposed to yield—nor prioritizes anything on his laundry list of "loitering munitions… robotics and additive manufacturing… pervasive sensors, AI-driven weapon systems and long-range precision fires." If stuff like this is going to change the character of war in fundamental ways, which are most important for the military to pursue? "We must adapt much faster than we are doing now," he writes, taking the sort of tone that bosses take when they don't understand what their employees have explained to them but still need to seem decisive.

Milley's animating vision, the Joint Warfighting Concept, emphasizes, well, jointness—the different services operating in harmonious supplement—and inflicting overmatch on an enemy through "pulsing" combat power across all domains (sea, air, land, space, cyber). Whatever the merits of such pursuits, this is just rowing in the same direction the military has been traveling for at least 40 years. This is a response to seismic changes that will fundamentally recharacterize warfare? No number of Thucydides quotes can make the Joint Warfighting Concept meet the minimal condition of demonstrating its utility for great-power warfare, the strategic environment within which the concept is nested.

I don't really want to be in a position of line-editing a force-development concept predicated on a conflict that I think the U.S. must avoid. But perhaps the (understandable) emphasis on jointness gets in the way of acknowledging that some services, domains and technological shifts are more relevant in such a strategic environment than others. (Not that I endorse that strategic environment!)

This is already too many words wasted on an article that's destined to be forgotten once Brown replaces Milley—even if the big doctrinal addition it heralds, the soon-to-be-published Joint Publication 1, remains on the books. But I'm compelled to point out that the chairman's vision for an imminent transformation of the character of war has absolutely nothing to say about climate change.

Now: I do not think the primary problem with ecological upheaval concerns exploiting the upheaval militarily; that just makes the primary problem—climate change's challenge to human survival—worse. At the same time, it makes zero sense to produce a force-development concept meant to be relevant to geopolitical and technological transformations without considering the massive ecological transformations already upon us and set to accelerate. How does, say, the Navy operate in an epoch of slowing ocean currents? How does land warfare change if sea levels rise a foot by 2050 and 40 percent of humanity lives within 100 kilometers of the coasts?

Obviously, addressing climate change in a force-generation concept would be met with right-wing pushback. But it would also inevitably call into question the U.S. military's acceleration of climate change through the enormous fossil-fuel usage compelled by its global footprint—a footprint in turn compelled by imperial ambitions, which currently animate the "great-power competition" that the Pentagon salivates over. Leave it to Mark Milley to take the easy way out. The force of the future may not have that option.

THIS GOT CUT OUT OF MY UPCOMING NATION COLUMN for space—that one will cover Trump's ambitions as a dictator for 2025; and it's why I didn't write about that here—but last week the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a data strategy that emphasizes AI incorporation. It pledges "increased adoption of AI and automation at the point of data collection, acquisition, or ingestion," to improve the spy apparatus's metabolization of enormous data sets from "weeks…to minutes." I'm going to reserve the right to say more about this in another column for The Nation, but a point I make in the next one—which FOREVER WARS subscribers will see soon—is that we are in the kind of political environment where we have to consider the primary impact of U.S. surveillance developments not on foreign intelligence targets but on Americans here at home.

SOMETHING ELSE I REALLY WANT to dig into in a future FOREVER WARS edition: the recent acquittal of Nizar Trabelsi on longstanding terrorism charges. I don't want to say more before I look at this story in far more detail than I have, because I suspect it's an important moment after 20 years of juries typically convicting on far flimsier charges. Appellate judges, unfortunately, learn no lessons.

SAM BIDDLE bought a scanner and a whole lot of military propaganda. I would have just told him that DVIDS exists and you can waste entire days sifting through the self-presentation of the 21st century U.S. military by entering search terms like "baked beans." You would fall down that rabbit hole because at WIRED you were told you had to select your own photos to illo your every blog post, except you could only use creative-commons imagery. Just because they're owned by Conde Nast didn't mean they were going to pay for Getty or any other photo-wire service.

OH LOOK, THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY is trying to deputize social platforms into reporting drug-related activity to law enforcement and in the process weaken encryption through creating criminal liability for offering it to a platform's users. Totally an agency that should exist.

R.I.P. SINÉAD O'CONNOR, one of the punkest people to ever live. We're all playing "Nothing Compares 2 U" but spare three minutes for "This Is A Rebel Song." They'll only love her now that she's dead.