General Milley and the 'Perfumed Princes' of the Pentagon

Endangering our military preparedness and national security.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the military’s highest-ranking officer, according to Bob Woodward and Robert Costa’s new book took actions in the waning days of the Trump administration that are plausible predicates for charges of treason. This blatant violation of his oath to uphold the Constitution and its subordination of the military to the civilian government accountable to the people, must be further investigated and if substantiated, appropriately punished. But the institutional dysfunctions of the modern military establishment transcend any one man.

On the preposterous pretext that President Trump is mentally unstable enough to attack China or provoke a nuclear war before leaving office, Milley allegedly overstepped his Constitutional authority and violated the chain of command by going behind Trump’s back to speak with a foreign power. As a National Review editorial reported, Milley “went to the head of the Chinese military to tell him, in effect, that Trump was bluffing. He reportedly ordered naval exercises canceled to avoid offending the Chinese. He even ‘went so far as to pledge he would alert his counterpart in the event of a U.S. attack . . . “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.’”

This blatant politicizing of his office bespeaks personal careerism and an inflated ego, as well as the insular culture of our bureaucratized military establishment, all of which compromises our national security.

These dysfunctions of military leadership were memorably expressed by Army Colonel David Hackworth in his phrase “perfumed princes,” the Pentagon’s top brass more concerned with politics and their own career advancement than with their duty to the troops and national security. In part such criticism of generals has been a perennial feature of militaries. In World War I it was expressed by the famous description of the allied soldiers as “lions lead by donkeys.” Constitutional governments traditionally distrust officers and generals, given their military skills and control over armies and weapons, which make them a risk for engineering coups. That’s why the Founders made the president, whether a veteran or not, the commander-in-chief, and feared standing armies.

But the rise of technocratic progressivism, which multiplied and enlarged government agencies and the power of the executive that controls them––including what once was called the War Department, but now is known as the Department of Defense––further politicized our military. This name-change reveals one development that has altered our perceptions of the use of force: the idealistic foreign policy of the “rules-based international order” that privileges multilateralism, “soft power,” international institutions, and “diplomatic engagement” over the unilateral use of force.

This foreign policy orthodoxy, necessarily political, now dominates our top-tier military leadership. Those officers who wish to rise in the hierarchy must show obeisance to this questionable foreign-policy philosophy. This allegiance explains much of the resistance to Trump and the undermining of his foreign policy decisions on the part of some of his military advisors and cabinet appointees.

Another problem arises from the “professional deformation” that compromises large-scale government bureaucracies not directly accountable to the people or the market. Group-think, institutional received wisdom, and outdated paradigms can persist decade after decade, and survive failure after failure. Protecting and advancing the agency and its managers takes precedence over the functions the agency is supposed to perform––defend the nation and its national interests.

Moreover, advancement in the bureaucracy demands fealty to institutional orthodoxy, and thus marginalizes mavericks and innovators in favor of company men ready to salute whatever political flag is run up the flagpole. Just ask Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who challenged the Obama administration’s dangerous misreading of ISIS as a “jayvee team,” and faced a ginned-up FBI investigation and preposterous charges for his trouble.

This malign political dynamic is obvious in Milley’s previous forays into political waters. The idea that Trump was psychologically unstable, a Democrat talking-point since before the election, was nothing more than a stale, partisan trope for delegitimizing and weakening a hated political rival. The alleged January 6 “armed insurrection,” which supposedly so frightened Milley that he had to forewarn the Chinese about Trump’s mental state, is another partisan lie. Milley’s conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about his boss Trump’s mental fitness––he and Pelosi agreed he was “crazy”–– were also nakedly political, inappropriate, and a betrayal of his office.

Indeed, as Marc Thiessen points out, Milley’s “principled” violations of the civilian chain of command were politically selective: “Well, if Milley wants credit for stopping Trump from causing an imagined military disaster, then he also gets the blame for not stopping President Biden from causing an actual military disaster. Where was this bold, brazen general — willing to bend the chain of command in the name of national security — when Biden oversaw the worst U.S. military catastrophe in modern times in Afghanistan?”

So too with his prior defense of subjecting our service academy students to patent racialist nonsense like “critical race theory,” “systemic racism,” and the biggest political lie of all, the looming dangers of “white supremacism” and “domestic terrorism,” allegedly our most dangerous threat. No empirical evidence backs up claims that “white supremacism” is anything more than a fringe belief. Its presence on the internet and in Congress, and its influence on the larger culture are miniscule compared to the clout and mayhem wielded by Black Lives Matter or Antifa. And in any case, these issues are the business of voters and their representatives, not the chief military advisor to the president.

This political corruption of our top brass, this besmirching of their professional integrity by intruding into partisan politics, increased during the Trump years. In November 2017, racist slurs were written on message boards on the doors of five black cadet candidates at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School. Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveira, not waiting for an investigation to be completed, gave a virtue-signaling speech that he told the audience to record on their phones. In it he ordered the unknown racists to “get out of” the Academy­­––thus begging the question that there actually were racists among the cadets. Eager to more widely disseminate this PR stunt, the school posted the video on YouTube, where it was watched by almost 1.2 million viewers. Joe Biden and, naturally, John McCain joined in to praise Silveira and burnish their own antiracist bona fides.

As happens more and more frequently these days, it turned out that one of the “victims” had written the heinous slurs. Rather than apologize for his precipitate grandstanding, Silveira defended his speech as still necessary given the alleged pervasiveness of white racism. He seemed oblivious to the fact that such hoaxes actually demonstrate how discredited such racist acts have become over the last half-century, which accounts for the need to invent them and stoke the identity-politics grievance fires.  

Truth apparently wasn’t important. What counted is that Silveira’s antiracist demonstration supported the “systemic racism” lie peddled by Black Lives Matter and the Dems, which suited the Air Force just fine. Indeed, on Silveira’s retirement three years later, the Air Force Times didn’t even mention that his showy “fight against racism,” as the headline read, was based on a hoax.

Then there was Gen. George W. Casey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2009 when Army psychiatrist Nidal Hassan murdered 13 people at Fort Hood while screaming “Allahu Akbar!” The Obama administration tried to pass the attack off as “workplace violence,” and Casey, loyal to his political masters, said that “as horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.” So “diversity,” a political verbal weapon that can’t even be coherently defined, or its boons empirically supported, is more precious than the lives of 13 of his troops.

This “nothing to do with Islam” trope and distortion of Islam’s doctrines and history, is an artifact of the “diversity” industry and grievance politics. It goes back to the Clinton administration, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright praised Islam as a “faith that honors consultation, cherishes peace, and has as one of its fundamental principles the inherent equality of all who embrace it.” Albright didn’t mention what happens to those who don’t “embrace it.”

And don’t forget the Pentagon’s other politically correct policies, such as our Navy’s use of more expensive and less reliable “renewable” fuels in order to gratify one of the progressives’ most useful “crises,” Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming­­––65% of the energy used on naval bases, and 35% of at-sea fuels come from “renewable” energy, including nuclear. Or how about the eagerness to put women in combat displayed by some top generals a few years back. I’ve never heard an argument explaining how women in combat units improves their performance or helps create the small-unit cohesion critical for success in combat. The whole idea was a political stunt to curry favor with identity-politics activists and progressive legislators.

Of course, there are many fine officers who are serving their country faithfully and professionally. But the cult of “diversity” and “woke” policy––which has corrupted education and has now penetrated some of the top brass of the military services––is a political distraction from the defense establishment’s sole purpose: to train soldiers, sailors, and airmen to confront the enemy and destroy him.

Along with stagnant military budgets and wasteful spending, this ideological and political corruption endangers our military preparedness and so our national security––at a time when China has been working relentlessly to replace us as the world’s foremost power.

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