Mark Milley’s choice to make
A resignation now would serve the country well
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During recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley indicated that he would not resign his office in the wake of America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan—even as he testified that President Biden refused to take his advice.
Resignation would be the right move. The staggering incompetence of our departure amplified two decades of repeated failures. The Taliban, our once-ousted enemy is back, better armed, and better resourced. Allies and friends were abandoned and imperiled. Our global adversaries are emboldened. Too many of our warrior men and women—some with broken bodies and all with lost friends—doubt whether any of it was worth it. While our aircrews and other military personnel performed brilliantly amidst collapsing chaos, they should never have had to be brilliant. Our evacuation was disgraceful.
It did not have to be this way. The Senate testimony revealed that the president was presented with ample advice regarding troop levels, conditions-based withdrawal, demands on the Taliban, and keeping assets such as Bagram Airbase, which, if heeded, undoubtedly would have reinforced stability. The chairman’s primary job is to counsel the president. If the president is unwilling to accept that counsel, why continue to try and advise him at all? Why not resign?
Gen. Milley has grounded his refusal to resign in a strong conception of civil-military relations. “My statutory responsibility,” he asserted, “is to provide … military advice to the president. The president doesn’t have to agree with that advice … and it would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken.”
The central concern of civil-military relations is how a free nation best guarantees its safety from the very institution it created to keep it safe. With their preternatural suspicion of concentrated power, the Founders designed civilian control over the military to correspond with their overall system of checks and balances. They divided that control between the executive and legislative branches. These civilian spheres determine policy and grand strategy issues with advice from military leadership. The military implements these decisions by determining matters regarding weapons, operations, and tactics according to war aims, military necessity, moral constraints, and other factors.
While President Biden overstepped traditional bounds by micro-managing the terms of the withdrawal, forcing his generals to play a bad hand as best they could, it remains true that given the wisdom of this civil-military relationship, Gen. Milley was correct in insisting “this country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not.”
The Uniform Code of Military Justice requires military personnel to obey all lawful orders of the president and the officers appointed above them. Though equally charged for disobeying unlawful orders, there is no provision made for shirking orders they happen not to like—nor any allowance for refusing orders they believe immoral.
This last point, however, must have limits. Sometimes the cost of obeying a legal requirement is so vile that no reasonable person ought to do so. And some legal systems are by their very nature so abhorrent that no reasonable person should be willing to prop them up—think Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa.
While our particular civil-military arrangement is not grounded explicitly in Scripture, it is steeped in prudence. And human beings, made in the image of God, are charged with exercising the discretion to steward authority and power, which includes wielding the sword to protect the innocent, correct injustice, and punish evil.
But then, in light of these mandates, isn’t it unjust that in the wake of our disgraceful exit, no one will be held accountable? Gen. Milley should resign as a statement of principle. He should then set the record straight. By doing so, he can shed important light that might serve us well in the days ahead. Americans deserve to know the truth.
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