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Mark Milley’s choice to make

Marc LiVecche | A resignation now would serve the country well


Gen. Mark Milley during a Senate hearing on the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Associated Press/Photo by Patrick Semansky (pool)

Mark Milley’s choice to make
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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.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the executive editor of Providence. He is also Leadership Research Fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy and a McDonald Foundation Distinguished Scholar. From the summer of 2018 to fall of 2020, he was the McDonald Research Scholar at the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, & Public Life, in residence at Christ Church, Oxford University.

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Faieta

Those serving in the military are not required to blindly obey every order...they are actually taught NOT to obey an unlawful order. In this case, however wrong-minded, what Gen Milley was ordered to execute was not an unlawful order. I agree with him that resignation is the wrong answer, if he did so that means the President would just fill the position with someone that would be less likely to voice opposition to his ideas going forward. For the sake of our military fighting men and women, we need leaders in uniform that are comfortable giving opposing opinions. But when it comes to decision time, their job is to execute the mission to the best of their ability. That may seem wrong-minded, but that is the nature of civilian control of our military, which is a hallmark of our country.

Donald Thompson

Milley, not Miller. Autocorrect...

Donald Thompson

Resignation seems misplaced to me. I retired as a Colonel because the uniform (and my oath of office) had become constraining to speaking out. Miller's testimony should have included the whole truth: he should have started with "Within the constraints directed by the President...". This would have led to very direct questions from the legislators about what really happened. The President probably said "We are leaving. Give me options." He could then cherry-pick his public comments. The Chairman should give clear options. They may be ignored. He is not part of the National Command Authority. Mattis was. He appropriately and honorably resigned.

Steve S

How did an article about an honorable US general suddenly try to compare this situation to "Nazi Germany" or "Apartheid South Africa." Are these really issues of the same type?

I've been really disappointed with the tone of many of the these new Opinion articles. I would have hoped a Christian magazine would demonstrate more balance, empathy, avoiding strident, bombastic language that comes across as attacking people instead of engaging in reasoned dialogue.

Marc LiVeccheSteve S

Dear Steve,
No, these really aren't the same type of issues. I didn't mean to suggest they are. I'm writing in support of the civ-mil relationship as it's been practiced in the US since our founding. Given that support, I argued that Milley was right that we don't want generals deciding which orders to follow or not follow--while noting a pair of obvious exceptions. I certainly don't think the US legal system is by its "very nature so abhorrent that no good person should be willing to prop them up." Indeed, much of my vocation is spent propping up the US system.
While I do think the terms under which the president ordered those in the chain of command to carry out the withdraw were foolish and incompetent in the extreme, I recognize that Gen. Milley's refusal to resign at the time was (likely) appropriate given the wisdom of upholding civilian control of the military. My piece concludes, however, by saying "in the wake" of the catastrophic exit, the terms are different. Milley--if he truly disagreed with the terms the president required for the withdraw (troop levels, etc) or if he himself was chiefly responsible for the planning of the debacle--should resign now and--like Sec. Mattis did when he resigned--explain the reasons for his decision. Milley's post-facto departure would not unduly jeopardize the civ-mil arrangement.
I hope that helps. You might still disagree (and I'm the fence about it myself) but I would want our disagreement to be on the proper point. Thanks. ML

greentravelgalSteve S

I share your concerns. I've also noticed the sudden shift in the Opinions pieces using the same kind of over the top language and references that has become all to common in current media machines that rely on outrage cues to keep readership. Nazi Germany references are now so overused as to lose their meaning. Please World - don't follow this path. We rely on you for balance and thoughtfulness.

William Reedgreentravelgal

I agree that the “Nazi” epithet has become a common pejorative recently, usually just to label someone in power that someone else doesn’t like, and typically by those who don’t remember and were never taught the evil which that term represents. But the point made by Mr. LiVecche is accurate: “some legal systems are by their very nature so abhorrent…,” listing Nazi Germany as an example. Many do not stop to think that the Holocaust was entirely legal, and why not? The government who perpetrated it was the same government who made the laws, and so of course it was “legal.” But it was not right. Both Scripture and our American system of civics call for obedience to government leaders, but not when a “legal” directive is in fact a gross perversion of morality. The author’s reference to Nazi Germany in this case is entirely appropriate.