What Is Happening to Our Apolitical Military?

Remarks by America’s most senior military officer mark the latest step in the continued erosion of relations between the armed forces and their civilian leaders.

Mark Milley testifies before Congress.
Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Kori Schake is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

The nation’s senior military adviser, General Mark Milley, is once again in the news, for reportedly having described President Donald Trump’s postelection rhetoric as “a Reichstag moment” and privately reassuring friends and members of Congress that the president and his supporters “may try, but they’re not going to f---ing succeed” in preventing the peaceful transition of power.

As CNN reports, “Milley spoke to friends, lawmakers and colleagues about the threat of a coup,” and although journalists have largely recounted either private conversations or actions that Milley was planning—that is, giving him credit for things he might have done but hadn’t—the comments cast him in a flattering light, a soldier stalwart in defense of democracy.

And although some of the sources, and the subject himself, may be attempting to remake an image tarnished by Milley’s decision to march with Trump across Lafayette Square in combat fatigues during nationwide protests, the American military nevertheless did an admirable job navigating the interregnum between election and inauguration. The proper role for our armed forces in domestic political upheaval is none, and that appears to be what the American people got this election. Milley deserves credit for that, as he does for the other restraints he placed on presidential impulse during his tenure. He ought to be graded like an Olympic diver, with a degree of difficulty factored into his score.

Where he deserves greater criticism is his congressional testimony from a few weeks ago. Then, Milley voiced support for military reading lists, including books about the hot-button political issue of critical race theory. “I’ve read Mao Zedong. I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin,” Milley said. “That doesn’t make me a communist.” It was a good line, witty and wise. And if he’d left off there, he’d have scored a victory. But he went on to connect racism to the attack on the Capitol: “I want to understand white rage … What is it that made thousands of people assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?”

And that turned his testimony into a political judgment, the latest step in the continued erosion of America’s relations with its military, which has been pulled further and further into the political arena. Milley may have been attempting to protect the military by wrapping himself in the flag and virtuously defending the Constitution, but the effect of his words has been to join the broader political fight about racial issues.

The modern era of civil-military relations dates from 1973, when the U.S. ceased conscripting its armed forces. The “all-volunteer force” relies on public admiration, competitive pay and benefits, the prospect of adventure, opportunities for job training and advancement, patriotism, and the allure of citizenship to recruit the 0.5 percent of America’s population required to staff our military. It has made the military far and away the most trusted and popular institution in American society—and one politicians love to champion, associate themselves with, and use as a political bludgeon.

Because obedience is compulsory in the military, changes aspired for in our society at large can be enforced in its ranks, as was the case with racial integration. Politics is ostensibly anathema in the force. Leaders proudly proclaim themselves to be apolitical, and some even decline to vote so as not to prejudice themselves against prospective commanders in chief. The deeply ingrained subordination of our military to elected civilians means that the president and Congress determine the extent to which our military gets to be different from the rest of society.

Yet over the years, political, social, and judicial impulses have been frequently attenuated by deference to perceived needs by the military for recruitment, retention, and unit cohesion. This was the case with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to serve, and the exclusion of women from combat units. The military is also often thrust into the political disputes of the day, as much as its leaders prefer to avoid it: Think Senator Ted Cruz castigating the Army for becoming “a woke, emasculated military,” or Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Dan Crenshaw seeking “whistleblowers” from the military who object to “woke ideology.”

The apolitical norm was first challenged in 1988, when former Commandant of the Marine Corps Paul X. Kelley chaired Veterans for Bush, in support of George H. W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and it has accelerated to the point where campaigns now recruit hundreds of senior-veteran endorsements and routinely use military imagery to imply military support. (Many veterans claim to speak for the force and are treated as a proxy for military opinion, but it would be a mistake to believe that those in uniform think in lockstep with one another: Unofficial surveys suggest that the officer corps is slightly more conservative than American society at large, while the rank and file are slightly more liberal.) Military leaders decry this practice of veteran endorsements, believing it pulls the military into politics that are detrimental to the good of the force. Which is true. Americans have begun to see our military the way we see the Supreme Court: apolitical when it supports our policy preferences, shamefully partisan when it does not.

Trump exacerbated the corrosion of civil-military norms. He appointed no more high-ranking veterans than had President Barack Obama, yet he termed them “my generals,” and their accepting appointments suggested their support for his policies. He signed the Muslim travel ban at the Pentagon, gave campaign speeches to troops, commuted sentences issued by military tribunals, and often claimed that the military had voted overwhelmingly for him.

Milley is himself an imperfect defender of the civil-military distinction. During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, he marched through a public square forcibly cleared of protesters while in uniform alongside Trump. Milley damaged our military’s relationship with the American people that day, as he later admirably acknowledged. Navigating the high-cresting shoals of this political moment cannot be easy or pleasant, especially for a military officer who is inexpert in politics, as our officers are by design. The military as an institution grooms them to eschew politics, and distrusts them if they become political.

The political scientist Risa Brooks argues that the military should not even attempt to be “apolitical,” because that leaves it blind to the political impact of its actions. The armed forces ought to be “politically aware,” she writes, “so that they can distinguish negative and partisan behaviors.” Milley’s testimony, however, provides a useful example of the practical difficulty of applying her standard. Milley clearly thought that he was distinguishing between negative and partisan behaviors, but his choice of how to address that leaves the military open to legitimate criticism of partisan behavior.

In his testimony, Milley crossed far over into political territory, inviting challenges to whether it actually is the military’s business to expend educational and training resources on those issues. Cotton is not wrong that military effort might be better spent focused on professional responsibility.

One could certainly make the argument that racism is an issue of professional military responsibility. We have a military that recruits from and seeks to reflect all of American society, and needs to bind its members together in common purpose, so expunging racism is important in recruiting and unit cohesion. Milley touched lightly on those issues, but only in the midst of an extended disquisition on the history of institutional racism in American society. That is, he spoke glancingly of military equities while engaged in a political topic.

That Milley chose to engage at all—he interjected to respond to a question directed at Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin—was itself a mistake. The great criminal defense attorney Clarence Darrow advised his clients that “no man was ever convicted based on testimony he did not give.” Milley ought to have taken that advice when testifying. Instead, he voluntarily exposed the military to further enmeshment in political disputes of the moment, ones fraught with febrile tempers and high stakes.