Discerning myths from facts: some questions for the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Gen. Milley at his Senate confirmation hearing in July.

After a mostly uneventful Senate hearing, Army General Mark A. Milley was confirmed as the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) in an overwhelmingly bipartisan 89-1 vote on July 25th.  However, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, about two weeks after Milley’s confirmation hearing, the Department of Defense (DoD) published a story about several “myths” Milley imagines Americans believe.  Decide for yourself, but to me the article raises a myriad of questions.


Milley will take over as CJCS from retiring Marine General Joe Dunford on September 30th.  According to law, the CJCS is “the principal military adviser to the President, the National Security Council, the Homeland Security Council, and the Secretary of Defense.”

However, what is not as well known is that while the CJCS outranks all other officers, the law dictates that he “may not exercise military command over the Joint Chiefs of Staff or any of the armed forces.”  By design, the U.S. military has no single, uniformed commander; instead, the Constitution makes the President the commander-in-chief.  The CJCS is an adviser; he commands no one.

Although General Milley has a quite impressive biography and many admirers, media reports indicate that he was not the choice of either General Dunford or, perhaps more importantly, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.  They wanted Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, and when President Trump selected Milley over Goldfein it was, as the Washington Post put it, “a final ‘stake in the heart’ for Mattis” who soon resigned his post.

Why the pick?  The Post described Milley as “an ebullient personality and natural storyteller” while characterizing Goldfein as a “widely respected, cerebral officer.”  (Milley – who attended Princeton and Columbia – is also said to be very bright).

Politico adds that Milley’s “demeanor is a plus with Trump, who delights in spinning tales involving “my generals” who come from “central casting.””  Be that as it may, it is important for any CJCS to get along with his boss, and that does seem to be the case with Milley so far.

Questions about Milley’s four “myths”:

The strangely-timed post-confirmation article DoD published is entitled “Milley Dispels ‘Myths of War’.”   Its genesis seems to be Milley’s notion that “there are Americans who believe some myths about the military.”  He lists four examples of what I gather he considers bollixed American thinking.

Milley’s “myth” #1: “The ‘Short War’ Myth”

Milley concludes Americans believe in a “Short War,” something he asserts is a “myth.”  Although Milley claims this “myth” is “very prominent,” it’s hard to know after 18 exhausting years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq exactly which Americans he assumes hold that view.  Isn’t the catch phrase today just the opposite, that is, “endless wars”?  And isn’t there growing evidence of a “transpartisan revolt against” them?   Does the new CJCS fundamentally misapprehend the mindset of the American people on this point?  Is that a concern?

Moreover, what is Milley’s understanding of “short”?  Isn’t it a fact – not a myth – that some conflicts are relatively short (particularly compared to the 18-year effort in Afghanistan and Iraq)?

Desert Storm

Consider that in just 39 days Operation Desert Storm routed Saddam Hussein’s vaunted “million man” army and freed Kuwait.

Operation Allied Force

Operation Allied Force (Balkans), an entirely air operation, took only 78 days to defeat Slobodan Milošević’s forces and end the persecution of Kosovar Albanians.  Consider as well that Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada) was 4 days, Operation Just Cause (Panama) lasted about six weeks, and Operation Unified Protector (Libya) ended after a 222 day campaign.

If they weren’t “short” in Milley’s mind, what would be?  If anything, isn’t the real illusion – and one that can be harmful – that all uses of force inevitably lead to years of costly conflict?

Such a miscalculation may, as some allege, cause us to stand aside when a modest contribution of force could make a real difference.  Shouldn’t we remind ourselves from time to time that not every use of force becomes a quagmire, and that sometimes the failure to act carries its own moral consequences?  Indeed, can’t inaction be a source of evil?

For example, didn’t Samantha Power castigate the U.S. and other UN members as “bystanders to genocide” when more than a million Rwandans – 70% of the entire Tutsi population – were slaughtered in just 100 days in 1994?  Power insists that before they were withdrawn, a small number of UN peacekeepers were having deterrent effect that was saving lives.  She says that “It did not take many UN soldiers to dissuade the Hutu from attacking.”  Is there not still a place for military operations involving limited numbers of troops for brief periods?

Milley’s example also raises this key question: what does he consider to be “war”?  (The U.S. last declared war in 1942 against Romania, but since the Nation’s founding has used military forces abroad hundreds of times.)

War Powers Resolution

This is important because the Obama administration concluded that the seven month campaign in Libya did not trigger the War Powers Resolution because the operation did not amount to “hostilities” (the U.S. actually flew hundreds of strike sorties).

Does Milley think likewise that such a conflict is not “war” even though it involved a huge amount of air assets?  Is it only “war” if ground troops are involved?  Will that shape his advice to decision-makers?

Milley’s “myth” #2: “The ‘Win From Afar Myth’”

This supposed “myth” is truly mystifying: Milley apparently doubts it’s possible that “wars can be won from afar, without getting troops on the ground.”  How can that be true in an age of cyberwarfare?

Aren’t we being constantly told that devastation can be wrought via cyber means from hostile countries without a single enemy soldier stepping foot on U.S. shores?  Or is the cyber threat itself a “myth”?

If so, why did DoD tell us last year that “the cyber threat was at the top of the list of worldwide threats the director of national intelligence chose to highlight [to the] Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing”? (Emphasis added.)

B-2 stealth bomber

Furthermore, for all his unquestioned expertise in land warfare, does Milley really understand not only what cyber can do, but also what modern air and space power can accomplish?  He points to “strategic bombing during World War II or launching cruise missiles” as examples of what won’t be “enough to defeat an enemy.”  Actually, it was the strategic bombing of Japan with an atomic bomb that caused it to sue for peace, but the real question is this: does Milley fully appreciate the capabilities of air (and missile) technology not as of 1945, but in 2019?

Here’s a baffling one: how would Milley implement his conviction about the indispensability of “getting troops on the ground” into a strategy if we find ourselves at war with China?  Should we anticipate a plan that calls for a land war in Asia?  Given China is a nation of 1.4 billion people, how many U.S. troops would that take?

Milley’s “myth” #3: “The ‘Force Generation’ Myth”

Milley says that it’s a “myth” that it’s “possible to quickly generate forces in the event of need.”  Among the odd things about his proposition are the case studies he cites to support his opinion: World War I and World War II.  The problem?  According to the Army itself, at the start of World War I it “was a constabulary force of 127,151 soldiers” with just 181,620 National Guard members.  The entire military at the beginning of World War II wasn’t much better with only 334,473 in uniform.

That’s nothing like where we are in 2019.  Unlike 1917 or 1939, today there are almost 2.2 million active, Guard and reserve members of the armed forces.  The whole point of maintaining a large standing military after World War II was to provide a ready capability to respond, and enough troops to hold the line while more were being generated.  What may or may not have been the situation in 1917 or 1939 is simply irrelevant today.

NORAD. fighter intercepting Russian bomber, May 2019

I also guess we need to ask how Milley would define “in the event of need” as it seems that key requirements are being met.  A little more than a week ago General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who leads the North American Aerospace Defense Command  (NORAD), said that “Whether responding to violators of restricted airspace domestically or identifying and intercepting foreign military aircraft, NORAD is on alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Air Force ICBM crews on duty, 24/7

Additionally, according to DoD, America’s nuclear forces “provide 24/7 deterrence to prevent catastrophic actions from our adversaries and they stand ready, if necessary, to deliver a decisive response, anywhere, anytime.

Isn’t it true then that the U.S. armed forces can, in fact, generate adequate forces in “the event of need” to meet America’s most existential threats?  In any event, in assessing America’s military needs, shouldn’t the CJCS think in terms of more than just ground forces?

Milley also seems to conceive of the “force generation” issue only in terms of ground forces, saying “we need a sizable ground force, and I have advocated for that.”  In truth, the most daunting challenge today is not personnel, but the time it takes to acquire and field weaponry – more than a decade according to a senior Army officer in 2016.

Even more troubling is the health of the industrial base.  In 2018 Defense News reported that the “US is running out of bombs — and it may soon struggle to make more” because of the weakness of America’s weapons’ manufacturing infrastructure.

Last year a DoD report said that the U.S. “industrial base faces an unprecedented set of challenges” that “erode the capabilities of the manufacturing and defense industrial base and threaten the…ability to be ready for the ‘fight tonight,’ and to retool for great power competition.”

Isn’t that the bigger problem in terms of lead time to generate forces? That is, isn’t it really about the capability to equip them with the kind of weapons and technology they’ll need for the “more complex” wars Milley concedes we face today? 

Milley’s “myth” #4: “The ‘Armies Go to War’ Myth” 

Milley’s final “myth” is that “Armies go to war.”  He retorts: “Armies or navies or air forces don’t go to war.  Nations go to war.”  Ok, point made, but what – exactly – does that mean?  As the nation’s senior military leader, what are his expectations for the nation when it goes to whatever it is he thinks is “war”?  A draft?  An industrial mobilization?  New taxes?

What are, in his view, the consequences if the military does nevertheless “go to war” and, as is sometimes said, ‘America goes to the mall’?  Or is this whole commentary something best left to elected politicians and out of the CJCS’s portfolio?

Concluding thoughts 

It is a mystery as to why DoD decided to publish Milley’s “myths” when it did, as I don’t think the essay was helpful to him.  Apart from everything else, it has a readily-discernible streak of Army-centric service parochialism.

That may be acceptable for a service chief, but it can be counterproductive for a leader who is supposed to epitomize the joint warfighting ethic.  Given his new position, Milley should have taken the opportunity to reconsider his ideas…and the way he expresses them.

Still, none of this is to say that General Milley isn’t an outstanding officer or can’t be a successful CJCS (particularly if he clarifies what he may have actually meant – or not – with respect to his “myths”).  Rather, it is more of a suggestion that words really do matter, and that some issues – the complexities of modern war, for example – simply don’t always lend themselves to bumper-sticker quotes or facile clichés.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!



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