Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley in Tampa, FL, March 2019. CREDIT: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro. (CC).

General Milley's Ethical Dilemma: The Letter That Was Never Sent

Aug 30, 2022

More than two years after President Trump's infamous stroll across Washington, DC’s Lafayette Square Park, General Mark Milley has gone public with his unsent letter of resignation penned shortly after the June 1, 2020 debacle.

In the letter, Milley addresses Trump in withering fashion: "It is my belief you were doing great and irreparable harm to my country . . . you are using the military to create fear in the minds of the American people—and we are trying to protect the American people. I cannot stand idly by and participate in that attack, verbally or otherwise, on the American people."

Although the words Milley drafted seem admirable, we must ask ourselves: What are the ethics of an unsent letter?

Such letters can be a sign of virtue. Many a life coach has suggested the value of venting, putting an overheated letter in a drawer, and getting on with the task at hand. For Milley, the stakes were exceptionally high. Could he serve a leader "using the military to create fear in the minds of the American people?"

Trump's relationships with the generals he appointed to the highest positions in his administration often soured quickly and in spectacular fashion. The details are reported colorfully by Susan Glasser and Peter Baker in an excerpt from their new book The Divider: Trump in the White House.

Along with Trump’s fondness for military parades and his forthright adulation for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, his incessant use of the term “my generals” should have set off alarm bells from the very beginning.

The first principle of civilian control of the military is reflected in the fact that soldiers pledge an oath to the Constitution, not to the president. Ironically, the high-level military officers close to Trump who understood this principle most deeply are the ones who failed repeatedly to defend it vigorously in public.

Perhaps the most critical and dramatic test came when the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd arrived on the streets just outside the White House. President Trump demanded a forceful response, and he expected “his” military to provide it.

One look at the photo of the president walking through Lafayette Square Park along with his Secretary of Defense Esper, Attorney General Barr, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley speaks volumes. Milley striding along in his combat fatigues, suggested that the U.S. military was taking part in the forceful removal of peaceful protestors. It was nothing less than a whiff of fascism, topped off by Trump’s waving of an upside-down bible in front of St. John’s Church.

Milley understood his error at once and issued an apology saying: "I should not have been there. My presence at that moment and in that environment created a feeling that the military is involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we can all learn from it."

U.S. generals have a particularly stringent line to walk when it comes to partisan politics. But Milley's situation tested the well-established, revered line of impartiality, as Trump was deliberately attempting to use the armed forces as his personal guard and for blatantly political purposes.

But after consulting with former secretary of defense Robert Gates and other colleagues, Milley decided not to resign, and not to send his letter. He would stay to fend off the continuous and growing threats from within, including fears that Trump might start a war with Iran, withdraw troops without warning from Afghanistan, and invoke the Insurrection Act if street demonstrations broke out around the time of the election.

In his favor, Milley can claim some success in that none of the above threats happened. But there can be no doubt that Milley, Esper, and others also were unsuccessful in curtailing Trump’s worst excesses ahead of the 2020 election and the insurrection that followed.

Milley's failure to release his letter and resign in 2020 is in keeping with a pattern of behavior that enabled Trump in the first place: Many high-ranking officials had damaging information, fears, and misgivings but chose to hide them from the American public until after the election of 2020 and even longer. Esper was especially egregious in this regard, keeping his story concealed until he sold it in his richly titled memoir A Sacred Oath.

Former national security advisor John Bolton also set a new low standard, refusing to testify at Trump's second impeachment trial in favor of sharing what he knows about the president’s unfitness in his memoir The Room Where It Happened. Apparently, the American people can only gain access to the "room" by purchasing his book.

Milley’s decision to table his letter—while not commercially driven—can be seen in a similar light. For all its eloquence, it embodies the emptiness of an action not taken. A nice thought, but nearly meaningless in the course of human events. The information is powerful. But the moment was missed.

After-the-fact eloquence is not admirable. And in this case, it confirms the failures that led directly to the events of January 6.

As we approach the 2024 election, it is essential we understand the forces that enabled Trump's rise and his continuing hold on millions of voters across the country. Understanding the circumstances and consequences of Milley's unsent letter supplies a key piece of the puzzle.

General Milley is likely to spend much more time and effort supplying context for his decision. Yet he will find the inevitable truth that when a moment like this is missed, it is impossible to retrieve.

Joel H. Rosenthal is president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Subscribe to his President’s Desk newsletter to receive future columns translating ethics, analyzing democracy, and examining our increasingly interconnected world.

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