Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Lays Out The Stakes

Heather Cox Richardson

On Friday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spoke in Arlington, Virginia, at a farewell ceremony before his retirement after four years in the position to which former president Trump appointed him. Milley’s position as the highest-ranking and most senior military officer in the United States Armed Forces and the nation’s top military advisor during a stretch of U.S. history in which a president tried to overturn the results of a presidential election and undermine our democracy made his tenure perhaps more difficult than any of his predecessors’.

Milley had been at Trump’s side at the start of the former president’s march across Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, to threaten Black Lives Matter protesters, although Milley peeled off when he recognized what was happening and later said he thought they were going to review National Guard troops. Since then, Milley has spoken out against strongman rule and vocally defended the U.S. Constitution.

The day after the debacle, Milley wrote a message to the joint force reminding every member that they swore an oath to the Constitution. “This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly…. As members of the Joint Force—comprised of all races, colors, and creeds—you embody the ideals of our Constitution,” he wrote. “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America,” he wrote by hand on the memo. “We will stay true to that oath and the American people.” 

Trump and his loyalists turned on Milley, and that fury has only increased. On September 22, 2023, former president Trump suggested that Milley, who has served in the military for more than 40 years, had committed what some would call treason when he reassured his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. would not attack in the last days of the Trump administration—an assurance administration officials signed off on—in the face of Trump’s increasingly erratic behavior. Milley has told associates that if Trump is reelected, he expects to be thrown into prison. 

Milley responded to Trump’s attempted intimidation in his farewell address. He began by thanking President Biden for his “unwavering leadership.” “I’ve seen you in the breach, I’ve seen you on the watch,” Milley told the president, “and I know firsthand that you’re a man of incredible integrity and character.” 

After thanks to the president and vice president and to his colleagues, friends, wife, and children, and after good wishes for the incoming chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States Air Force general Charles Q. “CQ” Brown, Milley went on to explain his principles for the nation. His speech did not mention any names, but it was nonetheless a sharp rebuke to former president Trump and those who would abandon our democracy in favor of a dictator:

“Today is not about anyone up here on this stage…. It’s about something much larger than all of us,” Milley said.

“It’s about our democracy. It’s about our republic…. It’s about the ideas and values that make up this great experiment in liberty. Those values and ideas are contained within the Constitution of the United States of America, which is the moral North Star for all of us who have the privilege of wearing the cloth of our nation. 

“It is that document…that gives purpose to our service. It is that document that gives purpose to our lives. It is that document that all of us in uniform swear to protect and defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

“That has been true across generations, and we in uniform are willing to die to pass that document off to the next generation. So it is that document that gives ultimate purpose to our death. The motto of our country is “E Pluribus Unum,” from the many, come one. We are one nation under God. We are indivisible, with liberty for all. And the motto of our army, for over 200 years…has been “This We’ll Defend,” and the “this” refers to the Constitution….

“You see, we in uniform are unique…among the world’s armies. We are unique among the world’s militaries. We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion. We don’t take an oath to a king or a queen or to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don’t take an oath to an individual. 

“We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it.…

“Those who sacrificed themselves on the altar of freedom in the last two and a half centuries of this country must not have done so in vain. The millions wounded in our nation’s wars did not sacrifice their limbs and shed their blood to see this great experiment in democracy perish from this earth. No. We the United States military will always be true to those that came before us. We will never, under any circumstances, turn our back on our duty….

“From the earliest days, before we were even a nation, our military stood…in the breach, has suffered the crucible of combat, and has stood the watch and defended liberty for all Americans. Each of us signs a blank check to this country to protect our freedom. The blood we spill pays for our freedom of speech. Our blood pays for the right to assemble, our due process, our freedom of the press, our right to vote, and all the other rights and privileges that come with being an American…. 

“We the American people, we the American military, must never turn our back on those that came before us. And we will never turn our back on the Constitution. That is our North Star, that is who we are, and that is why we fight.”

It was a pointed statement, coming as it did from the highest-ranking military officer of the U.S. as he voluntarily stepped down from his position.

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