I was taken by surprise yesterday when general Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military person in the US, issued a strong condemnation of the confederacy in his congressional testimony, calling it an “act of treason” and confederate leaders as traitors. This was surprising because Donald Trump, who is the commander in chief of the US armed forces and thus Milley’s ultimate boss, has opposed the removal of monuments and other symbols of the confederacy using coded language aimed to appeal to white nationalists, such as “protecting the nation’s heritage” and “preserving history”. In particular, Trump said that he would oppose the renaming of military bases named after confederate leaders, even to the extent of threatening to veto any defense bill that contains such provisions. Since Trump likes to pander to the military, he is unlikely to condemn Milley’s remarks the way he would have done if anyone else had made those statements. But it must rankle him.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley on Thursday condemned Confederate leaders as traitors and said he supports a review of Army bases named after those who fought against the Union, a viewpoint that puts him at odds with the commander in chief.
Pressed by Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) about the 10 Army installations named for Confederate leaders, Milley told the House Armed Services Committee that the military needs “to take a hard look at the symbology” of the Civil War — such as base names, display of the Confederate battle flag and statues — as well as improve in other areas such as “the substance of promotions.
“The American Civil War … was an act of treason at the time against the Union, against the Stars and Stripes, against the U.S. Constitution — and those officers turned their backs on their oath,” Milley said. “Now, some have a different view of that. Some think it’s heritage. Others think it’s hate.”
“The way we should do it matters as much as that we should do it. So we need to have, I’ve recommended, a commission of folks to take a hard look at the bases, the statues, the names, all of this stuff, to see if we can have a rational, mature discussion.”
Brown also pushed Defense Secretary Mark Esper about plans for a military-wide ban on the Confederate flag. The Marine Corps has already banned the flag’s display and the Navy has announced it’s formulating a similar order.
A draft plan for a department-wide ban has been circulating among Pentagon brass, according to multiple reports this week. Esper told Brown that he has “a process underway” to examine “substantive and symbolic” issues.
Why did Milley use such strong language when he could have danced around the issue? It is possible that he does feel that strongly about the confederacy. Or it could be that there have been rumblings about how the military is allowing Trump to it as a political prop. For example, Milley was strongly criticized for taking part in the infamous photo op in front of a church in Washington, DC after peaceful protestors had been forcibly cleared by a large number of armed personnel from a variety of government agencies. He later apologized, saying that he regretted taking part
“I should not have been there,” Milley told the National Defense University in a pre-recorded video commencement address.
“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
Milley and defense secretary Mark Esper were widely criticized for participating in the photo-op, with many former defense officials saying the two were helping Trump’s efforts to politicize the military.
The US military is the biggest single drain on the US government, responsible for a huge part of its budget. They know that they need to stay in the good graces of the US public, and to both major political parties, to continue to feed at that trough and hitching their wagons to Trump’s fading star is something they want to avoid.