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The Escalating Politicization of the US Military

The Milley episode highlights a troubling trajectory in US civil-military relations. 

Words: Risa Brooks
Pictures: US Army

Last week the Washington Post sent shockwaves around the country when it published snippets from a soon-to-be-released book by two of its star journalists, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. The Post reported that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley inserted himself in the chain of command to check then President Donald Trump’s capacity to order a nuclear attack. It also said that the chairman purportedly told his Chinese military counterparts in two calls on Oct. 30, 2020 and Jan. 8, 2021 that the United States had no intention of attacking China.

The reporting unleashed a firestorm of competing narratives about what General Milley said and whether he was wrong or right. But, regardless of what actually happened, significant damage to US civil-military relations has been done.


The narratives about General Milley’s phone calls are divided into three camps. The first takes Woodward and Costa’s account at face value, contending that the general violated civilian control by: 1) Admonishing senior US officers to involve him should the president order a nuclear attack, and 2) by telling China that US intentions were benign, contrary to the Trump administration’s hardline approach. The second camp similarly accepts Woodward and Costa’s take, saying that even if General Milley violated civilian control, he did so for the greater good — preventing nuclear war, soothing tensions with the Chinese, and assuring them the country was stable despite the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Research shows that people might be just fine if the military did act like a player in domestic politics, especially if they think it is acting in support of their side, or at least not aiding their opponents.

A third camp questions what really happened, noting that there is minimal context provided for the quotes in the Post’s article on the Woodward and Costa book. After all, the first call to China happened in the context of established confidence-building measures between national security officials and their Chinese counterparts. Then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also says he approved General Milley’s October call. To be sure, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who was appointed after Donald Trump abruptly fired Esper following the election, says he did not approve the January call. But journalistic accounts show that both calls comported with established institutional processes.

The calls were made in the presence of more than a dozen officials, including those from the State Department, while other officials were on board with the larger effort. Also, while the chairman is not in the chain of command and there is no legal or doctrinal requirement that he be consulted, regular order and tradition provides that he be involved if the president is contemplating a nuclear strike. According to this interpretation, General Milley may have been reminding other senior officers of these conventions, rather than dictating he be given a veto over the president’s orders.


Regardless of what one believes though, the Post’s article about Woodward and Costa’s claims has reinforced three unhealthy features of US civil-military relations today.

The first is the public’s tendency to see civilian control through a partisan lens. Recent research has shown that people do not universally support the principle of civilian control,  especially when it comes to how much presidents should defer to the military. Instead, when their favored party holds the presidency, they are just fine with civilians overruling the generals. Not so much when the other party is in charge. Then they want the military to have a say — if not a veto — over what the president does.

The controversy over Milley’s purported actions will only reinforce this trend. Trump’s co-partisans will trumpet the norm of civilian control; his opponents will note there are exceptions for an unfit commander in chief. They will switch sides when President Joe Biden gets mired in controversy, a dynamic we see glimpses of with the administration’s management of the Afghanistan withdrawal. Either way, the chief casualty is public support and understanding of the principle of civilian control of the military.

The second casualty is public perceptions of the military as a nonpartisan actor. The military is supposed to be seen as working outside of partisan politics on behalf of all US citizens. Yet, increasingly the public sees political behavior by the military as normal, or at least as not unexpected. What narrative anyone believes — that General Milley was acting within regular channels or obstructing Trump — is beside the point. People now have the impression that acting like a partisan is not beyond the pale for military leaders, and may not be a bad thing.

This last point highlights the third implication. Research shows that people might be just fine if the military did act like a player in domestic politics, especially if they think it is acting in support of their side, or at least not aiding their opponents. One way we see this is the way that some retired officers have grown their followings on social media. They are rewarded with bigger profiles when they make statements liked by those that share their political views. Meanwhile, those retired officers that steer clear of partisan-laden commentary on social media get fewer followers. In other words, the public does not punish the military for acting like their partisan ally. Quite the opposite.


All of these trends also feed into and reinforce the politicization of the military that has been intensifying in recent years. Politicians of course have long sought to associate themselves with the military to capitalize on its popularity. But today some go even further, drawing the military into controversial political debates. This, after all, isn’t the first time General Milley has been in the news in recent months. After he responded to questions about his views on racial politics in Congressional testimony, he was lambasted by critics for being a “woke” general.

In that incident, as in today’s debate about Milley’s statements, some media outlets fed off the unhealthy trends in US civil-military relations, embracing an image of General Milley as one of the bad generals (that is, one who does not toe their partisan line). At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who praise him. To be fair, some commentators sought to combat General Milley’s politicization by clarifying why addressing racism in the ranks is important for the military, but such efforts today often get overtaken by the political maelstrom.

Put simply, the politicization of the military was well underway before Woodward and Costa wrote their book — and there are few signs the trend is going to reverse any time soon.

Dr. Risa Brooks is Allis Chalmers Associate Professor of Political Science at Marquette University, an adjunct scholar at West Point’s Modern War Institute, and a non-resident senior associate in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Risa Brooks

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