OSLO, Norway — On a frigid U.S. air base in Germany, the top U.S. military officer was in his element. Striding along the training area in his fatigues, Army Gen. Mark Milley bellowed at the Ukrainian troops gathered around him.
“Slava Ukraini!” he hollered, again and again, the “glory to Ukraine” battle cry. A bit nervously, the Ukrainians shouted back the traditional response, “Heroyam slava,” meaning glory to the heroes.
It was a classic scene of a powerful general rallying the troops, but one that would have made Biden administration officials wince. They’ve consistently stressed that this is Ukraine’s war, not America’s, as they fear further escalating tensions with Moscow.
But Milley can’t help himself when he is in battle mode. He yelled encouragement and bantered with the soldiers as they learned how to use American weapons. Soon they’ll be back on the front lines fighting the Russians, he told them, so they’ll need to fight hard and use what they have learned.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley has spent the better part of the last two years rallying allies to provide weapons for the Ukrainian forces. But as he leaves office at the end of the month, his work to support Ukraine will be just one part of a complicated and fractious legacy.
Known for his boisterous exuberance and blunt talk that can dominate a room, Milley is both loved and reviled. His four-year term has careened from one crisis to another — the pandemic, Ukraine war, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Chinese spy balloon, June 2020 racial protests in Washington, and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on Capitol Hill.
His charisma and outspokenness may have initially endeared him to then-President Donald Trump, who rejected his Pentagon leaders’ choice for chairman and chose Milley. But as time went on the general enraged his boss and became a target of the conservative right.
Milley pushed back against a host of Trump’s plans, including demands to pull all troops out of Iraq and Syria, his desire to put active-duty troops on Washington’s streets to counter racial protests, and his move to ban service by transgender men and women.
Several published books have also described Milley’s deep concerns about Trump’s fitness as commander in chief and his worries that Trump would try to use the military in his effort to block the election of President Joe Biden. And Republicans demanded his resignation following revelations that he spoke twice to his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that the U.S. would not launch a surprise attack. Trump has slammed Milley as a “dumbass” and a failed leader, and some Republicans call him a traitor.
Milley has defended the China outreach as routine and rebuffed charges of insubordination for making calls to tamp down worries he heard from other nations that Trump might start a war in his last weeks as president. Milley’s persistent mantra, which he repeated to Congress, is that his loyalty is “to this nation, its people and the Constitution” and that “as long as I have a breath to give, my loyalty is absolute.”
Pointing to the China call as treasonous, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, demanded Biden fire Milley, saying his actions undermine the president and threaten “to tear apart our nation’s longstanding principle of civilian control of the military.”
Others defend him. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who served with Milley, called him “the most consequential” chairman since World War II, adding that “Trump was and is a danger to our democracy.”
Long a fervent advocate of keeping the military out of politics, Milley violated that tenet on June 1, 2020, when he was part of a Trump entourage that strolled from the White House and through Lafayette Square to a nearby church as racial protests raged. There Trump held up a Bible for photographers. Milley, realizing his misstep, slipped away.
Milley later apologized, telling students at the National Defense University that “my presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. … As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”
And he’s acknowledged writing a resignation letter in the aftermath, but he never delivered it, believing that a soldier shouldn’t quit.
The incident was a no-win situation and Milley drew fire from both sides: first for appearing to back Trump at that incendiary moment for the country and later when Trump supporters slammed him as disloyal.
Trump and others also condemn him as a “woke” general for backing diversity and equality programs that they say have made the military left-leaning and weak. Milley says the charges are offensive, arguing that troops should be schooled in these issues but that the majority of their time is spent preparing to defend the nation.
“Under Milley, our military has become politicized and trust in the military is in free fall,” Republican Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida wrote recently on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “His retirement couldn’t come soon enough.” Air Force Gen. CQ Brown has been confirmed as the next chairman and will take over on Oct. 1.
As he traveled across Europe last week, his military counterparts took moments to say goodbye and praise his leadership on Ukraine. His clashes with Trump were raised as a tribute to his steadfast devotion to democracy.
“Perhaps we at this table are among the few people who can even begin to comprehend the pressure you have been under, also from the political level,” Adm. Rob Bauer of the Netherlands, who chairs NATO’s military committee, said during a closed session of the group in Oslo. “At a time when your nation’s constitutional values were shaken to their core, you made sure that the U.S. military continued to embody the values and ideals of the nation.”
Observers said Milley was moved by the remarks, delivered privately to the NATO chiefs of defense who were seated around a large table at the close of a meeting on Ukraine aid. Bauer said Milley “prevented many a crisis from spiraling out of control,” both in the U.S. and around the world, and continued to fight even though “there were mornings when you didn’t know if you would be fired by sunset.”
Milley is not a man of few words.
The Irish Catholic from the Boston suburbs is an inexhaustible storyteller and fervent teacher, whose answer to a simple question can extend for 20 minutes and include everything from in-depth battle details from throughout history to broad strategic conclusions. His conversations are peppered with references to long-ago conflicts — from the ancient Peloponnesian War that raged between Athens and Sparta in 404 B.C. to World War II. And he’ll use whatever is at hand — salt shakers, silverware or hand-scrawled maps on notebook paper — to illustrate battles past and present.
Then there’s the eyebrows — a wide, bushy, slash across his forehead that moves to punctuate his emotions, from bursts of anger to twinkling humor. Bauer, in his remarks at the military meeting, recalled one former NATO commander would always jokingly tell Milley to shave his eyebrows.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Bauer said. “Because I think your big bellowing voice and bulky eyebrows are the most important signs of deterrence we have. No one wants to be on the other side of that.”
His favorite topic is the changing character of war — how it has shifted over the centuries and how space, cyber, AI and technology will alter future battlefields. And, as with many of the current three-star and four-star U.S. officers, his views are colored by the troops lost under his command during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
He knows their names. And at every chance — from those deployments to today — he mingles with troops and veterans, seeking their stories and peppering them with questions about their time in battle. He often quotes one World War II veteran at the Normandy American Cemetery who begged him to make sure a war like that never happens again.
In fact, preventing the next war has been a theme throughout his tenure, particularly as he reassured dozens of foreign counterparts in the tumultuous days after the 2020 election that while democracy can be messy, the U.S. government was stable, there would be no crazy military actions and the transition of power would be peaceful.
He has declared publicly many times that he answers not to a king or a tyrant, but to a document, the U.S. Constitution. And when asked to provide final comments during his testimony to a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, he went immediately to that core belief.
“This republic means something. It means something to me. I’ve buried a lot of soldiers, and my dad and mom fought in World War II,” he said. “This country means something, and that Constitution means something. And it’s bigger than us, bigger than any one of us, and we’ve got to protect it. If we don’t protect it, then God help us down the road.”
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