In a confirmation hearing that covered everything from budget to national security threats to sexual assault prevention, two senators used their time to level with the nominee for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: How far are you willing to go to keep the president from doing something dangerous?
Army Gen. Mark Milley, currently the chief of staff of that service, told both that he would be willing to resign rather than follow an â€œillegal, unethical or immoral order.â€
â€œWe are not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions,â€ he said. â€œWe will give our best military advice regardless of consequences to ourselves.â€
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Army Secretary Mark Esper and Sergeant Major of the Army Daniel Dailey cut the Army birthday cake during the 243rd Army Birthday Ball on June 16, 2018. (Zane Ecklund/Army)
â€œThereâ€™s no more responsibility in your career than youâ€™ve had to make that statement,â€ Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, responded.
In his opening statement, Milley put a twist on the â€œgreat power competitionâ€ narrative that has dominated so much of the U.S. national security rhetoric lately.
“Our goal should be to sustain â€˜great power peace,â€™ that has existed since World War II, and deal firmly with all those who might challenge us,” he said.
There are concerns about whether that will endure, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said, under President Donald Trump.
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â€œIt had been my hope that as the president became more accustomed to the gravity of the office, he would over time become more conscientious and thoughtful with his comments,â€ Reed said. â€œUnfortunately, that has not been the case. Instead, our foreign policy continues to discount the value of long-time alliances and careens from one crisis to the next â€” oftentimes driven by the presidentâ€™s personality, and an apparent affinity for leaders who do not share our core American values, such as liberty, due process and freedom of the press.â€
Milleyâ€™s promotion to the Defense Departmentâ€™s top uniformed job comes as much of the senior leadership is in churn, with Army Secretary Mark Esper serving as acting defense secretary, and a nomination for an Air Force general to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under scrutiny as a past sexual misconduct investigation comes to light.
This, after the presumptive next defense secretary withdrew his nomination in late June after leaks of court records from his contentious divorce a decade ago.
â€œIn order to protect their freedoms, the American people entrust us with the nationâ€™s most valued resource: their sons and daughters,â€ Milley said. â€œThese men and women are the best military in the world, and our adversaries should not test that proposition.â€
Lawmakers from both parties were vocal about their support for Milley, both because of his testimony and because of his career. None voiced concerns over confirming him.
â€œHopefully, the military advice that you will provide [Trump] will alleviate miscalculation and unintended consequences,â€ Reed added.
Milleyâ€™s tenure as the Armyâ€™s top officer has been marked by massive changes: a new fitness test, the founding of the security force assistance brigade, overhauls to noncommissioned officer promotion and education, a new program of instruction at basic training, the founding of Army Futures Command, the first generation of women to serve in direct combat units, and what turned out to be a temporary repeal on the ban against openly transgender service members.
There have also been controversies. In late 2017, Milley found himself defending a decision to move waiver authority for accessions barriers like past drug use or self-mutilation from Army headquarters down to Army Recruiting Command, amid accusations that the Army was lowering standards for enlistment.
The accessions issue came up under questioning from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, on the Trump administrationâ€™s orders to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military.
The guidance came down in summer 2017, almost a year after the DoD began implementing a framework for transgender service members to declare their gender identity openly and begin a personalized transition process, if they chose.
They have been grandfathered in, but Trumpâ€™s move prevented the military from putting a complementary accessions policy into practice.
Now, transgender Americans are only able to join the military if theyâ€™ve not been treated for gender dysphoria â€• or if they have, theyâ€™ve been â€œstableâ€ for more than three years â€• and if they have not begun a medical transition, including hormones and surgery.
In effect, that narrows the window only to those who have been completely closeted, have not taken steps to transition to their preferred gender identity and/or have resolved any psychological issues without transitioning â€• a large part of the treatment plan for gender dysphoria â€• and requires they not begin a transition while they serve.
This policy is in addition to rules the services already have against enlisting and commissioning those who are currently being treated, or have a recent history of, any kind of anxiety or depression.
â€œFirst of all, itâ€™s not a ban, because a person from civil society can try to come into the military and become a soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine,â€ Milley said. â€œWhen they enter into the process, theyâ€™ll go through medical and physical exams, etc.â€
Milley referred to â€œgender dysphoria,” a psychological disorder characterized by the anxiety and depression that can come from feeling like your body doesnâ€™t match your gender identity.
According to the American Psychiatric Associationâ€™s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, gender nonconformity in general is not considered a psychiatric condition.
Technically, anyone can meet with a recruiter and begin the process, but as Milley pointed out, they would need a waiver to join. Whether any waiver would be approved under the narrow parameters for transgender accessions remains to be seen.
Asking if DoD would be implementing this policy if it werenâ€™t for Trumpâ€™s explicit demand, Milley deferred to standards.
â€œI think that, in my view, weâ€™re a standards-based military â€¦ and weâ€™re concerned about the deployability and the effectiveness of any of the service members,â€ he said. â€œIf you meet the medical, the behavioral health, the conduct standards, and the physical standards, etc. â€” then itâ€™s my view that you should be welcomed in.â€
In congressional testimony last year, Milley said he hadnâ€™t heard of an instance of an openly serving transgender soldier causing a readiness issue in his or her unit.
â€œI donâ€™t believe thereâ€™s anything inherent in anyoneâ€™s identity to prevent them from serving in the military. Itâ€™s about standards. Not an identity,â€ he added.