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 “illegal, unethical or immoral order.”
“We are not going to be intimidated into making stupid decisions,” he said. “We will give our best military advice regardless of consequences to ourselves.”
“There’s no more responsibility in your career than you’ve had to make that statement,” Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, responded.
In his opening statement, Milley put a twist on the “great power competition” narrative that has dominated so much of the U.S. national security rhetoric lately.
"Our goal should be to sustain ‘great power peace,’ 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.
“It 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,” Reed said. “Unfortunately, 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 — oftentimes driven by the president’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.”
Milley’s promotion to the Defense Department’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.
“In order to protect their freedoms, the American people entrust us with the nation’s most valued resource: their sons and daughters,” Milley said. “These men and women are the best military in the world, and our adversaries should not test that proposition.”
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.
“Hopefully, the military advice that you will provide [Trump] will alleviate miscalculation and unintended consequences,” Reed added.
Milley’s tenure as the Army’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 administration’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 Trump’s move prevented the military from putting a complementary accessions policy into practice.
Now, transgender Americans are only able to join the military if they’ve not been treated for gender dysphoria ― or if they have, they’ve been “stable” for more than three years ― and if they have not begun a medical transition, including hormones and surgery.
The chiefs' support runs counter to the president's position that some transgender service may harm unit morale.
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 ― a large part of the treatment plan for gender dysphoria ― 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.
“First of all, it’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,” Milley said. “When they enter into the process, they’ll go through medical and physical exams, etc.”
Milley referred to “gender dysphoria," a psychological disorder characterized by the anxiety and depression that can come from feeling like your body doesn’t match your gender identity.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’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 weren’t for Trump’s explicit demand, Milley deferred to standards.
“I think that, in my view, we’re a standards-based military … and we’re concerned about the deployability and the effectiveness of any of the service members,” he said. “If you meet the medical, the behavioral health, the conduct standards, and the physical standards, etc. — then it’s my view that you should be welcomed in.”
In congressional testimony last year, Milley said he hadn’t heard of an instance of an openly serving transgender soldier causing a readiness issue in his or her unit.
“I don’t believe there’s anything inherent in anyone’s identity to prevent them from serving in the military. It’s about standards. Not an identity,” he added.