Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported in their new book, Peril, that just before and after the 2020 election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, reached out to his Chinese counterpart to assure him about the stability of the United States. The news that this was done without the approval of the commander in chief, President Donald Trump, or Trump’s even knowing the calls had taken place, was met with appreciation among Democrats and laceration among Republicans.
While what Milley did was probably not in violation of the Constitution, he did in this instance deviate from the norm. He violated the principal of civilian control of the military. One might, then, reasonably argue, as many Republicans have, that Milley should be reprimanded or even fired. Or one might take a different perspective, which is to say that on rare occasions rules that are entrenched and even enshrined should be broken.
What General Milley did cannot be understood separate and apart from the context within which he did it. Nor can it be understood separate and apart from his own experience of President Trump. Nor cannot it be understood separate and apart from an understanding of what constitutes good and bad leadership – and good and bad followership.
- The context that was the White House in the weeks and months before and after the 2020 election was chaotic and unreliable. Moreover, the president himself was erratic and unstable.
- The general had a previous encounter with the president in which the former openly took on the latter. In June 2020 Trump obliged Milley to be part of a photo op preceded by the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters. Immediately after the photo op was over, Milley was deeply embarrassed – both by the ugly episode and by his participation in it. “I should not have been there,” he said a short time later. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from.”
- Questions: What does a good follower do when he or she is in the grip of a bad leader, a very bad leader? Fall into line? Follow orders? Or refuse to fall into line? Refuse to follow orders?
I do not mean to minimize what could be a difficult moral dilemma with considerable or even severe consequences. Still, if “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” can Milley be fairly faulted for doing something?