Gen. Dunford, steady force at the Pentagon, gives way to Gen. Milley as new Joint Chiefs chairman

Joint Chairman Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford speaks to members of the media during his first joint news conference with Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper at the Pentagon in Washington on Aug. 28, 2019.


By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 1, 2019

WASHINGTON — Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford walked out of the Pentagon on Monday for the final time as the top U.S. military officer. For four years — marked by drastically different White House administrations — Dunford worked to set the example of an apolitical military leader, hyperfocused on his job as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Since October 2015, when he was sworn in as the 19th chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Dunford has provided unfiltered and often unheralded military advice and options to former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, a trio of defense secretaries and two acting Pentagon chiefs, according to several current and past defense officials. He kept his distance from both presidents, but he also earned their respect and trust, according to the officials, who worked with or for Dunford during his 42 years in uniform. Many of the officials requested to speak anonymously about the general’s tenure as chairman.

“Joe Dunford set the standard for a chairman, especially as some military norms have been challenged in recent years,” said one former senior Pentagon official who worked with Dunford in recent years. “He rarely, if ever, got flustered. If he disagreed with the decisions coming out of the White House or wherever — and certainly sometimes he did — he remained professional. People didn’t see that. He was always cool.”

On Monday, on a gray, rain-soaked northern Virginia morning, Dunford administered the oath of office to his longtime friend and successor, Army Gen. Mark Milley, who officially took on the duties Tuesday as the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Minutes into Trump’s speech at the event welcoming his new top general, the president described Milley in a way that he would never have of Dunford — he called the incoming chairman “my friend.”


A ‘quiet mind’ and a ‘hard charger’

For everything that Dunford and Milley have in common — they are both combat-proven, career military officers from Massachusetts with unwavering commitments to the men and women of the U.S. military as well as to Boston sports teams — it is their differences that likely convinced Trump to appoint Milley, 61, to the office, some of the officials said. Milley is a Princeton University-educated Green Beret who has fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and Panama.

Officials described Milley as a “hard charger” known to espouse bluntly his opinions on various topics. He is quick with a smile and has an affinity for change. Milley was instrumental in the creation of the Army’s new combat adviser units known as Security Force Assistance Brigades as well as the service’s creation of Futures Command, meant to modernize quickly the weapons and gear soldiers use on the battlefield. One Army official said Milley was “all in” on opening front-line combat and special operations positions to women, whereas Dunford was reported to have opposed it.

Two of the officials said Dunford, 63, was calculating, especially in his handling of Trump. He would present options on topics and describe what he believed would be the eventual outcomes of those options if they were used. The officials said Dunford was weary of impulsive decisions that could send the military toward a new war — such as Trump’s menacing tweets threatening “fire and fury” toward North Korea early in his administration, or more recently, considerations of a strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of an American drone over the Persian Gulf.

Foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius wrote last month in the Washington Post that Trump sometimes would ask Dunford for his opinion on the military options that he presented.

“I’m not in love with any of them,” Dunford would answer, according to an unnamed four-star general Ignatius interviewed. “My job is to give you choices.”

As Dunford’s retirement approached, praise for him came in droves from top leaders with whom he worked closely.

A longtime friend, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, himself a retired four-star Marine, told Ignatius that Dunford was “a man for all seasons.”

“Joe has a quiet mind, not easily distracted,” Mattis said. “He quantifies things, but he brings in the nonquantifiable. Still waters run deep in him. You simply can’t shake his faith in his fundamental values.”

Trump on Monday described Dunford as “one of America’s most admired and beloved military leaders,” and Milley stated he had “big shoes to fill.”

Dunford “will leave behind a legacy of steady leadership, solid judgment and sincere humility that will remain with us and inspire us long after he departs,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper added during the ceremony Monday at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to the Pentagon.

The departing chairman, himself, chose not to speak publicly about his retirement at the ceremony welcoming Milley. A Joint Staff spokesman said the decision was not unusual and was meant to maintain focus on welcoming Milley. Through the spokesman, Dunford also declined interview requests ahead of his retirement.

‘Solid, stable’ leadership

Dunford weathered well the less-conventional challenges presented by Trump, who seemed to make decisions on a whim and sometimes without consulting experts, including Dunford. The Marine general, for example, was not warned before Trump suddenly announced via Twitter in August 2017 his intention to disallow transgender men and women from military service, prompting Dunford to issue an awkward statement to his force hours later, clarifying that nothing had changed officially. A version of that policy, which allowed transgender troops who are serving to remain in the military, eventually went into place more than a year later, but it continues to face legal challenges.

Dunford ensured stability in a tenure marked by changes in the international security environment and within the military, itself. During Dunford’s time as chairman, the U.S. military and its allies in Syria and Iraq destroyed the physical Islamic State caliphate, built up operations in Europe meant to dissuade Russian aggression, and ramped up missions in Africa targeting terrorist organizations. The military increased training operations in South Korea before ending its large-scale training events with South Korean troops as diplomatic negotiations began with North Korea.

Dunford and Mattis also led the Pentagon as it turned its attention largely to Russia and China, introducing the Defense Department’s shift to great-power competition and its focus on preparing for major combat operations with an enemy having similar military abilities to the U.S.

Dunford led with a steady hand through it all, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Dakota Wood, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington.

“Stability, seriousness, he brought a methodical approach to using, as best we can, the resources that were available to the military services,” Wood said. “Everyone I know who knows Gen. Dunford … is just really impressed by his sense of professionalism and his calm demeanor and approach. He’s a solid, stable professional that demanded the best work of his people — detailed stuff without being micromanaging.”

Eschewing politics

Dunford has long touted the need for the military to remain removed from politics and behind closed doors, and he has made such assertions to Trump, some of the officials said. The officials said they were confident that Milley, whose personality could lead him to a more chummy relationship with Trump than his predecessors, would maintain that effort.

“I’ve worked very hard to remain apolitical and not make political judgments … and make sure that our men and women in uniform have the wherewithal to do their job,” Dunford said in an August news briefing at the Pentagon, his final on-the-record interaction with defense reporters.

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel and a senior adviser with the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said previous administrations — Republican and Democratic — have long pushed to use the military in their politics, but Trump has taken rare steps.

“Trump, of course, has taken that to a whole new level, in that he’s actively tried to make the military props for his partisan speeches,” Cancian said. “And Dunford, I think, was one of the bulwarks to keep the military as apolitical as possible. And I think he succeeded.”

The general considered that among his most important roles.

People should not expect Dunford ever to air any grievances or to describe publicly his relationships with either Trump or Obama, the officials said. Dunford made that clear in August.

“I will not now, nor will I, when I take off the uniform, make judgments about the president of the United States, the commander in chief,” Dunford said at his last Pentagon news briefing. “I just won’t do it.”

In his final message to the U.S. military last week, Dunford focused on the men and women who will remain in the service instead of talking about any of his own accomplishments.

“What an honor it has been to serve alongside you, and to represent you here in Washington, D.C., and across the globe,” Dunford said in a video message to the force. “More importantly, I wanted to take a minute to simply thank you for who you are and what you do.

“It’s because of you that I am confident that we can defend the homeland and our way of life. It’s because of you that we have earned the trust and confidence of allies and partners around the world. It’s because of you that people believe in America.”

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

An Armed Forces Welcome Ceremony in honor of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark A. Milley is held at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va., on Sept. 30, 2019. The ceremony was hosted by President Donald Trump and included remarks by Vice President Michael Pence and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.