Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley testifies before the House Appropriations Committee-Defense on the Fiscal 2022 Department of Defense Budget in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room, May 27, 2021.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley testifies before the House Appropriations Committee-Defense on the Fiscal 2022 Department of Defense Budget in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room, May 27, 2021. (Brittany Chase/Department of Defense)

Ever since America’s mushroom clouds rose over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, generals whose fingers are always on the buttons have slept with their private nightmare and lived every waking hour determined to never let their bad dreams come true.

In showdowns, especially showdowns between nuclear nations, miscalculations can — and will — happen. It is not something generals talk about. But it is always there. And it has been known to bond opposing generals.

Today we will be reflecting upon the way seemingly unlikely friendships sometimes bond generals who, in history books, will appear to be steely adversaries. And how those general friendships sometimes ease superpowers away from war and into a coexistence that looks a lot like peace.

But first, we need to dispose of a little old business that pops up, now and then, here at the intersection of the news media, policy and politics.

Namely: There are secrets and then there are secrets. In journalism today, just because something was reported to be “secret,” doesn’t mean it wasn’t widely known about. Today, when something is labeled “secret” in a news leak, it mainly means it will get mega-more hits online than if the little scoop is just shoveled out there all by its lonesome, fact-filled self.

So it was the other day, when we all saw the scoop that breathlessly wallpapered all news screens with the revelation that the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, made two “secret” phone calls, in October and January, to his counterpart in China, People’s Liberation Army Gen. Li Zuocheng. Both times, America’s top general assured China’s top general that President Donald Trump wasn’t going to militarily attack China. Milley’s words appeared in direct quotations, gleaned from transcripts, in a new book, “Peril,” by The Washington Post’s Robert Woodward and Robert Costa.

But just to put all nuances in context, this wasn’t a case of a rogue general contacting his adversary and keeping it secret from his colleagues. Milley’s calls were part of a multilevel Pentagon effort, initiated by the office of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The calls were reportedly staffed, notated and shared within national security channels. The Pentagon’s civilian and military leaders had learned from U.S. intelligence that China’s leaders were convinced by their flawed intelligence that President Donald Trump was about to militarily attack China. Worse yet, the Pentagon’s leaders believed President Xi Jinping might launch a preemptive strike against America — igniting a war based on a miscalculation.

After Trump’s reelection defeat, China’s fears escalated as Trump’s instability and desperation worsened. Then, after the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, Pentagon officials feared Trump might launch a wag-the-dog military strike, hoping to postpone or cancel Joe Biden’s Inauguration Day.

In an act of patriotism and courage, Milley convened the joint chiefs and all signed a document calling the “violent riot” a “direct assault” on the U.S. government and Constitution. “To our men and women deployed and at home, safeguarding our country — stay ready, keep your eyes on the horizon, and remain focused on the mission.”

And on Jan. 8, Milley, desperate to save his country and prevent a war of miscalculation, called Li and said something we never heard a U.S. general tell an adversary: “General Li, you and I have known each other for now five years. If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

Peace, or at least an absence of war, happened.

Sometimes even generals who are nuclear adversaries slide into a friendship that catches both by surprise. Shortly after the attacks of 9/11, while reporting for a book and PBS documentary titled “Avoiding Armageddon,” I talked with Russia’s Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, who formerly commanded Russia’s nuclear forces, about the day he and U.S. Gen. Eugene Habiger, former commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, became, well, good friends.

Habiger invited Sergeyev to Middle America, escorted his Russian guest to the top of the top-secret U.S. Minuteman III platform, and showed him precisely how warheads were deployed on the missile. It was the first time a Russian general had ever seen an operational U.S. missile. “I saw many things in common between us,” Sergeyev said.

Generals know all too well the nightmare of miscalculation — especially nuclear miscalculation. But they rarely talk about it. Once, retired Pakistani Brig. Gen. Feroz Khan, a former battlefield commander, spoke candidly with me about how “the danger of inadvertence” can lead a general to mistakenly order a first use of a nuclear weapon.

“Once the conventional war breaks out, the fog of war sets in,” the general said. “… You have deceptions. You have misperceptions. You have communications breakdowns. … I can assure you that every general officer … anywhere in the world, would really understand what I am talking about.”

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

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