Milley defends democracy in farewell speech as Joint Chiefs chairman, says oath wasn’t to a ‘wannabe dictator’
Stars and Stripes September 29, 2023
WASHINGTON – Army Gen. Mark Milley on Friday sought to remind Americans on his final day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the U.S. military exists to defend democracy and not to serve a “wannabe dictator.”
“Today is not about anyone up here on this stage,” Milley said during his retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, located just west of the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. “It’s not about us. It’s about something much larger than us. It’s about democracy. It’s about our republic.”
Milley, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2018, formally turned over his duties on Friday to Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, who also attended the ceremony along with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Milley at times sounded fiery during his speech, particularly when he said the military’s top responsibility is to preserve and defend the Constitution. A week ago, Trump condemned Milley in a social media post for contacting the Chinese in late 2020 and early 2021 to assure them that war was not imminent. Milley’s calls were driven by his concerns over Trump’s ability as commander and chief.
A recent book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa said Milley had reached out to Beijing because he was seriously concerned about Trump’s actions in the wake of his defeat to Biden in 2020 and feared he could start a war with China. In his social post, Trump wrote the act was so “egregious” that “punishment would have been DEATH” in “times gone by.”
“We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion. We don’t take an oath to a king or a queen or a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator,” Milley said in his speech, an apparent swipe at Trump, who is a 2024 Republican presidential candidate. “We don’t take an oath to an individual. We take an oath to the Constitution.”
Milley criticized Trump’s post and said the attack led him to take safety precautions to protect himself and his family.
Milley, 65, graduated from Princeton University before he joined the Army in 1980, but he was later named an honorary member of the class of that year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. In the following four decades, he held a number of commands, including Army chief of staff, U.S. Army Forces Command, III Corps, the 10th Mountain Division and 2nd Brigade Combat Team. He actively served in U.S. military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Panama and earned numerous medals, including the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit.
“We, the United States military, will always be true to those who came before us. We will never, under any circumstances, turn our back on our duty,” Milley said. “We will never turn our back on the Constitution. That is our North Star, that is who we are and that is why we fight.”
For a time, it wasn’t known whether Brown would be able to assume his new post by Friday’s ceremony due to the ongoing block on hundreds of military promotions in the Senate by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala. Since February, Tuberville has been blocking the upper chamber from confirming large groups of military nominations and promotions due to his opposition to a Pentagon policy that reimburses service members who travel to another state to receive reproductive care, including abortions.
Tuberville can block mass voice vote confirmations, though he cannot unilaterally block the Senate from confirming nominees one by one. Last week, Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer forced a vote on Brown, who was confirmed by a vote of 83-11. Tuberville was one of the 11 Republicans who voted against him.
“I’m truly pleased that the United States Senate recently confirmed Gen. Brown as our next chairman,” Austin said at Friday’s ceremony. “But 367 of our outstanding general and flag officers are now grappling with the uncertainty of a blanket hold. So, I urge the Senate to swiftly confirm all of our distinguished military nominees.”
Biden also called out the block.
“It’s thoroughly, totally unacceptable that more than 300 other highly qualified officers are still in limbo. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s outrageous, and it must stop,” he said. “It’s a drag on our force. It impacts everything from readiness to morale to retention, and it’s an insult to the officers’ years of dedicated service. Our troops deserve so much better.”
With Milley’s retirement, Brown became the first Air Force general to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs since 2005. At Friday’s ceremony, Milley called Brown “a man of character and integrity.”
“When I became Air Force chief of staff three years ago, I expressed the need to accelerate change. My conviction has not wavered,” Brown said after he was sworn in Friday. “The journey of change must continue to strengthen our national security.”