Gen. Mark Milley ’80’s term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ends precisely at midnight on Sept. 30. At that moment Milley, the 20th Joint Chiefs chair, will be succeeded by Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. Theoretically, that is.
As of early August, all military promotions requiring Senate confirmation are being blocked by Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville. If no successor is confirmed by the end of September, Milley will be succeeded by the current vice chair, Adm. Christopher Grady. No matter what happens, the timing of the turnover is set by statute, and if Milley has demonstrated anything, it is a commitment to the orderly transfer of power.
“Our military is an apolitical, nonpartisan institution in American society, and we need to be like that for the health of the republic,” he summarizes in an interview with PAW. “We are not elected. We have no role in politics.”
Events at home, though, have hardly been his sole focus. As the senior military adviser to the president, the secretary of defense, and the National Security Council, Milley has been closely involved in all aspects of American national security policy. Some, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and efforts to manage conflict with China, have been on the front pages. Others, such as counterterrorism operations and efforts to prevent North Korea and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, have been less public. The chairmain of the Joint Chiefs does not give orders, but he does ensure that orders from above are properly disseminated and executed.
A less appreciated part of Milley’s legacy may be reshaping how the United States fights. Like many analysts, he believes we are going through a fundamental change in the character of warfare and is trying to adapt the military to account for it. Believing, as well, that a well-trained soldier is a well-educated soldier, Milley has commissioned a report from the U.S. Army War College on the implications of climate change and supported the inclusion of courses in the service academies that examine critical race theory. These have led some to charge that he is making the military too “woke.”
As he moves through the final weeks in office, Milley says he is too busy to consider his legacy. Until the stroke of midnight on Sept. 30, his entire focus will be on his job, which he summarizes as defending the country and the Constitution. “You have to keep your eye on the ball on current operations,” Milley says. “We are in a very dynamic world.” Nevertheless, he has made time this year for an abbreviated victory lap, accepting awards such as the French Legion of Honor, and headlining several Princeton events. In May, Milley returned to campus again for the ROTC commissioning ceremony with a CBS film crew in tow, getting B-roll for a 60 Minutes interview scheduled to air later this month.
When he was sworn in as Joint Chiefs chairman in 2019, Milley repeated the oath that he and every member of the U.S. armed forces takes upon induction, swearing to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is still hard to believe that, unlike almost all his predecessors, Milley has had to face both.
Visitors to Milley’s office in the Pentagon are sometimes given a treat. If the mood strikes him, Milley reaches into a desk drawer, pulls out a piece of paper, and shows it off with bemusement and perhaps a little pride. It is a $30 million fatwa, or bounty, issued by a prosecutor’s office in Tehran, which he received in the mail shortly after the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in 2020. If you feel like killing me, Milley jokes, I’m worth $30 million to you.
Although Milley may look like a general out of central casting, he is bluff and unpretentious in person, taking his work much more seriously than he takes himself. At public appearances, he personally hands out Joint Chiefs of Staff challenge coins to guests. (They resell for $150 or more on eBay.) Although he has earned master’s degrees from Columbia University and the Naval War College, Milley enjoys making light of his academic record, claiming, for example, that he received seven extensions on his Princeton senior thesis about guerrilla warfare and the Irish Republican Army.
“I was in the part of the class that made the top half possible,” Milley told the crowd at the ROTC ceremony, to roars of laughter. “Sometimes the world is run by C students, I guess.”
Nevertheless, Gen. Christopher Cavoli ’87, head of U.S. European Command, who has worked closely with Milley for decades, calls him “a brilliant guy and not afraid to share his thoughts with you. He’s extremely candid.”
Milley is also well-read, apt to bolster his conversation with observations by military theorists across the ages, such as Sun Tzu and Thucydides. Not one to indulge in hot takes, Milley recognizes that the chair of the Joint Chiefs is, above all, a policy adviser, so he rides his staff for information until he understands an issue from all angles and can anticipate questions. “He wants to be armed with every fact, and spares no effort or time to feel comfortable,” Cavoli says. “It takes hours for Gen. Milley’s appetite for facts to be satiated, but that’s what gives him his power.” When Milley does speak, he tends to speak in paragraphs; before an interview, an aide warns that, depending on how his day is going, the general’s answers tend to range “from long to very long.”
These characteristics were on display in a private meeting with the 14 ROTC cadets in May before their commissioning ceremony. Milley spoke to each one individually, peppering them about their backgrounds, academic interests, and plans. Learning that Abigail McRae ’23, who was joining the Marine Corps, is fluent in Chinese, Milley suggested that she would be a good candidate for Marine intelligence school and had an aide take down her name. “I don’t know if that’s really what you want,” he told McRae with a sly smile a short while later before a crowd in the Nassau Hall Faculty Room, “but it’s possibly what you’ll get.”
Raised in Winchester, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, Milley remains an avid fan of all Boston sports teams, especially the Patriots and Bruins. He attributes his love of history to his parents, who took their three children along the Freedom Trail, to Washington, D.C., and to Civil War battlefields. Both of Milley’s parents served in the Navy during World War II, his father as a corpsman, his mother as a nurse. “They were typical of their generation,” he told PAW in a 2016 interview. “All our neighbors — to a man — served in some capacity. They would talk about that and as a kid you picked up on it.”
Nevertheless, Milley’s parents discouraged him from applying to West Point, urging him to get a better-rounded education instead. Milley’s older brother attended Harvard, and Milley, a standout ice hockey player at Belmont Hill School, chose Princeton, where he majored in politics, earned extra money tending bar and selling hot dogs for the Student Weenie Agency, and served in the ROTC.
Hockey has been a bond tying Milley to his alma mater, but his career with the Tigers was rocky. A tough-nosed defenseman who lost four teeth and suffered a broken jaw, Milley played regularly as a freshman but lost favor when Jack Semler, the coach who recruited him, left, and the new coach, Jim Higgins, preferred a different style of play. Milley’s ice time dwindled, and his senior year he captained the JV. Ex-teammates say Milley has confided that this period toughened him up as much as anything in his early life.
After graduation, Milley intended to serve his four-year commitment in the Army and then go to law or business school. Assignment by assignment, though, he stayed on — first until he became a company commander, then until he became a major, then a battalion commander. On Sept. 11, 2001, Milley was a colonel, stationed in Hawaii, with 21 years of service, and on that day, his calculus changed. “I said, my nation is at war, and I can’t leave until that’s complete,” he told PAW in 2016.
The details of Milley’s career can be read on his dress uniform. There are, of course, the four general’s stars on each shoulder. On his chest are a Combat Infantryman badge with a star, Master Parachutist badge, Scuba Diver badge, and eight rows of service ribbons collectively about half the size of a license plate. These rows represent Milley’s more than 50 individual honors, with multiple Defense Distinguished Service Medals, Army Distinguished Service Medals, Defense Superior Service Medals, Legion of Merits, and Bronze Stars. A Ranger tab and Special Forces tab adorn his left sleeve.
The most telling detail, though, is on the right sleeve, which features a series of gold stripes, known as overseas service bars. Each represents six months in a theater of war. Milley has 10 of them, adding up to five full years in war zones around the world including Panama, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In 2005, while serving in Iraq as a colonel with the 10th Mountain Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, Milley sprinted across a minefield to warn an approaching M1 Abrams tank that it was about to run over a hidden bomb. When a junior member of Milley’s team nominated him for a medal for valor, Milley refused, saying, “Those kinds of awards are for soldiers.”
Scott Sillcox ’81, a longtime friend and former teammate, recalls Milley speaking at a ceremony at Fort Drum in 2005 when he turned over command of the 10th Mountain Division. Milley had lost nearly two dozen men during his tour, and he took pains to mention each one by name in his remarks. “I would bet anything that he could still recite every one of their names today off the top of his head,” Sillcox says. “He really values his soldiers.” On his upper arm, Milley bears a 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade, tattoo.
Milley earned his first general’s star in 2008, his second in 2011, third in 2012, and fourth in 2014. In addition to tours overseas and several other commands, Milley headed the U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Liberty, North Carolina (formerly called Fort Bragg), and served in the Pentagon as an assistant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ’54. In 2015, President Barack Obama nominated him to be Army Chief of Staff, and in 2019, President Donald Trump named him chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He was confirmed by the Senate, 89-1.
Milley took command of the army as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down, but he was determined to put reforms in place that would prevent a repeat of mistakes the U.S. had made there. Rather than train local allied armies on an ad hoc basis, Milley oversaw the creation of new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs), which will provide a permanent force that can be deployed to help advise, train, and support foreign militias faster and more effectively. Wesley Morgan ’11, former military correspondent for Politico and author of The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley, says that SFABs are Milley’s attempt to ensure that, “even as it modernizes, the Army doesn’t forget the very hard lessons, often learned in failure, of Iraq and Afghanistan.” In 2018, Milley pushed for creation of the Army Futures Command, which will work to streamline the development and deployment of new generations of weaponry.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Milley has broadened his focus to consider all branches of the military. The changing character of warfare, and how the U.S. adapts to it, is one of his professional passions. Milley warms at any invitation to explain it.
“You asked him that?” Cavoli marvels. “How long did he talk to you about it before he took a breath?”
Answer: a long time. In a nutshell, Milley argues that the nature of war, which Clausewitz defined as politics by other means, is eternal. But the character of warfare — how, where, and when people fight — can change dramatically in a short period of time, as it did between World War I and World War II with the introduction of airplanes, radio, and radar. Milley and others believe that new technologies such as precision-guided munitions, global positioning systems, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and hypersonic weapons are already transforming how militaries are trained, supported, and operate, and that the pace will only accelerate.
“All of these technologies are coming at us very, very quickly,” Milley argues. “And we, the United States, need to be on the front side of that curve. We don’t have to be perfect, but we have to be better than our enemy.”
According to news reports, Milley was not the first choice of Defense Secretary James Mattis to chair the Joint Chiefs. But Trump, who was feuding with Mattis, picked Milley instead out of spite. Although White House Chief of Staff John Kelly urged Milley not to take the job, Milley promised Trump that he would offer his best military advice and follow any legal order.
Milley says he has not had time to read the books that have been written about the end of the Trump presidency, though he has been interviewed for many of them. As a public figure, he believes that speaking to the press is part of his responsibility to explain, where he can, the events that happened on his watch. His actions during the summer of 2020 and the period after the election boil down to three overarching goals: to follow only legal orders, prevent the military from being injected into domestic politics, and to avoid, if possible, an ill-conceived war.
Milley’s presence with Trump in Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, amid the protests following the murder of George Floyd, was the most controversial moment of Milley’s term and one he has acknowledged as his biggest mistake. He has said he was not aware that Trump was going before the cameras and left as soon as he did. In the days that followed, Milley was criticized by many, including several retired generals, for participating in a political stunt and creating the impression that the military was being used on U.S. soil against domestic protesters.
After consulting with friends and colleagues, Milley apologized in an address to graduating officers at the National Defense University, saying, “I should not have been there.” When Trump heard about it, according to two of those books about his presidency, he raged at Milley that apologizing was a sign of weakness. “Not where I come from,” Milley replied.
One of the people Milley consulted after Lafayette Square was retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus *85 *87, former CIA director, commander of the U.S. Central Command, and head of U.S. forces during the war in Afghanistan. Petraeus says Milley acted appropriately by apologizing. “What he did was, in my view, very much the right approach and also a very important approach, as it underscored the importance of military leaders staying out of politics,” he writes to PAW in an email.
According to a 2022 account in The New Yorker, Milley considered resigning in June 2020 and went so far as to draft a letter to Trump saying, among other things, that Trump had betrayed the war his parents’ generation had fought against fascism. “It’s now obvious to me that you don’t understand ... what the war was all about,” Milley wrote. “In fact, you subscribe to many of the principles that we fought against. And I cannot be a party to that.” Colleagues dissuaded Milley from delivering the letter. Instead, he determined to remain at his post and do his job. If necessary, he would also resist any efforts to have the military recount votes or rerun the election, and try to dissuade Trump from creating a military pretext to remain in office, such as attacking Iran. Milley conducted daily phone meetings with senior administration officials during the transition, hoping, in his words, to “land the plane.” At the inauguration on Jan. 20, according to I Alone Can Fix It, a book by two journalists about Trump’s final year in office, Milley told former first lady Michelle Obama ’85, “No one has a bigger smile today than I do.”
Observers now credit Milley for maintaining a critical institutional guardrail during a traumatic period. “I believe that he discharged his duties in a truly admirable fashion,” Petraeus writes. Adds Princeton politics professor Julian Zelizer, “Milley handled his role at an extremely difficult time and attempted to balance the imperatives of his position with the need to contain a president who was breaking norms and veering into dangerous situations.”
In the new administration, Milley opposed the sometimes-chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling it “a logistical success but a strategic failure.” Nevertheless, improved relations with the White House were evident when President Joe Biden, gladhanding in the House chamber after the 2021 State of the Union address, embraced Milley and told him, “We have the best damn generals in the world.”
Even so, the chairman continued to be a lightning rod for controversy. In a June 2021 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Milley bristled when two Republican congressmen criticized what they characterized as the teaching of critical race theory at the service academies and insinuated that Milley was weakening readiness by making the military too “woke.”
“I’ve read Mao Zedong,” Milley shot back. “I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a Communist.”
Milley went on to explain that while the military does not “teach” critical race theory, it is important for soldiers to learn about it. “I want to understand white rage, and I’m white,” Milley said. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault [the Capitol] and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America? What is wrong with having some situational understanding of the country we are here to defend?”
In retirement, Trump has blasted his top general, calling Milley, among other things, a “f------ idiot” and alleging, according to Trump’s recent indictment for mishandling classified documents, that Milley, not Trump, had wanted to attack Iran. Milley, who spoke to PAW before this incident was revealed, admits that he reads the former president’s attacks on him but declines to return fire. “It’s not my place as a soldier,” he says. “I never have and never will make public comments about President Trump, President Biden, any former president, current president, or future president.”
“Milley handled his role at an extremely difficult time and attempted to balance the imperatives of his position with the need to contain a president who was breaking norms and veering into dangerous situations.”
— Julian Zelizer, Princeton politics professor
Despite the tumult of the last several years, the United States has been through worse, argues Milley, the lifelong history buff. He ticks off just a few of them: the Civil War, two World Wars, the KKK marches and the Wall Street bombing in the 1920s, the Depression and the Bonus Marchers in the 1930s, Vietnam, riots, and assassinations in the 1960s.
“So yes,” he says, “today there is some divisiveness. I’m not Pollyannaish about it.” Still, he professes faith in the American people. “I have huge confidence in their judgment in the way to see through whatever issues there are on a given day. On the back side of this, America will be a stronger country.”
As of early August, Milley had not decided on his plans once his term ends. (He will retire from the Army officially on Nov. 1). One thing he and his wife, Hollyanne, will have to do, after vacating his official residence at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, is buy a house for the first time. Throughout their 38-year marriage, they have always lived in Army housing. (The Milleys have two grown children.) Friends say that he is not inclined to serve on the boards of defense contractors as some retired officers have, and that writing a tell-all book does not hold much appeal. For his part, Milley insists that he won’t have time to think about any of that until Oct. 1. “The defense of this country is too important to worry about me as an individual and what I’m going to do,” he says.
Even though Milley and Cavoli are among a relatively small handful of alumni in the senior ranks of the U.S. military, one would think that their shared Princeton connection would rarely come up. To the contrary, Milley brings it up all the time. Cavoli says that Milley ends every email or written communication to him with the letters “P I T N S.”
Princeton in the Nation’s Service.
He even ends their multiple weekly phone calls that way, Cavoli laughs. “He’ll always say, ‘Gotta go, Cavoli! Gotta go! Princeton in the Nation’s Service!’” And then a click on the line.
“We have been very lucky,” Cavoli adds, “to have someone like that in the nation’s service.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.