Our Unreliable Senior Military Leaders


Our senior military leaders are not reliable when it comes to supporting civilian control by the Commander in Chief. This is not new. Nor does it follow that the rest of the ranks necessarily track with the opinions of the most senior ranks. Consider three recent examples and one older case: Secretary of Defense Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley, Command Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell.

Secretary of Defense Esper and General Milley, together, used the cover of military non-political status to subvert President Trump’s authority. They have no role in invoking the Insurrection Act. They made their political “non-political” stand as Democrat mayors and governors allowed more destruction of property, more deprivation of citizens’ rights, and more killings than was seen in Arkansas in 1957. These two gentlemen knew full well the facts of Little Rock and President Eisenhower’s decision to nationalize the National Guard (taking them out of the control of the white supremacist Democrat governor) while ordering the 101st Airborne Division to go in with fixed bayonets. Yes, bayonets against American citizens. In that light, consider these two senior military leaders’ words.

Secretary of Defense Esper Addresses Reporters Regarding Civil Unrest [excerpt]
JUNE 3, 2020
Secretary Of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

Over the past couple days there’s been a fair share of reporting, some good, some bad, about what is transpiring — transpiring in our great nation and the role of the Department of Defense and its leaders. I want to take a few minutes to address these issues in person to make clear the facts and offer my views.

[. . .]

Every member of this department has sworn an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. I’ve taken this oath many times, beginning at the age of 18, when I entered West Point. The rights that are embedded in this great document begin with the First Amendment, which guarantees the five freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and the right to petition the government.

The United States military is sworn to defend these and all other rights, and we encourage Americans at all times to exercise them peacefully. It is these rights and freedoms that make our country so special, and it is these rights and freedoms that American service members are willing to fight and die for.

At times, however, the United States military is asked, in support of governors and law enforcement, to help maintain law and order so that other Americans can exercise their rights, free from violence against themselves or their property. That is what thousands of Guardsmen are doing today in cities across America. It is not something we seek to do, but it is our duty and we do it with the utmost skill and professionalism.

I was reminded of that Monday as I visited our National Guardsmen who were on duty, Monday night, protecting our most hallowed grounds and monuments. I am very proud of the men and women of the National Guard who are out on the streets today performing this important task, and, in many ways, at the risk of their own welfare.

I’ve always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities in these situations, in support of local law enforcement. I say this not only as secretary of defense, but also as a former soldier and a former member of the National Guard.

The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.

Last night, a story came out based on a background interview I did earlier in the day. It focused on the events last Monday evening in Lafayette Park, and I found it to be inaccurate in parts. So I want to state very clearly, for all to hear, my account of what happened that Monday afternoon.

I did know that, following the president’s remarks on Monday evening, that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park, and at St. John’s Episcopal Church. What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going, when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there.

It was also my aim — and General Milley’s — to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty that evening in the park. It is something the president likes to do as well. The path we took to and from the church didn’t afford us that opportunity, but I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with our Guardsmen later that evening, as I moved around the city to many of the locations at which they were posted.

[. . .]

Q: Yeah, thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Taking you back to your comments about Monday evening, when you left the White House with the president and others, I think if I heard you correctly, you said you did know that you were going to be going to the St. John’s church, but you didn’t know what would happen when you got there. And you’ve since been criticized by many for essentially participating at a presidential photo-op. So my question is, do you regret having participated?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I — I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware of a photo-op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him. And look, I did everything I can to try to stay apolitical and to try — trying to stay out of situations that may appear political, and sometimes I’m successful with doing that, and — and sometimes I’m not as successful. But my aim is to keep the department out of politics, to stay apolitical, and that’s what I continue to try and do, as well as my leaders here in the department.

Understand, the church had been burned the night before. There was widespread rioting, not at all under control by the National Guards under governors’ control. The Constitution the good Secretary so often swore to support and defend includes the free exercise of religion, which is directly attacked by church burnings. He and the general had a duty to support the Commander in Chief as he supported the First Amendment against violence, on American soil, uncontrolled by Democrat governors. Images matter at the strategic level and both of these senior leaders knew it. Yet, here is General Milley, in full, with the relevant part that he knew and intended to be national news buried at 9:25 in his address to the graduating class of the National Defense University (lieutenant colonels and colonels):

As many of you saw, the result of a photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week has sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer it was a mistake that I learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it. We who wear the cloth of our nation come from the people of our nation. And we must hold dear the principle of an a-political military that is so deeply rooted in our republic. [. . .]

What makes his preening especially galling is his next pious utterance:

And my second piece of advise is very simple. Embrace the Constitution. Keep it close to your heart. It is our north star. It is our map to a better future. Though we are not a perfect union, believe in the United States. Believe in our country. Believe in your troops. And believe in our purpose. Few other nations have been able to change for the greater good. That is because of the rights and values embedded in the Constitution. The freedoms guaranteed to us in the Constitution allow people to demand change, just as the peaceful protesters are doing all across the country. That is why we serve in the military. On day one, you and I, we all swore an oath to support and the Constitution and its essential American principle that all men and women are born equal. [. . .]

Nevermind the rest of his oath, taken from an official Army page for Oaths of Enlistment and Oaths of Office:

The wordings of the current oath of enlistment and oath for commissioned officers are as follows:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

(Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962).

Notice all the stuff he left out, because it was a problem for him, politically? He and Secretary Esper are sophisticated senior leaders and understood that their words have political significance. We see this awareness within their own words here. So, we may take it that they understood and intended to undermine the Commander in Chief. But, just for the sake of argument, grant that they are truly mortified about some violation of their priestly ethics. Take their claims about the importance of being apolitical at face value. How, then, did they allow the top enlisted advisor in the United States Air Force to make the following official Facebook post?

CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright

June 1 at 2:09 PM ·

Who am I?

I am a Black man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.

I am George Floyd…I am Philando Castile, I am Michael Brown, I am Alton Sterling, I am Tamir Rice.

Just like most of the Black Airmen and so many others in our ranks…I am outraged at watching another Black man die on television before our very eyes. What happens all too often in this country to Black men who are subjected to police brutality that ends in death…could happen to me. As shocking as that may sound to some of you…I hope you realize that racism/discrimination/exclusion does not care much about position, titles or stature….so yes, it could happen to you, or one of your friends, or your Airmen, or your NCOIC, your Flight Chief, your Squadron Commander or even your Wing Commander. This, my friends, is my greatest fear, not that I will be killed by a white police officer (believe me my heart starts racing like most other Black men in America when I see those blue lights behind me)…but that I will wake up to a report that one of our Black Airmen has died at the hands of a white police officer.

As I struggle with the Air Force’s own demons that include the racial disparities in military justice and discipline among our youngest Black male Airmen and the clear lack of diversity in our senior officer ranks…I can only look in the mirror for the solution. I, the CMSAF must do better in ensuring every Airmen in our ranks has a fair chance at becoming the best version of themselves. While this is a complicated issue…I, along with every other leader across the force, am responsible for making sure it becomes a reality.

What have I been doing?

Not enough…I have done my share of community service work, been in involved in mentor programs, voted in local, state and national elections, but I’ve come to the conclusion that whatever I have done in the past is just not enough. So, I spent the last week, “plotting, planning, strategizing, organizing and mobilizing” just as Killer Mike, the popular Atlanta rapper and activist encouraged us to do. Twenty-five of my closest friends (White, Black, Asian, enlisted, officer and civilian) and I have an ongoing dialogue where we began by acknowledging our right to be angry about what is happening.

We eventually moved beyond the rage and began to think about what’s next? What could or should we be doing as a group and as individuals to stop this from happening in our communities across these United States? We don’t have all the answers, but we do have some of the most brilliant minds, many, who have first hand experience with this topic and we will continue working towards a solution. While we can’t change the world, we can change the communities we live in and more importantly, those where our Airmen strive to be seen, heard, and treated as human beings. I have also not done enough as your most senior enlisted leader…while we have made progress in many of the areas that impact our Airmen and families; I believe that we have not made much progress in this area of racial injustice and diversity among our ranks. This is why I’m working with General Goldfein, first and foremost to have a full and thorough independent review of our military justice system. We will look to uncover where the problem lies and how we can fix it. We are also working to improve the diversity of our force, especially within the senior ranks. I hope this message triggers responses and ideas from each of you on things we can do better.

What should you be doing?

Like me, acknowledge your right to be upset about what’s happening to our nation. But you must then find a way to move beyond the rage and do what you think is right for the country, for your community, for your sons, daughters, friends and colleagues…for every Black man in this country who could end up like George Floyd. Part of my group’s solution involves helping to bridge the communication and understanding gap between law enforcement and young Black men. You decide what works best for you, where you can have the most meaningful impact and most importantly, what you can stay committed to…we didn’t get here overnight so don’t expect things to change tomorrow…we are in this for the long haul. Vote, protest peacefully, reach out to your local and state officials, to your Air Force leadership and become active in your communities…we need all hands on deck. If you don’t do anything else, I encourage everyone to fight, not just for freedom, justice and equality, but to fight for understanding. You might think you know what it’s like to grow up, exist, survive and even thrive in this country as a Black person…but let me tell you, regardless of how many Black friends you have, or how Black your neighborhood was, or if your spouse or in-laws are Black…you don’t know.

You don’t know the anxiety, the despair, the heartache, the fear, the rage and the disappointment that comes with living in this country, OUR country every single day. So, take the time to talk to someone – your brand new Airmen, your NCOIC or your Flight Commander – about their experiences so that you have a better understanding of who they are, where they come from and what drives them. Frankly, you owe this to every Airmen, but I’m asking you specifically to pay attention to the Black Airmen in your ranks during this trying time. Don’t misunderstand me, they don’t need, nor do they want any special treatment…but they deserve to be treated fairly and equally, both by our United States Air Force and these United States of America…this begins with you, and I am asking, no fighting, for your understanding.

Like you, I don’t have all of the answers, but I am committed to seeing a better future for this nation. A future where Black men must no longer suffer needlessly at the hands of White police officers, and where Black Airmen have the same chance to succeed as their White counterparts. Trust me, I understand this is a difficult topic to talk about…

Difficult…not impossible…

Difficult…but necessary.

Who am I…

I am Kaleth. I am a Black Man who happens to be the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and I am committed to making this better.

That is the most nakedly partisan and political statement I have ever read or heard from a serving military member. Check the link. I have not added or deleted one word. It is all still there. I was pointed to this wildly political statement, including the claim of current racial bias in Air Force discipline, by the current Air Force Chief of Staff, General Goldfein, who embedded this tweet in his official homepage:

There is no such thing as personal opinion and free speech on Facebook or other social media by military members who are identified as leaders. See the context of this post to remove any quibbling about whether this was just a personal post in a personal account:

There is a new Air Force Chief of Staff, confirmed by the Senate and soon to be installed. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Pacific Air Forces commander, happens to be the first African American to attain four stars in the Air Force. Consider his response to the same domestic political circumstance as a contrast to all these other senior leaders, as he recorded a short official video “What I’m thinking about:”

What a powerful statement, made all the more powerful by not being politically biased. Secretary Esper, General Milley, and CMSAF Wright, who will soon report directly to General Brown, could all learn from him. But, they would have to overcome institutional pressure to conform to a warped and self-serving culture masked in selfless service, since at least President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex.

This is not just about hatred by the Washington establishment of President Trump and all who voted for him. No, President Clinton got the same insubordination from General Colin Powell. President Clinton ran on a platform that included a promise to end the ban on homosexuals in the military. He consistently called for their right to openly serve. He won. Indeed, he won election twice. Yet, he lost the political battle to keep his promise.

It was General Powell who led the bureaucratic resistance in both the Pentagon and the halls of Congress. He effectively torpedoed the Commander in Chief in President Clinton’s first months in office. We ended up with the morally indefensible “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which said you could join and serve so long as you stayed firmly in the closet as far as anyone in your units knew. Don’t be putting a picture of your sweetheart on your desk or in your footlocker.

Months later, Powell successfully shifted blame for the foul-up in Mogadishu onto his boss, the Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin. Secretary Aspin resigned. The top generals got to run the military their way for a while, with a neutered civilian chain of command.

So, our top military leaders have not been reliably subordinate to control by the civilian Commander in Chief for quite some time. It is a much longer matter to get at the theory and history of civilian control, of the military as a “profession,” and of possible differences in the strength of institutional culture at different levels of rank. Those are all subjects for possible future discussion, but the most relevant thing to remember now is that our senior military leaders are not reliable, when it comes to living under and enforcing civilian control by the Commander in Chief. It takes an active, persistent, and forceful president to drive full compliance with the oath of office.

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There are 11 comments.

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  1. Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) Member
    Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing)

    Thank you for your service, General Brown.

    • #1
  2. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) (View Comment):

    Thank you for your service, General Brown.

    A truly impressive officer, says this old air defender about a pilot.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):

    Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) (View Comment):

    Thank you for your service, General Brown.

    A truly impressive officer, says this old air defender about a pilot.

    High compliment, indeed.

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Thank you, Clifford. General Brown said so many things that were wise and honorable. He was candid and direct, owned his own history, and voiced his determination to move forward in a constructive way. Well done, General.

    • #4
  5. Unsk Member


    • #5
  6. cdor Member

    Turf wars. People who have achieved success in their fields oftentimes move out of their lanes. Swollen heads, huge egos. Bureaucrats do it. Congresscritters do it. Military generals do it. They all know how to find cover when caught. They get high and mighty and pull the Constitution over their heads. Like the Bible, if you look at it under just the right light you can make it say just about anything you want.

    • #6
  7. ToryWarWriter Thatcher

    The US Senior leadership has been very incompetent for a very long time.  

    • #7
  8. MichaelKennedy Inactive

    “Trust no one over O-6”   The Navy has been nearly destroyed by incompetent admirals. I truly hope we do not get into a kinetic thing with China in the South China Sea.  We would lose any carrier.  The unusable LCS and destroyers cost billions and it is money thrown away.  The Navy has plenty of female officers who don’t talk to each other while on watch at night.  That cost sailor’s lives.  The navigations skills of most watch standers would not qualify them for watch captain on my sailboat.

    If only we could bring back Curtis LeMay.

    • #8
  9. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.

    Excuse me…Esper is the Secretary of Defense, a political appointee. A member of the Trump Administration, numero duo in the National Command Authority. If he prefers not to have his picture taken with his boss, then don’t show up, or resign. Don’t be a knave.

    Excuse me…Milley is a soldier. According to CPT Nathan Brittles, US Cavalry, “Don’t apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.”

    Too bad the Air Force senior enlisted guy didn’t have better writers. The history of how the services have dealt with racial problems since Truman mandated integration is a story of how a demonstrably color aware institution successfully evolved into a leading example of what can be done. Don’t be a fool.

    • #9
  10. Instugator Thatcher

    Clifford A. Brown: Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Pacific Air Forces commander, happens to be the first African American to attain four stars in the Air Force.

    Chappie James was the first black 4 Star General in the USAF. Date of Rank September 1, 1975.

    General Brown will be the first black Chief of Staff of the USAF.

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Instugator (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown: Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Pacific Air Forces commander, happens to be the first African American to attain four stars in the Air Force.

    Chappie James was the first black 4 Star General in the USAF. Date of Rank September 1, 1975.

    General Brown will be the first black Chief of Staff of the USAF.

    Thanks for pointing out that error. General Brown will be the first black Chief of Staff of any U.S. military service. Gen. Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

    • #11