As the media hype over the recent ‘insider’ books focused on the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency continues, one point in particular has gained prominence. The book, I Alone Can Fix It, quotes Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) chairman Mark Milley as repeatedly likening his boss to Adolf Hitler, or the “Führer.” He also reportedly said he thought Trump was considering a coup to overturn the election, and that it was his duty to use his position in the military to prevent a coup. These are scandalous claims.
Whether there is any merit to these bizarre allegations, or if the quotes are even true, is the topic for another piece.
Here I want to make an observation about comments made by Tucker Carlson on Fox News in response to all this reported Hitler and coup talk. It brings up the important and often confusing issue of military command authority and the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a recent show, Carlson asked: “So, the question is, why is Mark Milley still in command of the U.S. military? This is not a small question. If what The Washington Post’s reporters are reporting, it’s a question we need to deal with right now.”
The problem is Gen. Milley is not “in command” of the U.S. military. Something some observers quickly jumped to point out.
James LaPorta, for example, correctly tweeted:
Gen. Milley is not in command of the U.S. military. That’s not how it works. Joint Chiefs of Staff has no authority over combatant forces. They are advisors. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense; then to the commander of the combatant command.
Gen. Milley is not in command of the U.S. military. That’s not how it works. Joint Chiefs of Staff has no authority over combatant forces. They are advisors. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense; then to the commander of the combatant command. https://t.co/hTAUW7vIil
— James LaPorta (@JimLaPorta) July 16, 2021
This is statutorily correct. This advisory-only role for the JCS was firmly clarified and the issue of “executive authority” clearly resolved, notes the official JCS website:
by the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986: “The Secretaries of the Military Departments shall assign all forces under their jurisdiction to unified and specified combatant commands to perform missions assigned to those commands…”; the chain of command “runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense; and from the Secretary of Defense to the commander of the combatant command.”
That is then stipulated in US Code, Title 10 Section 162 (U.S. Code § 162). So, as also noted by the official JCS website, the “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the President, Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Council (NSC), however, all JCS members are by law military advisers, and they may respond to a request or voluntarily submit, through the Chairman, advice or opinions to the President, the Secretary of Defense, or NSC.”
No where is the JCS mentioned as being part of the chain of command.
The commanders of unified combatant commands, like the European Command (EUCOM) for Europe, or INDOPACCOM for the Indo-Pacific region, or STRATCOM for America’s strategic nuclear forces, are the four star generals who, by law, take the nation to war at the direction of the President and Secretary of Defense (SECDEF).
However, in practice, since the Chairman of the JCS (CJCS) is the nation’s senior military leader, he is given great deference and respect by the official chain of command, and is usually informally placed ‘in the loop’ on major command decisions and even orders. One former senior defense official has told me that by “custom and tradition, the chain of command goes ‘through’ the CJCS.”
While this is custom, not law, it is a reminder that the Chairman of the JCS has a powerful role to play in the Pentagon and throughout the U.S. military.
To be clear, the JCS consists of the Chairman, the Vice Chairman, the Chief of Staff of the Army, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, and now also the Chief of Space Operations.
Each of those 4 star general or admiral ‘service chiefs’ has administrative authority over his respective military branches for training, organizing, and equipping their force, but no actual combat command authority.
Lastly, the Chairman of the JCS is chosen by Presidents for four year terms that often overlap administrations. This is intentional to maintain them as apolitical. If they quit or are asked to resign prior to the end of their tenure, this greatly increases the chances of the position becoming politicized.
The upshot is that while Carlson was technically incorrect about the CJCS, he is right about the importance of Gen. Milley at the Pentagon, and that many questions require answers.
If Milley or others at the JCS, were recklessly talking about unfounded coups and making Hitler analogies about the President of the United States, as these authors claim, this needs to be confirmed.
However, if as I believe is more likely, the claims in the book are false, or unverifiable, they need to be quashed immediately as outrageous misinformation. These questions are far too important to be left to book writers or TV pundits. ADN