General Mark Milley faced repeated crises at home and abroad during a tumultuous term as America’s top military officer, becoming one of the most well-known and controversial people to hold the position in years.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his presidential election loss and nationwide protests against police brutality are just some of the events that defined his time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which ends on Friday.
“It was one crisis right after another, so we were constantly absorbed with what I would call current operations,” Milley said in an interview last month.
“The challenge for me is I didn’t devote enough time — because I couldn’t — to the challenge of... reforming and modernising the military,” he said. Milley — a gregarious 65-year-old history buff — was commissioned as a US Army officer in 1980 and deployed to countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama and Haiti. He served as chief of staff of the US Army before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs in October 2019.
Milley infamously found himself in the political spotlight less than a year into his term as chairman. He was sharply criticised for participating in what was widely seen as a political show by Trump, who walked with Milley and other officials from the White House to pose with a Bible in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church in June 2020.
Just before he did so, police and National Guard troops fired smoke bombs and pepper balls at people in the area who were protesting the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota.
“I should not have been there. My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of military involvement in domestic politics,” Milley said days later. He also had to contend with the chaotic end of the Trump administration, with the president refusing to concede he lost the 2020 election.
He was also in contact with China before and after the 2020 election — calls his spokesman said were in keeping with his duties to convey “reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.” But Republicans accused the general of undermining civilian control of the military and unsuccessfully pushed for him to be fired.
Milley is popular with many US liberals, who credit him with helping protect the country from Trump.
But he is a bete noire for various conservatives, including Trump, who recently said Milley’s retirement would be “a time for all citizens of the USA to celebrate.” Milley told lawmakers in 2021 that he had become a “lightning rod for the politicisation of the military,” despite advocating for America’s armed forces to be apolitical.
“There is a deliberate attempt, in my view, to smear the general officer corps and the leaders of the military and to politicise the military,” he said.
Another defining event of Milley’s tenure was the 2021 American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which saw Taliban fighters sweep aside Western-trained Afghan troops, forcing the last US military personnel to mount a desperate evacuation from Kabul’s airport.