Scandal in the United States

A high-ranking general promised to warn Beijing if Donald Trump intended to declare war against China. Some consider the general a traitor, others a hero.

During Senate hearings, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley confirmed that he promised to warn a colleague in Beijing if Washington decided to attack China. The scandal broke two weeks ago, when The Washington Post reported on the incident, publishing excerpts from the new book co-written by muckraker Bob Woodward, famous for uncovering the Watergate scandal. During congressional hearings, Milley was asked if the rumors were true, and he said yes.

There is growing passion in the U.S. over whether Milley is a traitor or, on the contrary, the country’s savior. Supporters of the first view have a rock-solid argument that military personnel must unquestionably follow orders and not disclose plans to the enemy. Supporters of the second view object on the grounds that there is the chance an incompetent politician (an obvious reference to Trump) could give an order that results in mutual nuclear destruction.

Milley commanded the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Trump. As you remember, Trump was obsessed with the idea of controlling China and unleashed confrontation on all fronts, not just on matters of trade and the economy. Trump declared Beijing Washington’s main enemy and Moscow the next in line. Military tensions between the U.S. and China, particularly near the South China Sea, over which the Chinese are claiming sovereignty, has led to recurring incidents that could become a pretext for a real war. American intelligence reported that Beijing was preparing to attack the U.S. Given such circumstances, Milley took the initiative and decided to calm the situation with his Chinese counterparts, as if to say, don’t worry, if something gets serious, I’ll call.

In principle, Milley was acting in the spirit of the 2014 confidence-building agreements between the U.S. and China, reached after 16 years of negotiation. Both sides agreed to notify each other about large military exercises near the South China Sea, accepting a conflict resolution code of conduct in case of incidents involving warships or aircraft. Therefore, Milley’s promise to call the Chinese does not seem foolish. Moreover, there is a third version of events: What if Milley’s actions are a simple act of military deception?

President Joe Biden has already addressed the matter, saying he is satisfied with, and fully trusts, Milley. But the chatter continue. How can we count on our military if it promises to warn enemies about an attack? There is no need to explain that World War III would be a nuclear apocalypse.

“War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men,” said French politician Georges Clemenceau over 100 years ago. Political decisions, including war, are made by politicians, and it is the military’s job to carry them out. It turns out that things are different during times of guaranteed mutual destruction. In the event of a catastrophe, the moral burden falls on the shoulders of those who carry out the orders, so sometimes, they act as a safeguard. There are many examples of this.

In 1983, officer Stanislav Petrov, on duty at the command center Serpukhov-15, chose not to relay a warning command regarding intercontinental missiles launched from U.S. bases, doubting the validity of the signal received by the missile attack warning system. As it later turned out, he was right, and effectively prevented a potential nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Similar incidents had occurred twice before in the U.S.

Another case involving insubordination that saved the world from global conflict occurred in June 1999 in Pristina. Some 200 Russian paratroopers occupied the Pristina International Airport, Slatina, in Kosovo. British units approached the airport a few hours later. Convinced of the gravity of Russian intentions, commanding Gen. Sir Michael David Jackson chose not to act recklessly, but with the help of a bottle of whiskey, found common language with Russian commanding Gen. Viktor Zavarzin.

Gen. Wesley Clark, then Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO, disapproved. The following day, Clarke ordered Jackson to block both the airport building and runway. As they say in the army, the Brit told his American colleague to go kick rocks, and said he would not start a third world war for him. Sure enough, if Russian paratroopers had opened fire on NATO, the war in Yugoslavia would have become global.

Notably, refraining from public insult and provocation when it comes to potential enemies is standard behavior for military personnel, especially those dedicated to carrying out orders from rational leaders, unless it is the Ukrainian military threatening to crush the Russian army or promising to send a tank convoy to Moscow’s Red Square. However, these days provocative banter is purely Ukraine’s style.

Returning to Milley, perhaps he was trying to pacify the Chinese, because war these days is a very serious matter. Military personnel may doubt orders from reckless politicians to conduct surprise enemy attacks. But it is likely there are no doubts when there is talk of striking back.

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About Svet Voskoboinik 15 Articles
Svet Voskoboinik grew up speaking Russian, Latvian and English in Riga, Latvia. Svet holds a BA in Linguistics with a minor in Applied Language Studies from University of California, Berkeley and is currently pursuing an MA in Translation Studies at the University of Birmingham, UK. Svet currently speaks Russian, English and Spanish. She is currently based in Los Angeles, CA and enjoys learning languages, writing, travel, sailing, cycling and cooking with friends.

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