In a Senate hearing on his nomination to become the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military, former Princeton Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Cadet General Mark Milley ’80 discussed modernization, rising Chinese military power, and transgender military service. Milley also told senators he would “not be intimidated into making stupid decisions” by President Donald Trump.
The Senate Armed Services Committee held the hearing on July 11. If confirmed, Milley will become the 20th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking and senior-most officer in the United States Armed Forces and the principal military advisor to the President.
While at the University, where he received a degree in politics, Milley took part in the Princeton ROTC Program. Since then, Milley has served in Egypt, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Afghanistan and assumed multiple high-ranking positions within the armed forces, most recently serving as the 39th Chief of Staff of the Army.
Milley has given the address at the University’s Joint ROTC Officer Commissioning Ceremony for the past two years. ROTC Cadet Captain Caleb Visser ’20 has met Milley on multiple occasions, and says that Milley enjoys visiting campus.
“He’s always been incredibly generous, very genuine and forthright,” Visser said. “He’s always been very lighthearted too. For such a man you’d expect to be very stoic or serious in his demeanor, he’s always had a very lighthearted nature to him.”
In a year that will mark the 100th anniversary of Princeton’s ROTC program, Visser says that Milley’s newest nomination will further lift the program’s standing. Milley’s impact on the program’s reputation is something Visser has noticed firsthand when attending conferences at West Point Academy.
“One of the first things they say when they find out I go to Princeton is, ‘Oh, that’s where General Milley went, so you must have a pretty good program,’” Visser said. “We’ve had generals in the past, of course, but very rarely have we seen a Chief of Staff of the Army or a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs who didn’t graduate from a service academy.”
Cadet Command Sergeant Major Anne Marie Wright ’20, who is currently interning with the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was present at the July 11th hearing. She said that attendance was high compared to other hearings she has witnessed, indicating the importance given to proper vetting for such a high-powered position. Wright thought Milley answered the Senators’ questions well.
“A lot of Senators asked him to commit to things, as they generally do,” she said. “He was very tempered in his response… I think he was very honest about what he knew, what he didn’t know, and where he could control things.”
A common theme during the hearing was military modernization, a focus that Visser sees as “very encouraging.” Visser said that much of Milley’s tenure as Army Chief of Staff was focused on “readiness,” and Milley’s emphasis on emerging technologies and the changing global order during the hearing added a new, necessary dynamic to the conversation.
When Milley spoke about modernization, he emphasized the maintenance of the nuclear triad, the protection of U.S. assets in space, and the need to keep up with other nations, specifically China, with regards to artificial intelligence and hypersonics (missiles that exceed the speed of sound). He also reiterated his belief in the legitimate military and economic threat posed by China, which he considers “a competitor” rather than “an enemy.”
“I think China is the main challenge to the U.S. national security over the next fifty to one-hundred years,” he said. “I think some historian in 2119 is going to look back at this century and write a book, and the central theme of the story is going to be the relationship between the United States and China.”
If confirmed, Milley promised to carry out any “legal, ethical, and moral” orders from the President but said that he would not “be intimidated into making stupid decisions” and would give his best military advice regardless of the consequences to himself.
“The American people elected civilian control of the military. We’ll provide our advice, we’ll provide course of action, we’ll talk about risk and consequence,” Milley added. “When the decision-maker makes the decision, it’s our job to execute.”
In one of only a few breakaways from the Trump Administration, Milley conceded that Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has damaged U.S. relationships with its allies and complicated the ability of the U.S. to counter malignant Iranian behavior. He said, however, that the U.S. is currently “executing a maximum-pressure campaign” in order to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities and to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table.
Milley also spoke out against the Trump administration’s rumored plans to roll back “parole in place,” a benefit that allows some family members of active-duty troops who have come to the U.S. illegally to stay in the country temporarily, saying that “our soldiers are defending our country, and their families deserve the protection of our country.”
Milley, however, defended the Trump administration’s controversial policy regarding transgender individuals in the military, which he said is “not a ban,” noting that that transgender individuals “can apply for waivers if they have gender dysphoria” and enter the military if medical professionals determine they meet the standards. Though Trump has argued that allowing transgender individuals to serve presents “too great a risk to military effectiveness and lethality,” Milley noted his belief that identifying as trans does not in itself make someone ineligible for military service.
“If you meet the medical, the behavior health, the conduct standards, and the physical standards, et cetera, then it’s my view that you should be welcomed in,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything inherent in anyone’s identity to prevent them from serving in the military. It’s about standards, not an identity.”
Milley also promised a “110 percent commitment” to addressing the issue of sexual assault, adding that he believes the solution to the problem lies in further empowering commanders and training them to “understand the techniques of good order and discipline within the organization.”
There is no published timeline for when Congress will vote on whether to confirm Milley. Visser expects Milley, who was confirmed to the position of Army Chief of Staff by a voice vote in 2015, to be confirmed without much resistance, saying he thinks Milley “has resounding bipartisan support.”
“They all recognized the very good job he did as Chief of Staff of the Army,“ Wright agreed. “They all respected him for sure.”
“It really proves that the military is a non-partisan organization in our country, and we’re here to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the American people,” Visser added.