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Gen. Mark Milley ’80 discusses hockey, service, Capitol riots

<h5>General Mark Milley '80 salutes at the game against Dartmouth.</h5>
<h6>Courtesy of &nbsp;Shelley Szwast / Princeton Athletics.</h6>
General Mark Milley '80 salutes at the game against Dartmouth.
Courtesy of  Shelley Szwast / Princeton Athletics.

Gen. Mark Milley ’80 visited the University on Saturday, Jan. 7 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Hobey Baker Rink. A hockey player, ROTC cadet, and politics student while he was at Princeton, Milley is now a four-star general who serves as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He spoke to reporters from The Daily Princetonian and Princeton Alumni Weekly about hockey, his reflections on studying at Princeton, and the repercussions of the 2021 Capitol riots.


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This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Daily Princetonian: Your senior thesis at Princeton was about the structure and theory of guerrilla warfare. What did you learn over the course of your research? 

Gen. Mark Milley: I was a politics major, and that was one of the topics of the day — remember, I graduated high school a year after the fall of Vietnam. All of the insurgency theories of the post-colonial World War II period were very much in vogue. 

I was interested in the whole idea of guerrilla warfare, so I decided to do an analysis of revolutionary guerrilla warfare — specifically Mao Zedong, Lenin, and Castro — and apply theories that those guys wrote and then do case studies to see if they held up under examination. Like a lot of folks who write a senior thesis, I probably over-researched and had far more material than I could possibly do in the course of a single year. So I reduced the case studies down to a single one, which was the Irish Republican Army (IRA). I took that case study and then did chunks of the IRA from its birth as the Irish Republican Brotherhood and carried it forward through the entire Irish struggle for independence against Britain. 

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I learned a lot about warfare in general, and specifically, insurgency and guerrilla warfare. And as you know, life works in mysterious ways. I have been involved in various lower-intensity or guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency-type campaigns, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq. I also participated in a lot of operations in other countries against terrorists and insurgents in a variety of ways. So it actually proved quite useful to put things in some academic context.

On his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

DP: It’s been two years and a day since Jan. 6, when right-wing protesters stormed the Capitol to block the certification of the 2020 election. How does the insurrection continue to affect your day-to-day responsibilities as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

MM: First of all, I strike a note of optimism. This is a very diverse country, with lots of people from lots of different backgrounds and with different outlooks in life. 

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I take an oath to the Constitution. The preamble says, “In order to form a more perfect union,” so it acknowledges that we are not perfect and we weren’t perfect. In order to form a more perfect union, we are constantly striving as a country to get better. We are a country that looks to the future, not to the past. So what Jan. 6 demonstrates to me is the resilience of our country, the resilience of our people to overcome something that was very dramatic and that threatened the very sinews of our institutions, our society, our democratic institutions, the peaceful transfer of power, and the counting of the Electoral College votes. That threatened those institutions, but they held. The institutions bent, but they didn’t break. 

There’s an opportunity right now — and I believe the opportunity is being taken by the American people — to go ahead and continue to build ourselves into a more perfect union. I think that the January 6 Commission and other investigations and hearings that will be done are all in the spirit of transparency so that the American people can learn from things like this and move on to a better future.

DP: As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you’ve described yourself as part of the “chain of communication” rather than the chain of command when it comes to the executive branch. Could you elaborate on what that means? 

MM: That’s not my description of my duties. That is the legal description of my duties. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the senior military adviser to the President, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council — and it doesn’t state it, but by extension, also to Congress, right? You’re an adviser, meaning that you have no legal authority to order troops to do anything. Whatever orders that are given by the Joint Staff are given in the name of the Secretary of Defense and the President, not the Chairman. 

There’s a document called the Unified Command Plan that is signed by the President. He is issuing an order, and in that order, he clearly states that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in the chain of communication. All routine communications between the commanders, the combatant commanders out in the field, the President, and the Secretary of Defense will go through the Chairman. 

If you want a free and healthy republic, then it’s critically important that the civilian elected leaders of this country control our military and have appropriate levels of oversight. I fully support that, that’s what we do, that’s what we want, and we would want it no other way.

DP: What if the President is unpredictable and gesturing towards using nuclear weapons in a way that his advisors think is totally disproportionate, or that simply would not be a good idea given his state of mind? What is the role of someone like you?

MM: My obligation is always, without question, to execute orders if the orders that I get are legal. And I am under obligation by law to execute those. I am not an elected official; the American people elect their leaders. And that leader is empowered with the authorities to include the use of nuclear weapons, or any other weapon, and to give orders and direction to the military. That leader is a singular person: the commander-in-chief. 

It’s very important that we don’t get to choose the orders that we will execute, except if they’re legal or illegal. And if they’re illegal, then our job is to go back to the senior in this case — in my case, that would be the President and the Secretary of Defense. We would have a conversation back and forth, and we would try to advise and try to persuade to get back onto legal footing. 

I may think the individual is — as you said — erratic, unstable, or issuing unwise orders, but you want your soldiers to execute the orders of the elected officials, the American people, and you can’t have it any other way. 

DP: You didn’t do that. But you did make an assurance to Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the time [that “the nuclear triggers are secure and we’re not going to do — we’re not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral, or unethical to happen”].

MM: What I did was exactly what I just told you. I assure you right now that we will execute legal orders. That’s exactly what I did then. [laughs] The crux of the matter is, is it legal or illegal? Is it legal, and you don’t think it’s a good idea? For a variety of reasons, the risk may be too high — you just think it’s not going to lead to the objective of the end state or something like that. If that’s what I think, then I’m obligated to sit there and look the President in the eye and say, “Look, I think you should turn left instead of right,” and we have a conversation back and forth. But at the end of the day, if he says, “Hey, thanks very much, but I’m the president, and I’m saying go right” — well, then you go right. 

Some people say, if you don’t like that, then you should resign. The act of resignation, just because you don’t like an order, is a political act. That’s not a military act. 

We must guard against the military being involved in domestic U.S. politics. If someone tells you to do something, you don’t just resign because you don’t like the order. You as American citizens are totally entitled and should, if you choose to do so, be involved in politics to your heart’s content. We cannot. We are slightly different from the average American citizen — we don’t have the same latitude that an American citizen has, in terms of many of the rights and privileges that you have. The one percent willingly gives those up to protect the 99 percent. You have to do that because of discipline, good order of the force, and for the American people to have confidence that their military will do what the elected officials have told them to do. That’s what it comes down to.

On his time at Princeton

DP: Can you tell us about a specific professor or coach who was important to you as a student?

MM: Well, Jack Semler was the guy who recruited me for hockey. He went on and coached at the University of Maine, and he certainly had an influence. He’s passed away now, but there was also a guy named Lieutenant Colonel Pope who was the head of the ROTC detachment here. 

In terms of professors and teachers, one guy who jumps out at me is Neil Rudenstine. He was the dean of students at the time, he later became president of Harvard, and he was just a tremendous influence. I had my academic ups and downs, right — and he helped me through all that, as well as many, many others. He is representative of a great faculty who understands growth and empathizes with young people to try to make them better citizens. 

Mark Bernstein ’83, Princeton Alumni Weekly: We heard you were recruited before coming here. Did you think about other schools? 

MM: I was recruited by quite a few schools. I went to an all-boys school in Boston called Belmont Hill School, which was always noted for its outstanding hockey players. In fact, we had seven of us here on the team at Princeton, and we’re all here tonight. 

And so how did I come here? My brother went to Harvard, played hockey there, and I was getting heavily recruited by West Point. My father and mother both served in World War Two. Neither one was an officer. My family thought that if you want to be in the military, which is laudable, it’s a nice thing to do and all that. But keep your doors open, right? 

Princeton has an ROTC program. The other schools at the time didn’t have that, except for West Point. So they said if you go to West Point, you have to go in the military. If you go to Princeton, you can go into the military, and you might have other alternatives that you might want to pursue after you’re a hockey player. I came down on a couple of trips, loved the school, and never looked back. 

PAW: We understand that you were a defenseman and that you were kind of a tough-nosed one at that. When you played, what was your style?

MM: Well, I was a good, solid, steady defenseman, and I was not an offensive Bobby Orr-type defensive. I was a defensive defenseman, really, in that I would protect the goal. Get the puck around the corners — pretty scrappy, pretty hard — and then get the puck up to the forwards on the blue line. 

DP: What was your hockey nickname? 

MM: Starting in high school, I was called Mill Dog. My brother was called Mill Dog. My sister was called Mill Dog, my daughter was called Mill Dog. And so it’s just one of those things, right? A bunch of Mill Dogs.

DP: Do you have any specific memories that stick out from Baker Rink?

MM: Yeah, I have hundreds of them — too many to recount in just a few seconds. But first of all, this rink is a national icon, to tell you the truth. This is the oldest rink of any university in America that’s been continuously used as a hockey program. The eighth of January is the 100th anniversary of the first collegiate hockey game in this rink. 

And, of course, it is named after Hobey Baker. He was a military guy killed in an aircraft crash in 1918. The other one that’s interesting, if you look up on the wall, you'll see Patty Kazmaier, right? Princeton University is the only school where both of the major awards in a sport are named after people from the same university. And Patty Kazmaier, as we all know, was a great athlete; her father was a Heisman Trophy winner, and she tragically passed away from cancer. So this is a great rink, with a lot of great memories. There are about 30 or 40 of us that are here from various teams that are associated with the time I was here. 

It’s a great span of alumni that showed a lot of support. It’s much bigger than just putting points on the board. It’s about resilience, it’s about teamwork. It’s about learning how to take your bumps, get knocked down, get back up. That’s what it’s really about, and the camaraderie that’s built from that. 

Anna Salvatore is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

Cole Keller is a contributor to the Data and Sports sections at the ‘Prince.’ Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed two questions asked by a writer from Princeton Alumni Weekly to The Daily Princetonian. The ‘Prince’ regrets this error.

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