Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley on The David Rubenstein Show
This is my kitchen table and also my filing system over much of the past three decades. I've been an investor. The highest quality got me in fine. I've often thought this private equity and then I started interviewing oh I watch your interviews because I know how to do it. I've learned in doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top. I asked him how much he wanted. He said 250. I said fine I didn't negotiate with him. I did no due diligence. I have something I'd like to sell and how they stay there. You don't feel inadequate now because the only the second wealthiest man that was that. Right. The most senior person in the U.S. military is always the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The 20th person to hold that title is General Mark Milley. He was appointed by President Trump and continues to serve under President Biden. I had a chance recently at the National Archives to sit down with General Milley to discuss a wide range of civilian and military issues. The chairman now faces. So this is where our Constitution the original copy of the Constitution is stored and it's right over there. So what does the Constitution mean to you as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Well for us and I would argue that for all of us in
uniform we swear an oath and that oath is to the Constitution and we're sworn to protect and support and defend it against all enemies foreign and domestic. We don't take an oath to an individual a king a queen a tribe or religion or any of that where we take an oath to an idea the idea that's America. And that idea is expressed in the documents that you see here the Declaration of Independence of the Constitution. And that's a solemn oath. And I and those that came before me and those that will come after me we swear that oath that we're willing to sacrifice everything to protect and defend that document. The idea that's America. So chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to me is one of the great titles in Washington. Here are the most important military person. But what does that really mean. That be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is your real
job. By law the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff is an adviser an adviser to the president and state secretary defense the National Security Council and what you call the Homeland Security Council. And it's strictly an advisory role. You're not in the chain of command. That chain of command is the president to the secretary defense to the combatant commanders and or the
secretaries of the military department. So the job is strictly advisory. But at the same time not in the chain of command. You are in the chain of communication. So routine communications between the president secretary defense and the combatant commanders typically goes through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. So you're very much involved but you have no decision authority. You don't make decisions per say. You advise the president SEC. Def and the others on their their decisions that they will make. But to be realistic about it when the president 18 states wants to do something militarily he relies on the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff here his adviser when he says I want to do X Y or Z. I assume you tell other military officials. So while you're not technically in the chain of command it doesn't sound as if people are going around you. Is that right. No. Typically they don't. But I would say that I am one of the advisers. The chairman's job is to be the chairman of a body a group called the Joint Chiefs of Staff consisting of the chiefs of each of the services the Army Navy Air Force Marine Space Force and and and the National Guard as well. And so the Joint Chiefs as a body what I do is I represent their views to include dissenting opinions. But at any time any one of those joint chiefs every one of them by law is considered an
independent adviser to the president. Any one of them can invoke their right to go talk to the president about a certain topic. In addition to that the combatant commanders the field commanders if you will. They also provide their advice their best military advice or what some would call considered military advice to the president. And they they should and can and do all
the time. So I am one of several advisers. I'm I'm in the law. It's called the principal military adviser but not the only military adviser. So a couple of years ago you went to see the president and states President Trump. And it was reported that you were probably going to become the supreme allied commander in Europe. A very important position. And you emerged from that meeting as the projected chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Were you surprised that you got that position rather than one that people thought you were gonna get. I knew when I went over there that I was interviewing to be the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs and SEC. And any other position that the president deemed necessary. The first question President Trump said to me of the first comment he said was you're here to interview to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff. It was myself and then White House Chief of Staff Kelly and the president. We had about an hour long conversation. And at the end of it he said thank you very much. And the following day he called me and made the offer to have me be his chairman. And all of us serve at the pleasure of the president. So when ever you're asked for any duty position as a soldier you execute the will of the president. So when you become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff does your wife call
you Mr. Chairman your children treat you with greater respect. How does that work. No. In fact I've been very lucky to have met my wife. And we were married nineteen eighty five. And she's been with me through thick and thin the entire time. She's an incredible woman. She's a nurse. Still practices as a nurse. She keeps me grounded. And both my son and daughter keep me grounded. So you've had a lot of
publicity for some things you've had to deal with in your time as chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff to go through a couple of them. One is the events in Lafayette Square. So there you've publicly addressed that but essentially you did not expect to be seen as a cop political role because that's not your job. Is that right. Yeah absolutely. I found out very very quickly as I looked forward and I saw the press being set up I realized it was a political event and I got out of the way. And I regret that then. And I made comments about it. You know some people think you know that that that's an. To be walking with the president sort of thing. I don't want my presence fine but if it's a strictly political event and that was ISE it's not the president it's me. The uniform shouldn't be there. We have a long tradition going
way way back of an apolitical military. And we in uniform must make every effort to remain apolitical not be involved in the actual domestic politics of the United States. And that was a moment where I realized what was happening and I broke away. And it's important that I broke away. And it's important that I apologize publicly for it so that those in uniform know the standard as an apolitical military. So let's talk about the events of January 6th. I assume you've thought about that a fair bit. Sure. In hindsight do you think that somebody could have done a better job of protecting the capital or somebody whoever it was could have done a better job. I'll let the January 6 commission and all the various investigations do all the
postmortems on it. It's obvious to me that the capital was breached. It was very significant event. One of the most significant events in recent history. But I'll let the historians and the commissions and investigators all sort through all that. All right. You've also had Afghanistan. We've withdrawn from Afghanistan after 20 years. The exit from Afghanistan was one where we lost I think 13 U.S. military in the exit process. In hindsight could the exit have been orchestrated better. There's a few things that could have been done better. One is the intelligence piece. You know an army that was on paper three on a 50000 maybe a committed 250. No one's actually a hundred percent sure of the
number I suppose. But an army and a police force that size in a government that collapses literally collapses in 11 days. That was a surprise. So that's something that we need to figure out. We need to figure out how and why that happened. It almost sounds like a Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point study but it's it's something that we need to sort out. And why is it we didn't see
that. I think that's really important. Another one I think is the timing of our response. So we had collapsed most of our military and most of the NATO allies by the middle of July in the bases associated with them had been transitioned over to the Afghan military. All that went relatively smoothly without many hiccups. And that was going on really for quite a while. Probably the better part of a year that was going pretty well. So the Neo is the piece that you're talking about the noncombatant evacuation. That is an operation where we ran six thousand troops some of which were
prepositioned in the Middle East in the event of that contingency some of which came from continental United States. And we deployed them very very rapidly took control of an airfield the Kabul International Airfield in a hostile environment. And we did that eight and half time zones away. We set up 27 intermediate staging bases around the world. And in a very short period of time less than three weeks we were evacuating hundred twenty four thousand people. The first two days first 48 hours. That was very dramatic. People were hanging off airplanes massing on the airfield. Some of them were in the wheel wells. It was very tragic. And then at the tail end we we had
an incident where a suicide bomber went up to a patrol or a perimeter manned by Marines and killed 13 of our 11 Marines and a soldier and a Navy corpsman. And that was a tactical event that happened that has strategic consequence. So let's talk about your own background. It wasn't preordained that you would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when
you were growing up I assume. Sure. So your family had been in the military. Your father was an Iowa Jima and your mother was in the military as well. Was that right. Yeah my dad and mother they were both in the Navy actually. My dad was a Navy corpsman. And then when he finished the corpsman training he went into the he was assigned to the 4th Marine Division. So he is a Navy corpsman 4th Marine Division. Did the assault landings at quadrillion a total side pan Tony in Iwo Jima saw an
awful lot of combat grew up the son of a Massachusetts graduate some of the high school and then from high school went right into the Navy corpsman and my mother. She graduated from St. Mary's High School in Winchester Massachusetts and she went right into the Navy as well also into the medical corps. And she served at a hospital in Seattle taking care of the wounded coming back from the Pacific. Very proud of their service both him and passed on. But that generation was very special. So when
I read about your background I saw Boston and a very fancy high school Belmont High School and Princeton. I figured he must be a Boston Brahmin a wealthy Boston family. Is that right. No not at all. Now me and neither one of my parents went to college and we grew up in a very working class neighborhood. And my dad never made much money at all. My mother worked steadily the entire time which is very rare in those days. And they emphasize sports and education. And I was very fortunate. I went to a Catholic grammar school which emphasized some really good education had some decent grades and had an opportunity to go to the school. Paul Belmont Hill which had a great hockey program and I played for a great coach.
And I got recruited by them and played for that high school. A real great opportunity. So you went to Princeton and you graduated in 1980 from Princeton. And were you a star in the hockey world at Princeton. And did you think you could go to the NHL or not. Really. I thought starting out I could go to the NHL. And I quickly learned that the competitiveness of college hockey was probably not the NHL. Was wasn't in my future but I was OK. I was a state player and I was decent but certainly not
a star. Did you lose a lot of your teeth playing hockey and Princeton or not at Princeton. ISE. I have lost four teeth playing hockey. Playing hockey broke my jaw in three different places lost four teeth and I got more than a hundred stitches in my face. So I have a face for radio. Dave when you were at Princeton did a lot of people say I want to be in the military. Are most of your classmates going into something like private equity or hedge funds or Goldman Sachs. And so were you an outlier by being in the military at Princeton. Oh yeah for sure. So I grew up in a neighborhood that emphasized patriotism and the opportunity that this country was an amazing country that you know that you have opportunities that are not available elsewhere. So I was early on I decided that I did want to serve.
I want to be an NHL. But I wanted to serve my country as well. So when I went to school there was an opportunity to join ROTC and I did that. So I played hockey joined ROTC and tried to study once as well. And in the ROTC program. I was attracted to it again. I thought I never thought I'd make a career in the military. I thought I'd come in and do my four years. I had a scholarship do my four years and then get out move on as you say. All right. So you go into the military and after four years you can discharge your obligation your ROTC obligation and then you can go into you know whatever you want to do. But you decided to make it a career is that right. Well I decided to take it in small chunks. I really enjoyed the military. I was in the infantry and special forces. And and I wanted to
stay through company command and that's captain level and see how that worked out. And then once I was captain and state through major is just taking a small chance. I never had a long range plan whatsoever actually for my personal career in the military. Got married along the way had children. But I've never looked back never had a regret because I've loved the military mostly about the people that I've served with. So when you're playing hockey you can lose your teeth but when you're in
combat you can lose your life. Sure. So when were you first in combat and you thought I could lose my life. Well first combat was Panama for me in 1989. But you can lose your life a lot of ways in the military. The military is a very dangerous occupation even when you're not in combat. So whether it's in training or in combat are soldiers and sailors airmen marines they're sacrificing a lot every single day day in and day out 24/7 to keep this country safe. So
losing your life is. Something that I think everyone wearing uniform has to come to grips with. It's not just combat. But for me the first time in combat was Panama 1989. And when that happened did you think you could get shot and killed there. Were you worried about that. What did your parents say. My father actually was pretty upset. My mother very religious. She accepted things and sort of the lord will be with you sort of attitude. But my dad who'd seen a lot of combat and war two certainly wasn't keen on his son being in combat. How did your parents live to see you rise up to be a general where some senior officer. No my mother passed away and in the 90s.
So I would have been a major I guess at the time. My father died. My father lived to see me be a general. And my father was always proud of our service or my service. And he talked to me about his experiences many many times. But look at he was a kid. He was he was 18 19 20 21 when the war ended. Hit the beach. Best friends killed.
Just saw some unbelievably intense battles. And he and I talk about his experiences and my experiences frequently later in his life. He was always very proud. He loved America. Love love the country and love to those in uniform. What do you think the greatest military risk the United States faces. There's no question in my mind that the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is going to be China.
So as we look at the military situation United States faces today what do you think the greatest military risk the United States faces from Russia China other places. I think it's China. And I've said that publicly many times. I think as we look to the future and I think we are living in a historical epic actually where we're seeing the rise of a country that is unlike something we've seen probably ever before. And it's one of the great historical pivot points. I think that we've ever witnessed which is the rise of China and from the reforms of 1979 and Deng Xiaoping up till today which is I guess that's what 41 42 years or so four decades. They've got an incredible economic run. And with that they've developed a military that's really significant as we go forward over the next 10 20 25 years. There's no question in my
mind that the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is going to be China that I have no doubt at all. Russia's important not unimportant at all. Russia has very significant military capabilities. North Korea Iran is still there. Terrorists are going to be around for quite a while. But I think China is clearly the most significant geostrategic
threat we face as we talk today. There have recently been some reports that the Chinese have a hypersonic missile that can theoretically go into space and then come down with a nuclear bomb escaping our ability to knock it down. Is that something I should be worried about or all Americans should be worried about. Well what you saw and I don't want to get too much into the classification of what we saw but what we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapons system. And it is very concerning. I think I saw in some of the newspapers that they used the term Sputnik moment. I don't know if it's quite a Sputnik moment. But I think it's very close to that. So it's a very significant technological
event that occurred or a test that occurred by the Chinese. And it has all of our attention and we're paying it. But that's just one. That's just one weapon system. The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that. They're expanding rapidly in space in cyber. And then in the traditional domains of land sea and air. And they have gone from a peasant based infantry army that was very very large in 1979 to a very capable military that covers all the domains and has global ambitions.
So China is very significant on our horizon. But it can I presume that the United States has thought of doing a hypersonic missile as well and that we are not caught completely flat footed in our ability to maybe produce something like that ourselves. We are clearly experimenting and testing and and developing technologies to include hypersonic artificial intelligence robotics and a whole wide range. Now if you take a step back what what we're in history wise is we're in one of the most significant changes in what I call the character of war. But today with the introduction of precision munitions the ability to see all over the world artificial intelligence robotics hypersonic all of these things together. This is an enormous change in the character of war. And we won't have to adjust our
military going forward in Asia. Should I be worried about North Korea or not. North Korea. We're always paying attention to North Korea because that's a country that's extraordinarily well armed. They've got 70 percent of their military is arrayed within striking range of the demilitarized zone. Seoul itself is only 27 miles from the demilitarized zone. It's under the
missile envelope of North Korea. And the regime of North Korea is a brutal vicious tough regime a very aggressive. And it's led by an individual. It's very difficult to figure out. They're always doing provocations over that over the course of time whether it's missiles or other things. So North Korea is something that we always are watching very closely. Our intent in North Korea or China or Russia we want to maintain a military capability and a diplomatic level of effort to deter war. We
don't want any conflict. We want to deter war. But if deterrence fails we're determined to fulfill our in the case of South Korea our treaty obligations with South Korea. So far since 1953 deterrence has worked and we're hopeful that it will continue to work. Now we've heard of cyber attacks from China North Korea Russia and the United States. We don't know if they come from their military but presumption is that some of it might. Can you make American people feel good that we have cyber capabilities that are just as good as the ones attacking us. I assume you can't tell us about all our cyber capabilities but I assume
nobody has better cyber capabilities than we do. Is that fair. I would say that we are the world's number one capability in cyberspace but I would also tell you that China and Russia are very very good. As well as many other countries in terms of defense what we when the Internet and in the cyber world first developed. People weren't thinking of it as a domain of war. They weren't thinking of it in terms of setting up architectures that were robust and resilient for defense. Those
days are gone now. So years ago we started working on that and we have a long ways to go. But we need to make our critical infrastructure our financial systems for example our electrical systems and many many other pieces of our of our national economy much more resilient to cyberattack attack because our adversaries are very aggressive in cyberspace. So you have a four year term. You're about halfway. A little bit more than halfway through it. When you ultimately reach the end of your four year term which is all you can have. You will retire from the military. That right. That's great. So you know what you're going to do afterwards. Something important like private equity or anything like that. I have no idea. I haven't given it an
ounce of thought. The truth. I've got a full time 24/7 job and business bee every single day. So I actually haven't given an answer. So if someone wants a leader. Is it better to find a general or an admiral. I think as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs I'll opt out of that one David. That's like asking me to say who do you love more your son or your daughter. So I think leaders come in all kinds of forms. And oh by the way they don't even have to wear a uniform. I think you get great leaders in all walks of life. And that served this country in many many different ways whether they're nurses and doctors or cops and firemen. No matter who they are whether they're you know like yourself as a financier
and a philanthropist there's there's leaders that come in all shapes and sizes and stripes throughout the throughout the country. And many of those are in uniform. And I'm very very proud of the generals and admirals that are currently serving.