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Top US military officer steps down after tumultous term

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. - © AFP SAUL LOEB
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. - © AFP SAUL LOEB
W.G. DUNLOP

General Mark Milley stepped down on Friday after a tumultuous term as the top US military officer that saw him face repeated crises abroad and on the home front, where he served through the chaotic final months of the Trump presidency.

The Pentagon put on an elaborate farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and President Joe Biden.

He was to be replaced as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by Air Force General Charles “CQ” Brown — the second African American to hold the top military job.

A barrel-chested army veteran of countless foreign deployments and high-level command posts, Milley served in uniform for four decades.

But he faced his highest-stakes challenge when Donald Trump appointed him in 2019 to the career pinnacle as senior officer reporting directly to the White House.

During a four-year term — continuing under Biden from 2021 — Milley managed the harrowing exit of US troops from Afghanistan, special forces operations in Syria, and the enormous program to assist Ukraine’s desperate fight against Russian invasion.

As chairman, “it was one crisis right after another,” Milley told AFP last month.

Milley’s years at the top, however, also saw the military dragged into the center of increasingly raucous cultural battles on the domestic political front.

While the Biden administration has pressed for changes including renaming bases named after Confederate leaders in the Civil War, senior Republicans have repeatedly lashed out at what they claim are “woke” leftist policies in the ranks.

And that was nothing compared to the precarious situation Milley found himself in during the lead-up to and aftermath of the 2020 presidential election — in which Trump, in an unprecedented political nightmare for the United States, refused to accept defeat.

At the height of tensions after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Milley secretly called his Chinese counterpart to reassure Beijing that the United States remained “stable” and had no intention to attack China, according to the book “Peril,” by Bob Woodward.

That revelation has caused lasting fury for Trump, who just this month wrote on his social media network that “in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” for Milley.

– Threats and attacks –

The barely veiled threat from Trump — the clear frontrunner to be the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election — prompted Milley to take “appropriate measures” for his safety, he told CBS News.

Biden lashed out Thursday during a speech at Trump’s “heinous statements” and attacked the “deafening” silence from Trump’s fellow Republicans on the threat.

Milley’s replacement, chosen by Biden, will become the second Black top Joint Chiefs officer after Colin Powell. Austin, meanwhile, is the country’s first Black secretary of defense.

Brown — who officially takes the reins from Milley at midnight (0400 GMT) on Saturday — was commissioned as a US Air Force officer in 1984 and is an experienced pilot with more than 3,000 flight hours, 130 of them in combat. 

Brown, known to most as “CQ,” even once survived ejecting from an F-16 during training over Florida.

He has commanded a fighter squadron and two fighter wings, as well as US air forces under the Central Command and Indo-Pacific Command, and served as chief of staff of the Air Force.

Following the 2020 murder of Black man George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota, Brown recorded an emotional video about his personal experiences, including with discrimination in the American military.

He said he felt pressure to “perform error-free,” and worked “twice as hard” to prove wrong those who expected less of him because of his race.

Brown’s nomination was one of more than 300 stalled by a dispute over Pentagon policies that assist troops who must travel to receive reproductive health care that is unavailable where they are stationed.

A single Republican senator who opposes those efforts has been preventing lawmakers from quickly approving senior military nominees in groups, and Brown was only confirmed in time through an individual vote on his nomination.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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