My View with Joe Sestak: Nuclear weapons and civil-military accountability

My View with Joe Sestak: Nuclear weapons and civil-military accountability
Joe Sestak in front of Alexandria City Hall. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The nuclear chain of command is the most sacrosanct of any within our military, as I experienced when I had custody of them on ships. It’s why the chain of command holds repeated drills on authenticating launch orders, allowing zero procedural deviations.

The authors of “Peril” have asserted that Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was concerned over a raging, seemingly unbound President/ Commander-in-Chief Donald Trump. By law, the chain-of-command for a nuclear launch is from the president directly to his Secretary of Defense, and straight to the Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

CJCS is not in that civil-military chain. Nevertheless, Milley informed his senior officers that he “had to be involved” in any order to launch nuclear weapons, asking each to confirm they understood.

Military leaders historically have had an anxious relationship with nuclear doctrine, the most consequential of civil-military relations. In a real world example, President Dwight Eisenhower’s “New Look” policy assumed limited conventional wars could be waged with nuclear weapons. Consequently, in 1954, then-CJCS Arthur Rad- ford informed Eisenhower that two nuclear-capable aircraft carriers were positioned to defend French troops at Dien Bien Phu.

However, when the French requested air intervention, the fleet commander had replaced the nuclear aircraft carriers with conventional-only carriers. The commander’s view of nuclear weapons was that they were meant as a deterrent whose release would only be authorized in a “pretty hot war” that directly involved the United States.

In 1988, then-CJCS William Crowe held a war game for all NATO chiefs of defense. During the game, as overwhelming Soviet conventional forces entered western Europe, the decision to launch nuclear weapons was taken, evoking a harsh discussion on what was long-standing nuclear doctrine. In his last chairman’s assessment, Admiral Crowe expressed his concern about the near-automatic U.S. commitment to use nuclear weapons.

The unique legacy of U.S. civil-military relations – civilian control of the military – was established by Gen. George Washington when, at war’s end, he pointedly presented his sword and resignation to the Congress of the Confederation. Today’s CJCS is the steward of that treasured legacy.

“Peril” alleges that CJCS Milley was sufficiently alarmed by Trump’s mental state and a nuclear decision of unthinkable consequences that he moved to insert himself into the most inviolate of civil-military relationships. He did the wrong thing for the right reason. Therefore, his resignation should have been handed to incoming President Joe Biden on the day of his inauguration.

Inherent to our nation’s civil-military relationship is that with responsibility goes authority, but with them both goes accountability. Milley may have done the responsible thing under the distinct circumstances he confronted, but he lacked the authority to do it, and must hold himself accountable for his action, no matter his good intentions.

Washington’s legacy of accountability for civilian control of the military was empowered by his action of resignation, relinquishing all military authority to the civilian executive of the time. Similarly, the action of violating that civilian control today demands accountability, despite the best of reasons. Only by answering for his deed, regardless of its intent, can Milley ensure that his junior officers understand that civilian control is inviolate by anyone assuming the chairmanship.