Civil-Miltary Relations: The Chain of Command
Laypersons should be forgiven if they think the military chain-of-command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to the Army, to the Navy (Marine Corps), and to the Air Force. While that was true long ago, such an arrangement has not been true for many decades. Todayís military chain-of-command is the result of defense-reorganization legislation enacted in 1949, 1953, and 1986.
Hereís how it works today: Letís say the President wants to use the U.S. military to oppose foreign aggression somewhere in the world. He orders the Secretary of Defense (SecDef) to do it. The SecDef has direct command authority over the Unified and Specified Military Commands that include: African, Central, Cyber, European, Indo-Pacific, Southern, Space, Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation. The SecDef then orders the appropriate command(s) to take military action. The JCS supports them with beans and bullets.
In addition, the SecDef has command authority over eight other not so well known commands such as the Military District of Washington (MDW) which includes Washington, D.C., a federal city subject to the control of the President, the SecDef and the U.S. military. To use federal troops or federalized National Guard troops inside Washington, D.C., the President needs no additional authority to do so.
Recently, a handful of retired generals displayed an appalling lack of knowledge with regard to the use of federal troops inside Washington, D.C. Moreover, some of their remarks were so contemptuous of the Command-in-Chief that they could be court-martialed under Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). In Larabee vs. the United States, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that military retirees are still subject to the UCMJ.
The Chairman of the JCS (CJCS) has zero combat command authority. The Chairman serves as the principal military adviser to the President, the SecDef, and to the National Security Council (NSC). The other members of the JCS may respond to requests or voluntarily submit, through the Chairman, their advice or opinions to the President, the SecDef, or NSC. None of them have any command authority.
On June 1, 2020, the protesters/rioters inside the MDW were dealt with by the President, the SecDef, and the Commander of the MDW.
So, one wonders why General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the JCS, appeared at the White House on June 1, 2020, wearing the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), the uniform for commanding troops in the field. More appropriate to his advisory role would have been the Army Green Service Uniform (AGSU) -- the uniform he wears everyday in his Pentagon office.
Walking over to the fire-damaged St. Johnís Church with President Trump was not one of General Milleyís better ideas. He had no role over there except maybe he was curious to see the fire damage.
Obviously, President Trump wanted the nation to see the fire damage and also demonstrate his support for freedom of religion. With perfect hindsight, the President would have been better advised to invite the Rector for St. Johnís to provide a tour of the fire damage. As officials responsible for order inside the MDW, the SecDef and the MDW commander had reasons to view the damage as well. General Milley did not.
(c) 2020. William Hamilton.
Suggested readings: 10 U.S. Code Section 151 (JCS). "The Rise and Fall of the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff." U.S. Naval War College Review, April, 1972, pp. 36-58. Reprinted in War, Strategy, and Maritime Power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1977. The Influence of the U.S. Military on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1965-1968. University of Nebraska, 1972. Formula for Failure in Vietnam: The Folly of Limited Warfare, McFarland Publishing Co., 2019. 10 U.S. Code, Chapter 47, Article 88.