SecDef Miller Was a Man With No Fucks Left to Give

Portrait of a Defense Secretary who doesn't care about protecting the sacred truths of his institution.

In the final days of the Trump presidency, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller began to say the quiet part out loud. “I cannot wait to leave this job, believe me,” Miller told a press gaggle on January 14. “I would have loved to have gotten involved in the acquisition process and try…and you know, talk about wicked problem.”

Miller shared a story about talking to a colonel about the problems with the F-35. According to Miller, the colonel told him the military was already looking towards the future. “I think it’s hilarious,” Miller said. “‘Well we need to invest in the sixth generation,’” the colonel said.

“I’m like, ‘We have created a monster,’” Miller told the Colonel.

Other highlights from the conversation include Miller praising Russia’s mastery of irregular warfare. “I have professional respect for how they do things…I think they’re played a really bad hand of card very, very well. Declining population, single -- single source of economic revenue through natural resources. I kind of, you know, like professionally I’m like, wow, they’re doing pretty well, and they’re using a lot of irregular warfare concepts, information, all this stuff, in a way that, you know, like…good on them.”

And saying the biggest challenge facing the Pentagon is a Cold War mindset that’s led to expensive weapons systems that’s led to a bloated acquisition process. “I think the biggest thing is, we have to come out of the mindset of the Cold War,” he said. “I know we had that period, but big—big units, big high-dollar weapons systems, you know, just this huge enormous complex. I think the key thing we need to do is we need to start paying attention.”

According to reporting from Vanity Fair, which spent the final week of the presidency with Miller and his aides, this conversation was supposed to be off the record. “Someone in the Pentagon decided to simply post on the Defense Department’s website,” Vanity Fair said.

The article has been blogged, reblogged, dissected, and criticised across the press and social media. “Ex-Defense Secretary Chris Miller goes off the rails in ‘bonkers’ article everyone is talking about,” Task & Purpose said.

As someone who’s been covering the American military for the better part of a decade now, with a focus on defense procurement and bureaucracy, Miller’s words feel more on the nose than off the rails. “This fucking place is rotten. It’s rotten,” Miller said, then explained he felt the civilian government idolized and fetishized military leaders.

Miller’s not wrong and he’s not ignorant. He’s a former Green Beret who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the 5th Special Forces Group. After retiring from the service, like many of his profession, he became a defense contractor. Before taking over as Acting SecDef in November, Miller worked as Assistant to the Secretary of Defense of Intelligence Oversight.

This is a guy who understands how the military-industrial complex works. He’s seen combat, sold weapons to the military as a civilian, and investigated the excesses of the Pentagon. He’s a person who knows all the angles. It’s remarkable that, at what is probably the end of his public career, he decided to be so candidly honest about the rot he sees in the heart of the American military.

The Pentagon’s budget grows every year and it will spend more than $700 billion in 2021. The F-35, by all accounts a terrible jet, will cost almost $2 trillion over the course of its life. Pentagon top brass and defense contractors are already laying plans for the jet that will replace the F-35. Nuclear modernization is a huge defense contractor grift. Last year’s defense budget set aside $3.2 billion for research on hypersonic weapons meant for nukes, and every scientific study indicates that hypersonic weapons won’t work as intended. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs owns so much real estate it literally can’t account for it all.

America spends an incredible amount of money on defense and much of it is wasted. Civilians don’t understand the military and, instead of attempting to figure out where its money is going, the public has allowed the Pentagon to do what it wants. Popular culture idolizes the troop and the legislature writes the DoD a blank check for foreign wars and procurement boondoggles.

Miller seems to know all this and his greatest sin seems to be having the temerity to say it aloud. Replacing him is retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin, the former commander of United States Central Command. After he retired from the military in 2016 he joined the boards of Raytheon, the steel company Nucor, and Tenet Healthcare. Congress had to grant Austin a waiver to become SecDef because he’s taking on the job too close to his retirement from the military. We used to frown on that kind of thing.

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