Officials emphasized the importance of the U.S. Constitution to the military as Army Gen. Mark A. Milley transferred responsibility as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and the rest of the U.S. national security hierarchy attended the ceremony at Fort Myer, Virginia, today. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking member of the U.S. military and is the principal military advisor to the present, vice president, the secretary of defense and the rest of the national security establishment.
What the Constitution means to the American military was a key point in many of the remarks at the ceremony.
Milley ended almost 44 years in uniform, and Biden thanked the general for his service in war zones around the world. “When it comes to the Constitution, that is and always has been Mark’s North Star,” the president said. He noted that on the general’s challenge coin are the words “We the people” — the first three words of the preamble to the Constitution.
“Those three little words mean so much to every American, but especially to those who stand in the service of our nation,” Biden said.
Those words are what make the United States a strong nation, the president said. It is “who we are as a democracy, and how the United States for more than two centuries, has always managed to keep moving forward,” he said. “Not fealty to any one person or to a political party. But to the idea of America. An idea unlike any other in human history. That’s what we swear an oath to. And that is why generations of young women and men — Americans of every background and creed — have stepped forward to be part of the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.”
Biden said he was pleased that the Senate acted to confirm Brown as chairman, but said it is “thoroughly, totally unacceptable that more than 300 other highly qualified military officers are still in limbo.”
The hold on these promotions impacts everything from readiness to morale to retention. “Our troops deserve so much better,” he said.
Austin said the past few years have been challenging for the military. As chairman, Milley had to take on the pacing challenge of China, confronted the COVID-19 pandemic and helped put together the coalition to help Ukraine fight back after Russia’s imperial invasion, the secretary said.
“General Milley has a deep sense of history,” Austin said. “And he knows that future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to defend the post-war order built by American leadership. And so, he hasn’t just studied history. He has made history.”
Brown thanked the president and secretary for their confidence in him and gave a short preview of his priorities. “As we step out together in today’s uncertain security landscape, honing our warfighting skills has primacy in all we do,” he said. “We must focus on integrating our military power within our services, across the joint force and with our allies and partners to deter aggression, to fight when called upon and to decisively prevail in war,”
The U.S. military must focus on modernizing and aggressively leading with new concepts and approaches, he said. “Finally, trust is the foundation of our profession,” Brown said. “As chairman, every day, I will focus on strengthening the bonds of trust across our force, ensuring the American people know their military and its service members — active, Guard, Reserve and civilian — only as the unwavering defenders of the Constitution, and servants of our nation.”
Milley said he was “deeply honored” to serve as a U.S. soldier for almost 44 years and was humbled to be the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The Joint Force … is the most lethal and capable military in the world, and our enemies know it,” he said. “We are currently standing watch on freedom’s frontier with a quarter of a million troops deployed in 150 countries.”
During his four-year tenure, U.S. forces have participated in countless operations, exercises and training events around the world. “We’ve destroyed [the Islamic State] and served justice to [Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi,” he said. “We supported Ukraine in their fight for freedom against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war of aggression and strengthened the NATO alliance. We maintain stability in Asia. We fought terrorists in Africa and the Middle East. We defended the homeland, provided support for countless disasters and protected the American people during COVID.”
Milley particularly noted that more than 800,000 U.S. service members served in Afghanistan. “To each of you, be proud that you protected this country for 20 consecutive years at great cost, with 2,326 killed in action, and 20,713 of us wounded alongside your brave colleagues from CIA and FBI and Department of State and USAID and many others from our government and our allies and partners,” he said. “Hold your head high: You served. You did what your country asked. And each of you served with honor, courage, skill and dignity and never forget that.”
That kind of service is about the American Republic, he said, and “the ideas and the values that make up this great experiment in liberty. Those values and ideas are contained within the Constitution of the United States of America, which is the moral North Star for all of us who have the privilege of wearing the cloth of our nation.”
The Constitution gives purpose to service. “It is that document that all of us in uniform, swear to protect and defend against all enemies — foreign and domestic,” Milley said. “That has been true across generations. And we in uniform are willing to die, to pass that document on to the next generation.”
The Constitution makes the American military unique. “We don’t take an oath to a country. We don’t take an oath to a tribe. We don’t take an oath to a religion. We don’t take an oath to a king, or queen, or a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator. We don’t take an oath to an individual,” he said. “We take an oath to the Constitution, and we take an oath to the idea that is America, and we’re willing to die to protect it.”
Austin thanked Milley for his service and spoke to the joint force. “Every day America is counting on you,” he said. “We’re counting on you to deter aggression wherever we can, to stand ready to fight and to win wherever we must, and to work with our partners for a more secure and peaceful world. And to defend the Republic that we love. The watch is changing, but the mission goes on.”