The missiles that comprise the land component of America’s nuclear triad are scattered across thousands of square miles of prairie and farmland, mainly in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. About 150 of the roughly 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles currently on alert are dispersed in a wide circle around Minot Air Force Base, in the upper reaches of North Dakota. From Minot, it would take an ICBM about 25 minutes to reach Moscow.
These nuclear weapons are under the control of the 91st Missile Wing of the Air Force Global Strike Command, and it was to the 91st—the “Rough Riders”—that General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a visit in March 2021. I accompanied him on the trip. A little more than two months had passed since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and America’s nuclear arsenal was on Milley’s mind.
In normal times, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the principal military adviser to the president, is supposed to focus his attention on America’s national-security challenges, and on the readiness and lethality of its armed forces. But the first 16 months of Milley’s term, a period that ended when Joe Biden succeeded Donald Trump as president, were not normal, because Trump was exceptionally unfit to serve. “For more than 200 years, the assumption in this country was that we would have a stable person as president,” one of Milley’s mentors, the retired three-star general James Dubik, told me. That this assumption did not hold true during the Trump administration presented a “unique challenge” for Milley, Dubik said.
Milley was careful to refrain from commenting publicly on Trump’s cognitive unfitness and moral derangement. In interviews, he would say that it is not the place of the nation’s flag officers to discuss the performance of the nation’s civilian leaders.
But his views emerged in a number of books published after Trump left office, written by authors who had spoken with Milley, and many other civilian and military officials, on background. In The Divider, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser write that Milley believed that Trump was “shameful,” and “complicit” in the January 6 attack. They also reported that Milley feared that Trump’s “ ‘Hitler-like’ embrace of the big lie about the election would prompt the president to seek out a ‘Reichstag moment.’ ”
These views of Trump align with those of many officials who served in his administration. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, considered Trump to be a “fucking moron.” John Kelly, the retired Marine general who served as Trump’s chief of staff in 2017 and 2018, has said that Trump is the “most flawed person” he’s ever met. James Mattis, who is also a retired Marine general and served as Trump’s first secretary of defense, has told friends and colleagues that the 45th president was “more dangerous than anyone could ever imagine.” It is widely known that Trump’s second secretary of defense, Mark Esper, believed that the president didn’t understand his own duties, much less the oath that officers swear to the Constitution, or military ethics, or the history of America. [Continue reading…]