Watch CBS News

Gen. Mark Milley looks back at war in Afghanistan, conflict with former President Trump

Gen. Mark Milley: The 60 Minutes Interview
Gen. Mark Milley: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:24

General Mark Milley completed a four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's highest ranking military officer, on September 30th. He told us he spent most of his time working to avoid a direct conflict with Russia and China while the country watched him have a very public falling out with former President Trump, the man who picked him for the job.

General Milley's time serving President Joe Biden had its own challenges, including America's calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as providing Ukraine with billions of dollars worth of American military equipment.

A few hours before we sat down with the general at the Pentagon, he'd had his final phone call with the commander of Ukraine's armed forces.

General Mark Milley: The counteroffensive that the Ukrainians are running is still ongoing. The progress, as many, many people have noted, is slow, but it is steady. And they are making progress on a day-to-day basis. 

Norah O'Donnell: But expelling 200,000 Russian soldiers--

General Mark Milley: Very difficult.

Norah O'Donnell: No easy task.

General Mark Milley: Very hard, very hard.

Norah O'Donnell: How long is this gonna look like this? A year? Five years? 

General Mark Milley: Well, you can't put a time on it. But it'll be a considerable length of time. And it's gonna be long and hard and very bloody. 

Russia occupies 41,000 square miles of Ukraine. The frontline extends about the distance from Atlanta to Washington, DC.

In Congress this past week, Republicans ended Kevin McCarthy's speakership and for now, more aid to Ukraine. According to the White House, of the $113 billion already committed, there's only enough left to last a few more months.

Norah O'Donnell: With all of the issues facing Americans at home, why is this worth it?

General Mark Milley: If Ukraine loses and Putin wins, I think you would be-- certainly increasing if not doubling your defense budget in the years ahead. And you will increase the probability of a great power war in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it would be a very dangerous situation if-- if Putin's allowed to win. 

Gen. Mark Milley
Gen. Mark Milley 60 Minutes

General Mark Milley: Ukraine-Russia obviously is what drives this meeting today.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the commander in chief's principal military advisor, but commands no troops in battle.

General Mark Milley: I am obligated, regardless of consequences, to give my advice to the president. But no president is obligated to follow that advice.

This past August, General Milley invited us aboard the USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, not far from where he grew up.

General Mark Milley: We're the only military in the world that swears an oath-- not to a king, a queen, a tyrant, a would-be tyrant, or a dictator. We swear an oath to an idea, the idea that is America. And it's-- and it's embodied in that document, the Constitution, which sets up our form of government. 

In 2021, General Milley had counseled President Biden to keep 2,500 troops in and around Kabul. Instead, Mr. Biden ordered a complete withdrawal to end America's longest war after 10 years. The disaster that followed will be part of both of their legacies.

General Mark Milley: I go through the entire withdrawal from Afghanistan-- chapter and verse all the time. That was a strategic failure for the United States. The enemy occupied the capital city of the country that you were supporting. So, to me, that hurts. It hurts a big way. But no matter what pain I feel or anyone else feels-- nothing comes even close to the pain of those that were killed.

Norah O'Donnell: To those who served in Afghanistan for two decades and lost family members and friends and wonder, "Was it worth it?"

General Mark Milley: Well, that's always the question. Right? So, 2,461 killed in action by the enemy in Afghanistan over 20 years. Was it worth it? Lookit, I can't answer that for other people. This is a tough business that we're in. This military business. It's unforgiving. The crucible of combat's unforgiving. People die. They lose their arms. They lose their legs. It's an incredibly difficult-- life. But is it worth it? Look around you. Lo-- ask yourself th-- the question. For me, I've answered it many times over and that's why I stay in uniform and that's why I maintain my oath.

His commitment to that oath would be both tested and questioned by Donald Trump. while their relationship began with kind words…

…after the January 6th insurrection, the two men would not speak again.

Their public estrangement started in the spring of 2020 when protests for racial justice, some violent, spread across the country, including to Washington, DC.

Norah O'Donnell: Perhaps more than any other chairman in the role, you have become ensnarled in politics and, arguably, threats to the Constitution. What have you learned from that?

General Mark Milley: Well, I think it's important to-- to keep your North Star, which is the Constitution. We, the military-- are not only apolitical, we are nonpartisan. You can't pick sides.

Norah O'Donnell: June 1st, 2020. Was that a turning point for you as chairman?

General Mark Milley: I think it was. Yeah. I realized that I stepped into a political minefield and I shouldn't have. 

He's talking about the day when President Trump threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy the U.S. Army to put down the unrest on America's streets.

On the evening of June 1st, after demonstrators near the White House were removed by force, Chairman Milley, dressed in battle fatigues, joined President Trump and members of his Cabinet in a march across Lafayette Square to St. John's Church, where Mr. Trump posed for photographs.

Ten days later General Milley apologized in a speech to graduates of the National Defense University.

Milley (during his speech): My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from…

Norah O'Donnell: It's rare for a chairman to apologize publicly.

General Mark Milley: Well, you know, I grew up here in Boston. I'm Irish Catholic and my mother and father taught me that when you make a mistake, you admit it. You go to confession. You say 10 Hail Marys and an Our Father. Everybody makes mistakes. And-- and the key is-- how you deal with the mistake.

Norah O'Donnell: After you apologized, former President Trump said you choked like a dog.

General Mark Milley: Yeah, I'm not gonna comment on anything the former president has said or not said.

General Milley did tell us he was so disillusioned with the former president's actions he nearly resigned. Instead, according to former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, he and the general made a pact to protect the military from becoming politicized or misused.

Norah O'Donnell and Gen. Mark Milley
Norah O'Donnell and Gen. Mark Milley 60 Minutes

Norah O'Donnell: It's also been reported that you spent several days, several drafts of resignation letters.

General Mark Milley: That's right.

Norah O'Donnell: I was s-- very struck by the one that was published in which you said to the president: "It is my deeply held belief that you are ruining the international order, causing significant damage to our country overseas that was fought so hard by the greatest generation in 1945. That generation, has fought against fascism, has fought against Nazism, has fought against extremism. It's now obvious to me that you don't understand that world order." You don't think Donald Trump understood what World War II was fought over?

General Mark Milley: I don't know what-- president-- former President Trump-- understood about World War II or-- or-- or-- or anything else. I can tell you that-- from 1914-- to 1945-- 150 million people or th-- thereabouts were slaughtered in the conduct of great power war.

And in 1945, the United States took the initiative and drafted up a set of rules-- that govern the world to this day--  Those rules are under stress internationally, President Putin is a direct frontal assault on those rules. China is trying to revise those rules to their own benefit.  

Norah O'Donnell: But that's one thing to say that China is threatening that world order and Russia is threatening that world order. To say that the commander in chief, Donald Trump was "ruining the international order" and "causing significant damage," what did you see that caused you to write that?

General Mark Milley: I th-- I would say that--

Norah O'Donnell: It's gotta be more than Walking into Lafayette Square in uniform.

General Mark Milley: There was-- a wide variety of initiatives that were ongoing, one of them f-- of course, was withdrawing troops out of NATO-- those were initiatives that placed at risk-- you know, I think, America's role in the world. Now that is the opposite of-- what-- my parents and-- and-- 18 million others wore the uniform for World War II to defeat.

General milley doesn't just revere the greatest generation. He was raised by it. His father was a Navy medic who served in the Pacific Campaign, including at the Battle of Iwo Jima. His mother joined the Naval Reserve to work as a nurse.

After the war they settled in Winchester, a small town north of Boston.

General Mark Milley: Almost every single-- male and female-- parent that was here, they're all World War II veterans of one kind or another.

Norah O'Donnell: The whole block, really, a lot of people had--

General Mark Milley: All-- everybody. Yeah, 100%.

General Mark Milley: And interesting, no officers. These were 100% (laughs) enlisted. And-- and they had their own opinions of officers, too. And--

Gen. Mark Milley
Gen. Mark Milley 60 Minutes

Norah O'Donnell: Including your parents, right?

General Mark Milley: Of c-- oh, yeah, yeah.

During high school, he was recruited to play ice hockey at Princeton University and decided to join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC. After graduating in 1980, he went on to become a paratrooper and serve in Special Forces. He did one combat tour in Iraq and three in Afghanistan.

This past May he returned to Princeton, to commission the graduating ROTC class…and took a particular interest in a few of the young officers, whose language skills are currently in high demand.

Marine cadet: I speak Chinese sir.

General Mark Milley: Chinese is really, really important to us.

Anybody else speak Chinese? Whoa, one, two, three, four, five. If you speak Chinese, if you don't mind, I'd like to get your names. And we'll see where life takes you guys. 

We, the United States-- need to take the challenge, the military challenge of China extraordinarily seriously. 

Norah O'Donnell: How concerned are you that military-to-military communications are not happening right now with China?

General Mark Milley: Yeah, I think we need to get that established. We had them for a period of time and then they've dropped off. So channels of communication are important in order to deescalate in time of crisis.

General Milley says he held a total of five calls with his Chinese military counterparts during the Trump and Biden administrations. But it was his last two calls during the final months of the Trump presidency that got the attention of the press, Congress, and the former president himself.

Norah O'Donnell: Why did you think it was so important to call your Chinese military counterpart in the aftermath of the January 6th attacks?

General Mark Milley: That's an example of deescalation. So-- there was clear indications-- that the Chinese were very concerned about what they were observing-- here in the United States. 

Norah O'Donnell: Did you see some movement of Chinese military equipment--

General Mark Milley: I won't go over anything classified. So I won't discuss exactly what we saw or didn't see, or what we heard or didn't hear, I will just say that-- there was clear indications that the Chinese were very concerned.

Gen. Mark Milley and Norah O'Donnell
Gen. Mark Milley and Norah O'Donnell 60 Minutes

Norah O'Donnell: President Trump recently said that your "dealings" with China were "so egregious that in times gone by, the punishment would have been death."

General Mark Milley: That's right. He said that. 

Norah O'Donnell: But for the record, was there anything inappropriate or treasonous about the calls you made to China--

General Mark Milley: Absolutely not. Zero. None. And not only that, they were authorized. They're coordinated. Congress knows that. We've answered these questions-- several different times in writing 

Norah O'Donnell: Were you giving the Chinese information about thinking of the president of the United States?

General Mark Milley: The specific conversation was-- I think in accordance with-- the intent of the secretary of defense, which was to make sure the Chinese knew that we were not going to attack them.

Norah O'Donnell: Why did the Chinese think that the U.S. under then-president Trump was going to attack them--

General Mark Milley: The Chinese were concerned about-- what-- what is commonly referred to in-- in-- in the English language like an October surprise, wag the dog sort of thing. They were wrong. They were not reading us right. Lookit, President Trump was not going to attack China. And they needed to know that.

China, Russia and the war in Ukraine are now the problem of his successor, Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, Jr. 

There are also areas of concern closer to home. Last year, the Army missed its recruiting numbers by 15,000 soldiers, the worst shortfall in decades.

Norah O'Donnell: Confidence in the U.S. military is at its lowest in two decades, do you bear any personal responsibility for that?

General Mark Milley: Absolutely. I think as the leader of the military, the uniformed military, I think that I am part of that for sure. I think that the walk from the White House to the St. John's Church, I think that-- helped create some of that.

I think the withdrawal from Afghanistan-- helped create some of that. But I would also say, the United States military is still one of the most respected institutions in the United States by a long shot-- by a huge margin. You know, I think we've-- taken a slip back a little bit--and I think we need to improve on that.

Produced by Keith Sharman. Associate producer, Roxanne Feitel. Broadcast associate, Eliza Costas. Edited by April Wilson.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.