When duty calls, Christopher Miller is ready to answer.
The Delaware and Iowa native has been on the front lines of serving his country for nearly 40 years. Rising from the ranks of a private in the U.S. Army in the early 1980s, Miller has served as a Green Beret and as a Special Forces commander in Afghanistan and Iraq before being named director of the National Counterterrorism Center in August 2020. But his biggest role would come at the end of the Trump Administration when he was named acting Secretary of Defense after Mark Esper was fired in November 2020.
Miller served as the Defense Secretary in the tumultuous period when the results of the 2020 Presidential Election were being challenged, leading to the widespread protest and riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was also overseeing the drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan during the same period and was in the command room when ISIS terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed by Special Forces in 2019.
In his recently released memoir, “Soldier Secretary,” Miller writes about his military career and his foray into the politics of Washington, D.C. Miller speaks about the actions of Rep. Nancy Pelosi surrounding the Jan. 6 events, working with former National Security Advisor and current Republican presidential candidate John Bolton, and his thoughts on the Trump Administration.
Miller also includes a 10-point action plan for reforming and saving the Armed Forces, including cutting military spending in half, securing the U.S. Border with military force, and creating a smaller, more nimble fighting force.
The Lancaster Patriot recently spoke with Miller over the phone about everything from meeting Andrew Marshall, the foreign policy strategist and head of the Office of Net Assessment in the Department of Defense for more than 40 years, being a main figure of the conspiracy movement in modern politics and growing up near Lancaster County as a child.
The hour-long interview has been edited for brevity and readability.
The Lancaster Patriot: Have you been to Lancaster County?
Christopher Miller: I used to live in Newark, Delaware, and my mom was a farm woman. She always wanted us to get out and experience everything, so I’ve been to Lancaster many times as a child.
TLP: Did you have a favorite place to come in Lancaster?
CM: Mushrooms and pretzels. And, of course, the Amish stuff. We got all that. Those are the two things I remember. My mom just had this idea we needed to go see how mushrooms were grown. And then, of course, the oldest pretzels.
TLP: What prompted you to write this book?
CM: I never would have thought in a million years I’d write a book, but I was offered the opportunity, so I did it. I wanted to be brutally authentic, as opposed to the typical ghost-written stories. I wanted the words to be my own. I had a co-writer simply to keep me from writing too much. I think each chapter was supposed to be 5,000 words, and I’d write 15,000 because I just let everything out. I thought they were really great stories, but the co-writer did a good job of removing a lot of the excess. At the end of the day, it was a team effort, but the voice is absolutely mine.
TLP: How did you come up with the characterization of John Bolton as a “loudmouth frat boy at a bar” in your book?
CM: We ended up having to cut out a whole bunch because I just went off on the neoconservative movement. When I found out Bolton was going to be the National Security Advisor, I read his memoir, “Surrender is Not an Option.” That book resonated with me. And then I met him, and I am thinking, “Oh, man, what an egotistical dude.” For my book, he ended up being the protagonist for the neoconservative movement. The things he would say and recommend were concerning. At the end of the day, I’m still upset about Iraq. I talk about in the book. Those neocons that took over and pushed us into that war, I’ve still got a little bad blood for, and he’s kind of the face of it.
TLP: How was Bolton and some of the other neocon figures from Iraq able to work their way into the Trump administration?
CM: The vast majority of Republican national security experts and professionals signed those “never Trump” letters. I think it surprised a lot of them when they never got invited back by President Trump. A person like me would have never had the opportunity to serve in a traditional administration. I don’t have the pedigree these other guys do. The neocons own a bunch of the think tanks, and they are part of the national security bureaucracy. But Trump’s administration was non-traditional, and I was selected. How did Bolton and other neocons get back in? I think it was desperation at a certain point. Let’s be honest, the President had a lot going on and he trusted some advisors, and the internationalists were in ascension. And it was probably the political game in D.C. that got Bolton and crew in there. In the end, I think President Trump thought, “What was that about? Who advised me on this?”
TLP: Who was it that advised him on that?
CM: I don’t know who the whisperer was. That’s a great question. Who was in the background whispering to him to hire John Bolton? There was this weird network. I think it must be typical to D.C. I’ve never had any experience, of course, at that level. I bet it was somebody like Lindsey Graham. It was somebody on the Hill, probably, that was whispering in his ear.
TLP: When you started as a private in the Army in the late ’80s, did it even cross your mind that you would be serving as a top person in the Pentagon?
CM: Absolutely not. I was out there in Iowa, thinking I am going to be trapped in a smalltown forever. When I retired from the Army in 2014, my wife didn’t want to move anymore. We were in the northern Virginia area near Washington, D.C., and she said, “You can go do whatever you want, but I’m not moving.” So, if you’re in the government, you go into government. I worked at the Pentagon for a bunch of years when I was in the Army. So I went back and worked in the Pentagon. At the Pentagon there is the E-Ring, the outer ring, where all the important people have their offices because there’s sunlight. And the E-Ring has some museum quality artwork. It’s just magical. It’s beautiful. And I would work with people – military people, as well as civilians – that would never walk down that hall. They’d say, “I’m not allowed to walk down this hall. This is where all the important people are.” I would go out of my way, when I was a nobody, to walk down that hall. I’m thinking, “I’m paying my taxes, man. I can walk wherever I want.” But, no, I had never had the slightest idea. Not in my weirdest dream did I think I would one day be one of those people in the E-Ring with a whole bunch of people surrounding him, moving up and down the hallway.
TLP: Speaking of the Pentagon, did you ever encounter Andrew Marshall?
CM: One time when I was still in uniform. He was a legendary figure. I had read about him and was very familiar with his work. He was at the Office of Net Assessment (ONA) and I was in special operations. We were coming up with some new concepts for employment, and we got invited to go present to him in his office one day. You’re talking about a bucket list thing. Fortunately, I didn’t have to brief. He talked, and we had a conversation. So, we get done and we walk out – really pleasant guy. And I was thinking, “Wow, this is historic.” He stays in his office, and somebody said, “Oh my gosh, he never talks to anybody. What did you guys do?” We just presented our stuff, and we had this nice dialogue. Apparently, he was very cryptic. He would sit and just listen and say, “Thank you for coming in.” Nobody knows about him. Andy Marshall is still known by my generation, but the younger generation would say, “What are you talking about?” He was so profound and had such a profoundly positive impact on our nation – kind of an unsung hero.Unfortunately, the office has gone to junk since he left due to leadership problems. He was just one of a kind.
TLP: I wanted to ask you about your 10-point plan listed at the end of the book.
CM: The publisher said, “You’ve got to have policy prescriptions at the end.” I’m thinking, “Nobody reads those. Those are silly. I don’t even read them in a book. It’s fluff.” But this is a policy book about the future, and they said they had to be in there.
TLP: Which ones would you put at the top?
CM: There’s no way we’re going to cut the defense budget in half. I’m just being provocative on that. That was just a teaser to get everybody fired up. The left agrees, and the far right agrees, which is kind of interesting. So, there are two things that I’m really, really serious about. One is how our military has become separated from the society that they protect and serve. We have these huge bases – I call them gated communities – primarily down in the South. Let’s talk about Lancaster. You’ve got Indiantown Gap. But back in the day, every single major populated area had some sort of military presence. So, there’s this beautiful transaction between the military and the civilians, which I thought was important. And it concerns me that we now have this huge separation. My solution is to re-energize the citizen soldiers in the National Guard and transition our military from a large standing army to more of a National Guard model.
And the other point is to fire all the generals. All the generals are upset at me. But what I’m really trying to talk about there is accountability. I wrote about the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act – that’s something that we can do as a country to change the incentive structure for military officers. Because at the end of the day, we’ve lost the war – end of story. We defeated ISIS and al Qaeda, which technically was the reason for the war. But, we just made horrible strategic decisions on how to conduct the war in Afghanistan and how to conduct the war in Iraq. We’re just strategically inept. So, there’s something wrong with our structure of selecting senior officers, and we need to really, really be critical about that. And, of course, it’s breaking a lot of glass, and the institution doesn’t want to recognize it.
In the past, we’ve always done lessons learned, and the military’s really dug in to try to collect the experiences. And that hasn’t been done yet. It was done reluctantly for Iraq, and the effort was done in Afghanistan. But a lot of it’s being suppressed. I was raised in the military to accept responsibility for everything that does or doesn’t happen in my command. And if things go wrong, you have to recognize it. You have to accept responsibility. Somehow there’s a transition when military officers go from having the best interest of their troops in mind to becoming a little too self-promoting. There are some great examples of superb military officers, but my experience was troubling to me. When you’re younger, a general officer is on a pedestal. And then to be there with them, you think, “Wow, that’s the best they got? What are we doing in our selection, in our training, in our education?”
TLP: I’d imagine Gen. Mark Milley might be at the top of your list if you had to rank who has to go first?
CM: I’d like somebody to accept responsibility for the debacle in Afghanistan – the withdraw. I think we could actually take it back to the events after George Floyd was tragically killed and the Black Lives Matter protests on Lafayette Square in D.C. and the military’s response to that. I think decisions matter, and I see a lot of this holier-than-thou attitude of, “Well, if I left, it will be worse.” And that’s just not the way the military works. No one in the military is so important that they can’t be replaced.
TLP: You made comments at the end of 2020 when introducing Mike Pence at a speech that you had gone through “some of the most complex military operations this country has ever conducted.” Was that referencing the Baghdadi raid?
CM: Yes, but there were also some other things. I have to say, the Vice President is magical. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found him to be an extraordinarily gifted leader. Any time a casualty came back from overseas I’d go up to Dover Air Force Base to receive the remains, and guess who was there? Mike Pence and his wife. He didn’t have to be there, and he never got any press for that. It was just the right thing to do. And his son-in-law was serving in the military on the aircraft carrier and his service kept getting extended to support operations in Iraq. One day somebody tells me, “You realize the vice president’s son-in-law is on that ship? He’s a pilot now.” My reaction was, “What? He never once told me that. He never once said that.” So, I actually went to the Vice President every time we’d extend the tour and say, “Mr. Vice President, I’m sorry. Your son-in-law is not going to be home for the holiday season this year.” He’d say, “No problem.” I’d say, “I know your daughter is going to be upset.” He said, “He’s in armed forces, and he’s there to serve. And you do what you need to do.” I found him to be a really inspirational figure.
TLP: If Trump got back into office in 2024 and he offered you a position in the administration, would you take it?
CM: The experience was very difficult for my family and for me. I can’t imagine a scenario. But I’m also a person of service, and if asked, I’d have to consider it. But I would take all the input from my family – serving at that level can be very traumatic for the family. I went into it with some naivety. I wanted to believe the best about our system and politicians. And then to be exposed to how it really works – it wasn’t debilitating, but it’s very discouraging. For example, I’d have these lovely chats with Nancy Pelosi or other members of Congress, and then the next day they would be attacking the Department of Defense. I realized that if you’re in politics, the only thing that matters is gaining, maintaining, or increasing your power.
TLP: On current events, did you happen to see Sy Hersh’s article accusing the U.S. And Norwegian government of working together to blow up the Nord Stream pipeline?
CM: He’s getting a little goofy. Of course, the Mi Lai story was great. But his Iraq torture stories were a little unhinged. Don’t confuse incompetence for malice. It’s the whole Ben Franklin thing: “It’s easy for three people to keep a secret if two are dead.” There’s no way the United States is sophisticated enough to pull that off without somebody leaking.
TLP: His argument was that Biden did leak it and that it was telegraphed when he met the German Chancellor last year and he threatened that the Nord Stream pipeline will not exist if Russia invades the Ukraine.
CM: I get all sorts of crazy conspiracy stuff. But of course, he’s got a Pulitzer, so he doesn’t want to wade into the whack jobs. It’s amazing where you get these fever dreams. It’s all these old, retired dudes, too. They’ll have analyzed probably every gesture of Biden’s State of the Union and decided that he was signaling something to the Chinese. I mean, I love that stuff.
TLP: I was curious if you were cognizant of the fact that for a while, you were a main figure of the conspiracy movement and that there was some sort of secret Space Force program that you were involved in with Pence when you were introducing him?
CM: Oh, yeah. It’s hilarious. I paid attention to a point, but it was just like the fever dreams. I think somebody did a Q-anon thing of “Who is Q?” I think I was in top 10. You can’t make this up. I had not specifically heard that one, but that’s a good one to know.