'People are watching': Attacks on Milley and the US military play right into enemy hands

My colleagues in Congress are actively undermining our national security, aiding and abetting the enemies we swore to defend Americans against.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies on Capitol Hill on June 23, 2021.
Chrissy Houlahan
Opinion contributor

Last week in Washington, Gen. Mark Milley made headlines. With surgical precision, the decorated general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff eviscerated untrue and unfounded allegations about critical race theory, levied by one of my Republican colleagues. 

If you have not watched, I encourage you to do so. He reminded people like me, a fellow veteran, why we raise our hands to serve this country – because we believe not only in the Constitution but also in the people we swore to defend.

In his testimony, Gen. Milley also said something that reminded me of what my commanding officer in the Air Force used to say: “People are watching …”

As Republican lawmakers barraged Gen. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with highly politicized questions about race, the pair issued that same warning I heard 30 years ago up at Hanscom Air Force Base: People are watching.

It’s a dire warning that has fallen on deaf ears, I fear.

'Stupid pig' and defunding military 

They weren’t referencing the “people” in the hearing room, or those watching Fox News or MSNBC. They weren’t talking about the Twitter trolls retweeting content for clout. They meant our enemies.

I served in the Air Force as an engineer at the tail end of the Cold War era and Desert Storm. My assignment was anti-ballistic missile defense command and control design. My job was to understand how our enemies thought, predict how they were likely to attack and then design systems that would help us protect our homeland and allies.

What the American people need to understand about our enemies is this: They look for any and every vulnerability. What might start as a small crack in our national security or our nation – a throwaway comment that our military or our military leaders are weak and ineffective, for example – can quickly become a gaping hole. The opportunity to sow and foment discord is the textbook first step of the divide and conquer strategy.

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Gen. Milley and Secretary Austin heard what I heard in that hearing – a damaging attempt to politicize our military, an attempt that I’m sure was cheered by our enemies, both foreign and domestic, both state and nonstate actors.

In just the past two weeks, here's what we've heard from leading conservative and Republican voices: Fox News host Tucker Carlson called Gen. Milley a "pig" who is "stupid." Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida openly mocked the sacrifices our armed forces have made in past conflicts. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina suggested America looks to the Viet Cong for inspiration. And Fox News host Laura Ingraham even floated defunding the military.

Hurtful comments make us vulnerable

The irony of someone who has never served suggesting our troops go without pay or go unprotected, the same troops who defend the very right to make such absurd statements or suggestions, is not lost on me. It’s not lost on my brother or many cousins who’ve served in the global war on terror. It’s not lost on my dad who served in Vietnam. It would not be lost on my grandfather who served in Korea.

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Those people may think they’re making innocuous comments, however hurtful, but Gen. Milley, Secretary Austin and I know better, and so does anyone who has worn a uniform. My colleagues in Congress are actively undermining our national security, aiding and abetting the enemies we swore to defend Americans against.

People are watching. We need to start acting like it.

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan is a Democrat from Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District. Follow her on Twitter: @RepHoulahan