When shocking events happen, the lazy are quick to toss around adjectives like “unprecedented.” There’s really no such thing. Curious minds search for illuminating historical parallels, however imperfect; they turn to the past to understand the present.
Milley, 63, attended Princeton before starting his climb up the officer’s ladder 41 years ago. He owns thousands of books in his personal library. And, as depicted in “Peril,” the chilling metaphors his mind gravitated toward over the past year and a half — historical, biblical and cultural — help illustrate what a dark chapter America endured during the Trump presidency and, in many ways, is still living through.
After troops helped restore order at the Capitol, Milley feared President Donald Trump was looking for a “Reichstag moment” before the inauguration, as in 1933, when German Chancellor Adolf Hitler used an arson attack on the parliament building as a pretext to consolidate control. Those weren’t the only Nazi parallels that occurred to Milley as he sought to make sense of the worst attack on the Capitol since the British torched the building in 1814. He concluded that some of the insurrectionists came planning revolution — that they were modern-day Brownshirts, a U.S. version of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing.
Appointed by Trump in 2018, Milley grew disillusioned after being summoned to walk with the president through Lafayette Square following the violent removal of protesters. He saw this as a personal “Road to Damascus” moment. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul converted to Christianity on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. Milley realized, as Woodward and Costa write, “walking with Trump when he was on a political mission, even for a split second, was utterly wrong.”
When Trump chewed out then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper for publicly opposing the invocation of the Insurrection Act amid the Black Lives Matter protests, the president’s rage reminded Milley of the vituperative drill sergeant in the 1987 movie “Full Metal Jacket.” The general viewed Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who sat in meetings about how to respond to the unrest, as the closest thing the United States had to a modern-day Grigori Rasputin, the mystic who exerted considerable control over the last Russian czar.
Trump’s continuing curiosity about attacking Iran scared Milley and made him determined to avoid what he referred to as a “Wag the Dog” scenario, a reference to the 1997 film in which a president fabricates a war with Albania to distract from a sex scandal. As Trump weighed possible strikes on Iranian targets from the White House Situation Room, Milley also thought about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. He feared unintended consequences could lead to a war between great powers — and he thought, as well, about the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis. “It was precisely the kind of hair-trigger environment where an accident or misinterpretation could escalate catastrophically,” the authors write.
Milley told associates that he had buried 242 kids at Arlington National Cemetery. “I’m not really interested in having a war with anybody,” he said, according to Woodward and Costa. Ultimately, thankfully, neither was Trump.
But Milley’s hesitation about using military force stands in stark contrast to old Hollywood stereotypes of the brass that Trump, who claimed bone spurs to dodge the draft during Vietnam, has internalized. During a rally last month in Alabama, Trump took the stage after the crowd watched the opening scene of the 1970 movie “Patton” on Jumbotrons. George C. Scott — playing Gen. George S. Patton — gives a rousing pep talk to the troops, declaring: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
Trump tells associates he’s seriously considering another run in 2024. “I don’t think he sees it as a comeback,” former campaign manager Brad Parscale says at the end of the Woodward-Costa book. “He sees it as vengeance.”
Pretending he didn’t lose doesn’t make Trump a winner. Pretending Trump doesn’t exist, similarly, does not lessen the threat he poses to the constitutional republic. If there’s another uprising in 12 years, or sooner, what will we wish we would have done right now to avert it? Did we just witness another great dress rehearsal — and are we paying enough attention to the risk of a blockbuster sequel?