The pilot or the marine? Biden may soon announce pick for top commander.
By Helene Cooper
In the battle to become the country’s most senior military officer — a position inhabited at the moment by one of the most voluble of men and a frequent target of the right — it has come down to a choice between the fighter pilot and the Marine infantryman.
Gen. Mark Milley’s term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ends this fall, and President Joe Biden is looking at one of two men to succeed him.
In some ways, they could not be more different — from each other, and from Milley.
Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., known widely as C.Q., is the Air Force chief of staff — the first African American to rise to that position in a military where diversity in the ranks of officers has long trailed that of the enlisted men and women. He is the leading contender, according to senior administration officials.
Brown’s colleagues say that he is firm and methodical, and that he has a proven track record in the Pacific at a time when a potential war with China tops Pentagon concerns.
Gen. David Berger, the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps, is a white four-star general, but he is thought to be the underdog.
An infantryman with combat command experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Berger has shaken up the Corps to prepare it for the future. His innovative concepts about how to fight in the 21st century so angered the men who came before him that they took the rare step of publicly complaining about him.
Biden is on the verge of making a decision, officials said, although his pick must be confirmed by the Senate. Brown’s appointment would be historic — only the second time the country’s most senior officer was a Black man and the first time the country’s defense apparatus was run by two Black men.
The job has also not been filled by an Air Force general since 2005. During that time, there have been two Marines, a Navy admiral and two Army generals.
No matter which way Biden goes, the next chairman will be steeped in how to prepare the military for “great power conflict”— Pentagon-speak for a future war with China or Russia. Neither man is the extrovert that is Milley, with his fill-a-room personality and ability to send conservative radio and news shows into a spiral of vitriol. But both would bring different skills to the job.
Brown is often viewed by other officers as cautious, right up until he’s not. He deliberates for long periods, one colleague said, but then springs into action with a speed that meets the moment.
“Watching him with the other senior officers in the military, he would often be the quiet one in the room,” said Heather Wilson, who was Air Force secretary in the Trump administration. “But when he spoke, other people listened.”
Take the nationwide protests after George Floyd, an African American man, was beaten to death by Minneapolis police. It was June 2020, and President Donald Trump wanted to invoke the Insurrection Act to use active-duty U.S. troops to target protesters upset about the killing. Brown was days away from his confirmation vote in a Republican-led Senate to be Air Force chief of staff, but that did not stop him from posting an extraordinary five-minute video online that electrified the rank and file.
“I’m thinking about how full I am with emotion not just for George Floyd, but the many African Americans that have suffered the same fate as George Floyd,” Brown said in the video, an unusually public statement by a high-ranking military leader about a sensitive and politically charged issue.
Brown, who declined to speak for this article, as did Berger, has spoken about inclusion on other occasions. In an Air Force recruiting ad that aired during the pregame show for the NBA Finals in 2021, he came off as a take-no-prisoners fighter pilot: “When I’m flying, I put my helmet on, my visor down, my mask up,” he said, staring into the camera, to interspersing footage that could be straight out of “Top Gun,” if the movie franchise was about Air Force and not Navy pilots. “You don’t know who I am, whether I’m African American, Asian American, Hispanic, white, male or female.
“You just know I’m an American airman, kicking your butt. I’m General C.Q. Brown Jr. Come join us.”
The commercial received widespread praise on social media.
One of the first things that Berger did after assuming the top job in the Marine Corps was to announce that he was getting rid of tanks, a decision that infuriated a group of retired generals.
For Berger, the reasoning was simple: Any war with China would probably be fought on Pacific islands near Taiwan. Dragging tanks around the Philippines and Okinawa did not make sense, he reasoned, and he could save around $3 billion by getting rid of hundreds of tanks and amphibious vehicles. That money could go into new precision missiles and upgrades for Marine infantry units he planned to place on islands before a war even started, obviating the need to get there after hostilities begin.
“Army is huge,” Berger said at an expo in 2020. “They win our wars. The Marine Corps doesn’t win the wars. We win the battles.”
He moved fast with his plans. The Marines had 452 tanks when Berger announced the overhaul in the spring of 2020. By that December, 323 had been sent to the Army, and the rest will be gone by the end of this year.
The reaction was sharp. Outraged by what they saw as a jettisoning of the backbone of the Corps, the group of retired generals, including former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Joseph Dunford, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and a former White House chief of staff, John Kelly; took the unusual step of going public with their complaints in open letters, opinion pieces and interviews.
Several of the generals met with Berger to voice their concerns and later complained that he did not take their advice.
“After several unsuccessful attempts by retired senior officers to engage in a quiet dialogue with Gen. Berger, the gloves have now come off,” former Sen. Jim Webb, who was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam, wrote in an opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal. “Twenty-two four-star generals deserved to be listened to.”
Berger’s supporters say he did listen to the retired generals; he just did not agree with them.
“Gen. Berger is looking at a different world, with different threats, and he decided that the Corps that the elders created won’t be the Corps of the future,” said Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine officer who is a fellow at the National Defense University.