Search Ebook here:

A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times

A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Secretary of Defense During Extraordinary Times PDF

Author: Mark T. Esper

Publisher: William Morrow


Publish Date: May 10, 2022

ISBN-10: 006314431X

Pages: 752

File Type: Epub

Language: English

read download

Book Preface

“Can’t you just shoot them? Just shoot them in the legs or something?” he asked.

I couldn’t believe the president of the United States just suggested the U.S. military shoot our fellow Americans in the streets of the nation’s capital. The moment was surreal, sitting in front of the Resolute desk, inside the Oval Office, with this idea weighing heavily in the air, and the president red faced and complaining loudly about the protests under way in Washington, D.C.

When I accepted the job as secretary of defense the previous year, I knew I would face tough issues—questions of war and peace, for example. But never anything like this. The good news—this wasn’t a difficult decision. The bad news—I had to figure out a way to walk Trump back without creating the mess I was trying to avoid. This wasn’t how I ever thought the first week of June 2020, or any week for that matter, would begin.

Monday, June 1, 2020, started like most others. I arrived early at the Pentagon after hitting the gym, did a quick review of the day’s intelligence, and then picked through my read-ahead book for the tab on my 8:00 A.M. meeting—the Secretary’s Weekly Policy Review, or “swipper” as we called it. This meeting included the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense (DoD), from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Staff to the service secretaries and their uniformed chiefs—the four-star heads of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Space Force.

Before the pandemic, we gathered in the large Nunn-Lugar conference room opposite my office on the E-ring of the Pentagon and sat around the big wooden table—the deputy secretary of defense to my right and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to my left—by rank, with aides and assistants lining the walls. The table could fit nearly two dozen people. In the era of COVID, however, we now met by secure video from our desks.

I initiated the swipper my first week in office. It would be that one meeting where we combined the important work of going through our organizational priorities, as a joint team of civilian and military leaders, with the more immediate matters of pending issues and current events. It would also help me close the civilian-military divide that had opened over time. About halfway through the June 1 swipper meeting, my secure phone rang a few times and then stopped.

One of my assistants in the front office must have picked it up, I thought. Moments later, I saw General Mark Milley drop off the screen, which was unusual for the Joint Chiefs chairman. My phone soon rang again, and I discovered exactly why he had vanished so abruptly. Milley was spun up; he had urgent news.

General Mark Milley is a barrel-chested soldier with dark bushy eyebrows who hails from the Boston area. A standout hockey player in school, he graduated from Princeton in 1980 and was commissioned as an armor officer. After forty years of Army service, he had multiple combat tours and a lifetime of experience under his belt. He carried a stern look on his face that belied a quick sense of humor, and he could fill a room with his booming voice, which often spoke in exclamation points and language not always made to be taken literally. The president, ever drawn to appearances, would often say he was “straight out of central casting.”

I turned the meeting over to my deputy and took the chairman’s call. Milley was unusually animated now, and rightfully so. Minutes earlier the president had called him, he said, in a fury over what happened in the streets of D.C. the prior evening, when more than a thousand people gathered to protest the killing of George Floyd—as was happening around the country. Protesters marched through the streets and gathered in Lafayette Park, right across from the White House. Fires were lit, windows were smashed, and people were hurt as some in the crowd grew violent. The chaotic scenes played over and over on television and undoubtedly caught Trump’s attention. The president thought his administration “looked weak” and wanted something done.

I asked General Milley to come up to my office. The fact that Trump called him was unusual, and Milley’s quick summary was very troubling. I was anxious to sit with him and tease the conversation out, to understand exactly what the president said. The general arrived quickly. His demeanor was very serious, his face ashen. I wondered how many times in his years in the military he had ever looked this way.

“The president is really angry,” Milley said. “He thinks it’s a disgrace what happened last night. He wants ten thousand troops deployed to stop the violence. I told him I had to speak with you.”

“Ten thousand troops, really, he said that?” I asked.

“Yes, sir,” he responded with a serious but slightly wide-eyed look. “Ten thousand.”

I shook my head in disbelief. I knew some of the protesters had become violent and damage had occurred—including to the historic Episcopal church directly across from the White House. Vandalism is never acceptable, but the perpetrators were a small minority in a much larger crowd. Law enforcement, as well as some D.C. National Guardsmen who were on duty to support them, suffered injuries; otherwise, they had things under control. I’d received updates throughout the weekend, but there were no urgent calls for additional troops.

“Where did the number ten thousand come from?” I asked Milley. He didn’t know. In any event, Milley and I both understood that deploying active-duty forces into the nation’s capital was a terrible idea, and if anything it would likely incite more violence. We also knew it was impossible to send this many in twelve hours. It took the most elite units in the U.S military a “few hours” to deploy, and they were our most ready forces.

Minutes later, a member of my staff came in to inform us the president called a snap meeting for 10:30 A.M. to discuss the protests. Milley and I were already scheduled to be at the White House at 11:00 A.M. for a call with the nation’s governors regarding the ongoing civil unrest. We looked at each other and grimaced, silently acknowledging that we were in for another interesting morning.

Milley and I trudged over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that morning for what turned out to be a very heated encounter with the president. It was loud, contentious, and unreal. We did manage to avoid a terrible outcome—the one that Trump wanted—but we were shaken, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

As we briskly left the meeting and crossed the threshold into the outer office where the president’s schedulers sat, Milley put his thumb and forefinger tightly together, close to his face, leaned in, and whispered to me that he was “this close” to resigning on the spot. So was I.

What transpired that day would leave me deeply troubled about the leader of our country and the decisions he was making. I was worried for our democracy. At that point, having served as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense for about a year, I had seen many red flags, many warnings, and many inconsistencies. But now we seemed on the verge of crossing a dark red line. We had walked up to these thresholds in the past, but never one this important, and never with such rage.

At times like this, I asked myself why I didn’t resign. This was the existential question of the Trump administration: Why did good people stay even after the president suggested or pressed us to do things that were reckless, or foolish, or just plain wrong? Why did we remain even after he made outrageous or false statements, or denigrated our people, our departments, or us?

I wrestled with these questions many times during my tenure, and especially in the months following the events of June 1. It demanded a lot of soul-searching, reaching back into my upbringing, my education at West Point, and my training in the Army, studying historical examples, speaking with my predecessors in both parties, thinking hard about my oath, and talking it through with my wife. On more than one occasion, Leah would say to me, “As your wife, please quit. As an American citizen, please stay.”

Quitting in outrage would have made me feel good in the moment—it would have saved me a ton of stress and criticism. News outlets and social media would likely hail me as a “resistance” hero. However, I didn’t think it was the right thing to do for our country. And as I told a reporter once near the end of my tenure, “my soldiers don’t get to quit” when the going gets tough, so I won’t either. I agonized nonetheless. Many of us did.

There was another major concern I had to factor in to the equation: Who would replace me? There likely wasn’t enough time for the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm a new defense secretary. Nevertheless, Trump could certainly place a true loyalist as acting secretary. And given enough time, real damage could be done. We saw this earlier in the year when he installed Ric Grenell as the acting Director of National Intelligence. There were a number of people in the administration who would willingly do Trump’s bidding, and probably even his more extreme dictates, and it deeply concerned me.

As readers of this book will learn, the president or some of his top White House aides proposed to take some type of military action in or against other nations on multiple occasions during the nearly eighteen months I served as secretary of defense. Other recommendations were so careless that they easily could have provoked a conflict. Some of these proposed actions are still unknown to the public. Some could even have led to war. On each of those occasions, sober minds pulled us back from the brink. What would happen, I wondered, if we were all gone?

Some of the decisions made by the Pentagon leadership after I left, other actions attempted but not consummated, and, even further, matters reportedly discussed at the White House in mid-December to use the military to enable a recount would later validate my concerns. And of course, nothing was more troubling than the horrific Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

I stayed because I didn’t want our military politicized, let alone shooting civilians or collecting ballot boxes. I also didn’t want to start any unnecessary wars, break any alliances, or compromise our nation’s security. I stayed because I thought it was the right thing to do, and because I knew we would do our best to do the right thing as long as I was secretary of defense. I say that reluctantly, knowing it may come across as vainglorious, but it was how I felt and what I believed. We had a sacred oath to the Constitution, after all, not to the president or a party. It was about the country and our values.

In the end, the answer always came back to staying and fighting the good fight, the necessary one. To get some important things accomplished for the country and the military in the time I had, which we did. But also, to stop bad things from happening, which we also did on a number of occasions. I was never concerned about being fired, only about being fired too soon. This was the high wire I had to walk until Election Day. In order to do so and keep the Defense Department out of politics and the military out of elections, however, I would need a new game plan after June 1, 2020. Donald Trump would not make that easy.

This book aims to tell that story—the story of my decisions and perspectives during one of the most chaotic, difficult, and consequential periods in modern American history. An extraordinary period where we fought a global pandemic the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in a century; dealt with the greatest domestic unrest in two generations; battled aggressive actions by hostile powers and terrorist groups around the world; confronted novel challenges from peer/near-peer rivals* in a new era of great power competition; began transforming the U.S. military through implementation of a new National Defense Strategy; and endeavored to do all of this while dealing with an idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and unprincipled commander in chief.

This was not a position I ever expected to be in when I was a young boy growing up in a small coal-mining town forty-six miles southeast of Pittsburgh. My birthplace, Uniontown, was founded on July 4, 1776, not far from Fort Necessity, a small circular stockade built by George Washington during the French and Indian War. General George C. Marshall, the area’s favorite son, was born and raised in Uniontown. His home, which later became the site of the local VFW, was no more than a quarter mile from where I first lived. Marshall and I used to play in the same creek that ran between our homes, I’d muse, though with about ninety years of time between our boyhood exploits.

In the 1960s, Uniontown was about seventeen thousand strong and its diversity was marked by the various places of worship dotting the city, each identified by the ethnic groups that attended them, and the foods, customs, language, and histories their congregants brought to our tight-knit community. People from this blue-collar area were generally conservative, patriotic, and hardworking. We were considered Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. By that time, unfortunately, the collapse of the steel industry, which had begun in the previous decade, had hit the region hard. Many coal mines went under too, taking thousands of jobs with them. This was a historic change, from which most small towns in southwest Pennsylvania would never recover.

My late father, Tom, was a welfare caseworker for the state. His family had emigrated from Lebanon at the turn of the century. He had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom spoke Arabic and continued some of the traditions of their homeland. My mother, Polly, was a homemaker who traced her roots back to County Cork in Ireland. Her maiden name was Reagan, and she claimed to be part of the Reagan clan that came to the States in the latter half of the nineteenth century and gave us our fortieth president. I wasn’t so sure about her story, but I wasn’t about to say my “ma” was telling tales. Besides, I liked the notion of somehow being related to someone who would turn out to be one of our greatest presidents. She was an identical twin, and with seven older brothers and sisters of her own, it was quite a circus when the family came together.

I was born in 1964 and grew up during this period with my three younger sisters, Patty, Donna, and Beth Ann. The Vietnam War was ending, the local economy was crumbling, but at least the Pittsburgh Steelers were winning. I attended public school and played varsity sports year-round. In western Pennsylvania, that meant football, basketball, and track. I was a B+/A-student, but never made the National Honor Society. My life would change, however, when I came across a school catalogue for West Point in my guidance counselor’s office.

I didn’t come from a military family. Far from it. And with no major bases nearby, there was little connection to the armed forces. I did, however, read military history, watch classic World War II movies like Patton and The Longest Day, and play soldier with my friends in the backyard, but that was it. As I read that catalogue, West Point called to me with its pictures of cadets in gray uniforms, promises of military training in the summer, and engineering classes in the fall, not to mention the appeal of serving my country as an “officer and gentleman.” The adventure, the challenge, and the academy motto of “Duty, Honor, Country” all resonated deep within me. I knew immediately it was where I had to go, where I needed to be. West Point was the only college to which I would apply.

A little over a year later, in July 1982, with freshly cut hair, an awkwardly worn uniform, and my first hectic day nearly under my new belt, I raised my right hand and swore my first oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies. More than one thousand other young, scared men and women from across the land would join me on that large, grassy field known as the Plain that hot summer day. It was an important moment for all of us. The Long Gray Line would continue.

My four years at West Point provided the foundation that would allow me decades later to stand up against a president who undermined our nation’s institutions and traditions, had little respect for the truth or propriety, and put himself above everything else. The academy’s purpose of developing “leaders of character” who valued integrity, put country and mission first, and—as the Cadet Prayer asked God to do—“Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong,” all ran counter to Donald J. Trump’s way of doing business.

My many years of public service in uniform and out, in the United States and abroad, in wartime and peace, constantly reinforced the importance of the timeless values drilled into us at West Point.* They were fully internalized long before I ever returned to the Pentagon and public service in 2017, and well before I would continually face off against the forty-fifth president of the United States. This moral, ethical, and professional compass would guide me as I took on one of the most demanding jobs, during one of the most difficult epochs, in one of the most tumultuous administrations in American history, and it would make all the difference in the world.



Title Page



Introduction: A Meeting Like No Other

Chapter 1First Days, Early Warnings

Chapter 2An Army Renaissance

Chapter 3War with Iran Begins in Iraq

Chapter 4Civilian Control and Reform of the Pentagon

Chapter 5Tehran Escalates

Chapter 6America Strikes

Chapter 7The Politics of Building a Better Navy

Chapter 8The Afghanistan Dilemma

Chapter 9COVID—A Tragic, Epic Fight

Chapter 10Operation Warp Speed

Chapter 11Desperate Measures

Chapter 12The Republic Wobbles

Chapter 13A Walk in the Park

Chapter 14Hard Days and Long Nights

Chapter 15Making Lemonade

Chapter 16A Salute to America?

Chapter 17Pride, Promotions, and Politics

Chapter 18Lost Causes and Important Ones

Chapter 19China, China, China

Chapter 20America’s Strategic Advantage

Chapter 21Unrest in the Northwest

Chapter 22October Surprises

Chapter 23Endgame



Appendix AThe Army Vision

Appendix BJune 24, 2019, Initial Message to the Department

Appendix CJune 2, 2020, Message to the Department—Support to Civil Authorities

Appendix DJune 3, 2020, Press Conference in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Appendix ENovember 9, 2020, Final Message to the Department

Appendix FNovember 9, 2020, Letter to the President

Appendix GJanuary 6, 2021, Tweets Regarding the Assault on Capitol Hill

Appendix HJanuary 3, 2021, Washington Post Opinion Piece Authored by the Ten Living Former Secretaries of Defense



Photo Section

Required Statement by the Department of Defense


About the Publisher

Download EbookRead NowFile TypeUpload Date
downloadreadEpubMay 13, 2022

Do you like this book? Please share with your friends, let's read it !! :)

How to Read and Open File Type for PC ?