Mattis for Defense: Making Civil-Military Relations Great Again

President-elect Donald Trump with General James Mattis, USMC (retired).
President-elect Donald Trump with General James Mattis, USMC (retired).

In 1968, Anton Myrer, a former Marine enlisted man turned writer, published his novel, Once an Eagle. The New York Times bestseller tells the story of two Army officers as they rise in rank from World War I to the beginnings of the American involvement in Southeast Asia. One is Sam Damon, an honorable soldier forged in battle who understands the necessity of completing the mission but who cares for the wellbeing of his soldiers. The other is Courtney Massengale, a man of ambition but devoid of honor or principle. As a study of contrasting command styles, it soon became a fixture on the reading lists of both the Army Chief of Staff and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Damon and Massengale provided the two polar opposite archetypes of military leadership. The former is the “soldier’s soldier,” the one who shares the hardships and dangers of those he would send into combat. The latter is what the late David Hackworth called “the perfumed prince,” who rises by dint of cunning and politics.

I was put in mind of Once an Eagle by news reports indicating that retired Marine General James Mattis is a front-runner for secretary of defense in the Trump administration. This is good news for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that Mattis is the epitome of the Sam Damon “soldier’s soldier.”

I first met General Mattis in the mid-1980s, when he was a major and a student of mine in a seminar at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College. His character and intellect were obvious even then. They were also apparent to the late Peter Schramm, as reflected in this short piece.

During his remarkable career, Mattis commanded at all levels. He is probably the finest Marine combat leader since the legendary Chesty Puller. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, as a lieutenant colonel, Mattis commanded the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7) during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. This was the same battalion that Puller commanded during the desperate battle for Guadalcanal during World War II.

As a brigadier general, Mattis commanded Task Force 58, executing a bold operation to seize an airfield in Kandahar during the initial phase of the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. During the “march up” (anabasis) to Baghdad in 2003, then Major General Mattis commanded the storied 1st Marine Division.

In their book, The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the 1st Marine Division, Bing West and Maj. Gen. Ray “E-tool” Smith, USMC (ret.), did a nice job of chronicling Mattis’s actions during that campaign. Mattis always “led from the front.” He clearly had prepared his command well and it responded to his style of leadership.

His “message to all hands,” issued at the outset of the campaign, contains echoes of Henry V at Agincourt:

“While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression. . . . Demonstrate to the world there is ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.”

West and Smith wrote:

military theory suggests that the ideal location for the general is one where he can observe the battlefield firsthand, gauge the fighting condition of his troops and the enemy, and still communicate with his key subordinates so that he can exploit what he is observing. . . . By being on scene during this battle, Mattis was employing what theorists call the coup d’oeil, when the commander is able to select and focus on the battle’s key elements. He could see that the Marines, although tired, were continuing to press forward, while the enemy had retreated into the town. He could see with his own eyes that his troops had the initiative. 

On one occasion Mattis offered some water to a tired Marine passing his vehicle. “The Marine refilled his canteens, took a deep gulp, and patted Mattis on the shoulder. ‘Thanks, man,’ he said, trotting off, apparently unaware that he was talking to his division commander.”

Promoted to lieutenant general, Mattis, who is a well-known advocate of the serious study of war, led the Marine Corps Combat Development Command and served as the deputy commandant for combat development. He then commanded the I Marine Expeditionary Force and served as the commander of U.S. Marine Forces Central Command.

In February 2005, Mattis got himself into a bit of pickle. Ignoring the old adage that says “never miss an opportunity to shut up,” he made some Patton-like statements at a meeting of Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association in San Diego.

“Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight,” Mattis said. “You know, it’s a hell of a hoot… It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right upfront with you, I like brawling… You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Of course, his comments evoked criticism from many of the usual suspects. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) called on the Pentagon to discipline Mattis for his remarks. CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad said, “We do not need generals who treat the grim business of war as a sporting event. These disturbing remarks are indicative of an apparent indifference to the value of human life.”

Those who got the vapors over Mattis’s remarks missed the point: He was not saying it is fun to kill everyone, but only those kinds of people who, as they say in Texas, “need killin’.” We used to understand the distinction. Fortunately for the country, the furor blew over, and we were not deprived of his future service.

Mattis went on to command twice at the four-star level, the second time as commander of U.S. Central Command. Nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in the summer of 2010, Mattis successfully presided over the most volatile region in the world.

Yet in December 2012, just after Obama’s reelection, the Pentagon announced that Mattis would leave his post the following March, well short of what would be expected of a combatant commander who had acquitted himself well in the position. Most observers were stunned. The problem seems to have been that Mattis was doing his job, which he himself described this way during a talk at Johns Hopkins SAIS in late November of 2012: “We military leaders have a right and duty to be heard, to give our best military advice, but we were not elected to office and we have no right to dictate.”

Instead, Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, was intent on centralizing foreign policy-making in his office with State and Department of Defense as the implementers. He did not welcome Mattis’s tough questions regarding the Iran strategic framework and his insistence on the need to plan not just for what we assumed Iran might do, but also for what Iran was capable of doing. There were other issues as well, including Afghanistan, concerns about Pakistani stability, and response to the Arab spring.

It is noteworthy—especially in light of his firing—that during his time as commander, none of the symptoms of unhealthy civil-military relations such as those that characterized the tenure of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, manifested themselves. There were no leaks to the press over policy disagreements and no reports of “slow rolling” or “foot dragging” in Mattis’s implementation of the president’s policy.

As I noted at the time, “a president has every right to choose the generals he wants, but it is also the case that he usually gets the generals he deserves. By pushing Mattis overboard, the [Obama] administration is sending a message that it doesn’t want smart, independently minded generals who speak candidly to their civilian leaders. The message that generals and admirals may receive that they should go along to get along, which is a bad message for the health of U.S. civil-military relations.”

Of course, this is all well and good for a general. But what would Mattis bring to the job of secretary of defense? Some have argued that tapping a retired general officer as secretary of defense itself violates the principle of civilian control. It has happened only once before: in 1950 when Harry Truman nominated George Marshall to replace the notorious political hack, Louis Johnson.

But Mattis as secretary of defense is no more a threat to civilian control than Dwight Eisenhower as president. Mattis understands that his role as a civilian secretary is different than his role as a general. He will respect the prerogatives of his generals and will expect them to respect his in turn. He will certainly not be overawed by flag officers.

I expect that Mattis would provide sound counsel to President Trump. He adheres to a more traditional view of American power than Trump—he supports NATO, cooperation with other allies, and forward presence and deployment. In addition, as someone who has seen war up close, he will not be inclined to use military force for frivolous reasons. He would pledge loyalty to the president but would expect loyalty in return. But his major contribution as secretary of defense may well be to rejuvenate the martial culture of the Pentagon after eight years of Obama’s social experimentation. I was present when he recently observed that the only reason to make changes to the U.S. military is to “make it more lethal,” suggesting that in his Pentagon, military effectiveness would once again trump “diversity” and political correctness.

He also would be a boon to healthy civil-military relations. It seems clear that American civil-military relations have been healthiest when there is a high level of trust between civilian and military leaders—that is, when there is mutual respect and understanding between them that leads to the exchange of candid views and perspectives between the two parties as part of the decision-making process.

Of course, the military must have a voice in strategy making, while realizing that politics permeates the conduct of war and that civilians have the final say, not only concerning the goals of the war but also how it is conducted. But civilians must understand that to implement effective policy and strategy requires the proper military instrument, which means soldiers must present their views frankly and forcefully throughout the strategy-making and implementation process. This is the key to healthy civil-military relations, upon which a Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will insist.

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37 responses to “Mattis for Defense: Making Civil-Military Relations Great Again”

  1. Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders | 2 March 2016

    We the undersigned, members of the Republican national security community, represent a broad spectrum of opinion on America’s role in the world and what is necessary to keep us safe and prosperous. We have disagreed with one another on many issues, including the Iraq war and intervention in Syria. But we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency. Recognizing as we do, the conditions in American politics that have contributed to his popularity, we nonetheless are obligated to state our core objections clearly:

    His vision of American influence and power in the world is wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence.

    His advocacy for aggressively waging trade wars is a recipe for economic disaster in a globally connected world.

    His embrace of the expansive use of torture is inexcusable.

    His hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric undercuts the seriousness of combating Islamic radicalism by alienating partners in the Islamic world making significant contributions to the effort. Furthermore, it endangers the safety and Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of American Muslims.

    Controlling our border and preventing illegal immigration is a serious issue, but his insistence that Mexico will fund a wall on the southern border inflames unhelpful passions, and rests on an utter misreading of, and contempt for, our southern neighbor.

    Similarly, his insistence that close allies such as Japan must pay vast sums for protection is the sentiment of a racketeer, not the leader of the alliances that have served us so well since World War II.

    His admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the leader of the world’s greatest democracy.

    He is fundamentally dishonest. Evidence of this includes his attempts to deny positions he has unquestionably taken in the past, including on the 2003 Iraq war and the 2011 Libyan conflict. We accept that views evolve over time, but this is simply misrepresentation.

    His equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false. Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might, and there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs.

    Mr. Trump’s own statements lead us to conclude that as president, he would use the authority of his office to act in ways that make America less safe, and which would diminish our standing in the world. Furthermore, his expansive view of how presidential power should be wielded against his detractors poses a distinct threat to civil liberty in the United States. Therefore, as committed and loyal Republicans, we are unable to support a Party ticket with Mr. Trump at its head. We commit ourselves to working energetically to prevent the election of someone so utterly unfitted to the office.

    Signed: Mackubin T. Owens

    • Yeah, figures. I smelled a rat when he was pushing for Thiel to head the transition team. Haven’t heard his name lately. Flameout!

  2. Thanks for this, Dan Schwartz.

    Any port in a storm is the new reality I’d guess.
    As Jack Sparrow said, “tabula in naufragio”.

    GOPe, NeverTrumpers, et al need that tabula now I’d guess.

  3. Just another ‘Beltway’ insider who joined the wrong team (Never Trumpers). Too bad. A very long time ago he used to be a good Marine.

  4. Gen Mattis is a good man. Served as his Vice J3/4 at Joint Forces Command during the war. Proud to have served with him and prouder that he pinned a second star on me before I shipped out to Korea. He is the “Warrior Monk”, a special man and we are lucky to have him serve in any capacity supporting our nations defense. Well played Mr. President Elect…..

  5. Assuming that General Mattis would be a very good Sec/Def, exactly how–in light of the express, statutory prohibition in Title 10, United States Code, Section 113 [prohibits appt to Sec/Def for a commissioned officer who has left active duty w/in the last 7 years]–would the appointment be lawful? I’ve practiced law at the Federal level for over 40 years. I am retired from both the US Army and the Department of Justice. I have some basis to wonder about this. I’ve heard that Trump can get a Congressional waiver. That might be fine, if there were a waiver provision in the statute, but I didn’t see it. Otherwise, Congress has no Constitutional Authority to simply “waive” the application of the laws that it passes and a President signs, when it’s politically inconvenient. If all you needed was a “waiver,” we could get “waivers” for some people from drug laws, tax laws, corruption statutes, or criminal statutes in Title 18. Personally, I’d be delighted to see General Mattis as Sec/Def. But, especially in light of the crap Obama pulled in the last 8 years [illegal recess appointments to the NLRB] how does Donald Trump pull this off?

    • He gets Congress to amend the law. All open and aboveboard. They’ll do it, it’s not like the Senate is giving up confirmation authority.

      • Congress amending Section 113 is the only lawful method that I can think of to secure the appointment of General Mattis. However, I’m not so sure that “they’ll do it,” as you predict. An amendment to a statute is still subject to the cloture rule which requires 60 votes. An amendment to a statutory restriction is not w/in the rule that Reid passed that waives the cloture requirement for Executive Branch appointments. I’m sure that the 52/53 (if La. elects the Republican) Republican senators will be all for an amendment. But in light of Schumer’s announced intention to obstruct, why would the minority of democrats agree to an amendment, which they will claim strikes at the heart of civilian leadership of the military? Remember, the democrats treated General Mattis abysmally, forcing him out of Centcom before his tour was complete. The Dems have been four square behind Obama in his obvious plan to eviscerate the armed forces. I just can’t imagine them taking a supine position, and letting Donald Trump get a truly effective Sec/Def. I hope I’m wrong, but watch and see how this unfolds.

      • There is no more Law in War.
        There is only Power.
        The men Mattis would again command cursed the Law-which is ROE for them – and the Law is dead to them.

        I’m telling you the truth. Best to heed it now not ‘too later.’
        As for Supine – that is our putative and now lost and useless leadership at every level institutionally.

  6. General Mattis sounds like an ideal choice for Secretary of Defense. America has a military to WIN wars. Mattis, along with President Donald Trump, are fighters who want to WIN.

  7. I was at CENTCOM from the time of Petraeus through Austin. I agree with your assessment of Mattis’ time there and the reasons his command ended early. I also think there is no doubt the administration got exactly the result you described. Gen Mattis’ departure from CENTCOM is often characterized as only about Mattis being a “hardliner” on Iran…that is a somewhat lazy, not-exactly-true answer. It was much more the way you stated–about many things–and yes, Donilon was front-and-center on this. Mattis was often labelled in the Pentagon as borderline insubordinate, but I disagree–he always gave his honest, best advice–sometimes with the same sort of language used in his public quotes. So be it. His feedback to the administration on Syria was also amazingly comprehensive, detailed, and really forced policymakers to face tough questions when they wanted answers to problems they didn’t even understand…

    • I suspect many folks didn’t appreciate his direct and blunt manner of communication. This is often perceived as being rude or obnoxious, where in the General’s case I think it’s merely more efficient. In EMS I never have taken 2 minutes to explain what is needed to be done STAT for the good of the patient, I’ve given concise instructions to be followed immediately, and dealt with the “bruised egos” after the fact. General Mattis is an American hero, and I look forward to his leadership restoring our Military and making the world safer because of his wisdom and actions.

      • Mattis is perceived as being rude or obnoxious because he IS rude and obnoxious! Smartest guy in the room – just ask him, and he’ll tell you.

  8. Trump is making great picks for his cabinet, and gen Mattis for Sec/Def is one of the best!

  9. As long as Mattis follows the constitution and understands that we will be more selective as to whether we intervene. We will be moving away from an interventionist policy( bankrupted our republic). So Warrior Monk be careful and prudent with American resources.

  10. And the fact that MOOOOSlims bitch slap wimmin and slice the heads off my fellow faggots didn’t prevent the libtards from voting for Clinton, because they gave 25 million to her campaign. LOCK HER UP. Go Mattis!

  11. I hope that Trump can get this guy approved by Congress. It would seem so – we could certainly use some sanity back in our defense and military. Seems no more coddling transgenders. How many are real versus Klinger syndrome anyway?

  12. Ok, I get it. However, I need to hear how the DoD is going to be transformed under Mr Trump and I don’t know whether Gen. Mattis can do that (Remember Mr Rumsfeld bringing Lt Gen Schoomaker out of retirement to be CSA? Because the rest of the 4-stars didn’t want to do it). We still have residue programs and organizations from the Cold War. Personally, I feel the Active Duty needs to be reorganized (change Civilian jobs back to Military, reduce bases, reduce organizations maybe even divisions), the Reserves/Guard need to be severely scrubbed (there’s lots of waste and lazy sacred cows out there, and I could see an eventual increases as the AD orgs are reduced), the obvious systems being replaced (e.g. Ohio class subs, etc.), acquisition reform, and finally get away from high-tech gizmos mainly so NATO and others can catch up. I need to hear this in the confirmation hearings.

    • AD needs a scrubbing as much or more than the Reserves or ARNG.
      Upvoted you otherwise.
      We need a culture of Victory.

  13. Civilians decide how the war is conducted=Civilian Control of the Military. Really.

    “I don’t want to go to Jail.” – countless leaders at every level last 15 years.
    That became and remains the mission. It’s been poisonous. Toxic was back there…
    Which of course simply is our Bobble Head nodders reflecting the noble priorities of their Civilian Controlling leadership.

    Civilian control of the Battlefield has now through Lawyering created a Commissariat of Backstabbing Cowards as our leadership at every level. The Officer Corps has moved from partial irrelevance to positive threat. Your words ” that civilians have the final say, not only concerning the goals of the war but also how it is conducted.” – a level of involvement in detail in practice that is JAG sitting in CPs/TOCs approving, disapproving or often saying as lawyers do “maybe” in response to routine requests for fire support and a culture of second guessing that has corrupted and enfeebled the entire Officer Corps and now the NCOs as well.

    They’re not practicing control of the Battlefield. They’re living in a fantasy world of Combat Choreography with the goal being “living up to our ideals.” Which are of course Progressive Ideals. This in practice means your own men are the enemy.

    You can be enemy focused and win. Or you can be Rules of Engagement* focused in which case your own men are the enemy and lose. Your men reciprocate. You lose them too. Human nature.

    *The Mission is to avoid Jail. In that scenario the enemy that defeats you is your soldiers not the putative enemy who is background…like weather or terrain. Like Weather or Terrain there’s nothing you can do about them.

    Even your precious Mattis was compromised over Haditha. His command involvement to sacrifice a few grunts and a LTC to Progressive indignation were deep enough that the charges were dropped due to unlawful Command Influence.

  14. There is no west bank …this is judea and samaria…jerusalem is the jewish capitol….these places have no significance to anyone but jews

  15. I was career Army, but I always maintained the utmost respect for the Marine Corps as I have numerous great friends and family members who have served in the Corps. The approach and mentality of the Corps is different from the others because their mission is different, but they all have the same ultimate goal which is to prevail in conflict as American Service Members. Historically, the Corps has been the smaller, yet very lethal, force to be reckoned with, and has very much to be extremely proud of. It is the leadership of men such as General Mattis which has given them that special edge and mentality they’ve required in order to prevail. Service members in every branch have enormous respect and regard for those few leaders who are of the more Hands-On variety, of which General Mattis has been well-known for being. In his role as SECDEF we cannot expect him to don his LBE and Kevlar and take an active part in being the tip of the spear, but he can darn well instill this mentality into those military leaders who will be his subordinates. I believe that General Mattis will be a much-needed shot of adrenaline for our military’s upper tier of leadership, shaking them out of the yes-man mentality. General Mattis is an excellent pick for SECDEF!

    • The Army is different because it is bigger and organized to fight at the corps level. The Marine Corps is essentially a collection of Infantry battalions plus supporting combat arms and services. The infantry dominates, and infantry officers have the same attitude fighter pilots have in the Air Force – they assume the world revolves around them. They never let a lack of knowledge or understanding of a situation prevent them from getting in the way of those who actually know what’s going on. They get away with it in uniform but tend to fail miserably in post-retirement civilian jobs. Mattis will be fun to watch, but I doubt he will get much done, because he won’t play well with people who don’t have to put up with him.

  16. Funny, I’ve heard others compare Mattis to Courtney Massengale. I’d compare him to the real George Patton – an insecure blowhard.

      • Read Rick Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy? Patton fired Terry Allen, beloved commander of the “Big Red One,” in Sicily. Then Eisenhower fired Patton. As the 1st Infantry Division sailed away at the end of the campaign, a teary eyed, self-pitying Patton went to see them off. They greeted him with howls of derision.

  17. I read Anton Myrer’s book when it first came out. At the time, I was in the military, in which I spent 12 years of my life. I am a firm believer in the military but I DO NOT believe it is appropriate to appoint a retired general to the position of Secretary of Defense. I have no problem with a veteran – former Virginia Senator Jim Webb for instance – but putting a retired general in charge of DOD would be like turning the fox loose in the hen house. Not no, but HELL NO!

  18. I enjoyed the article, but the last half is almost entirely conjecture yet presented as fact. Dr. Owens has no idea what Mattis will do, won’t do as SECDEF.

    • it’s not presented as fact. It’s presented as his opinion, in an opinion column.

  19. We need someone like Mattis who wants to fight extremists instead of giving them weapons and gear like Obama’s administration has been doing – Even going so far as to consider Al Qaeda as allies because of the internal conflicts going on in radical Islamic circles. We need someone like the Mad Dog to state clearly and concisely to these libtard idiots that “The enemy of my enemy is not my friend”.

  20. I’ll be curious to see how Mattis, a retired 4-star, gets on with NSA Flynn, just a 3-star.