Mattis for Defense: Making Civil-Military Relations Great Again

By | 2016-11-22T17:29:19+00:00 November 22nd, 2016|
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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.

About the Author:

Mackubin Owens
Mackubin Thomas Owens is dean of academics for the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC, a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, and editor of Orbis, FPRI’s quarterly journal. He recently retired after 29 years as Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. From 1990 to 1997, Dr. Owens was also Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly defense journal Strategic Review and Adjunct Professor of International Relations at Boston University. Owens is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Leadership and Democratic Statesmanship in Wartime (2009) and US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain (January 2011) and coauthor of US Foreign and Defense Policy: The Rise of an Incidental Superpower (2015) and The Evolution of the Executive and Executive Power in the American Republic (2014). Before joining the faculty of the War College, Owens served as National Security Adviser to Senator Bob Kasten, Republican of Wisconsin, and Director of Legislative Affairs for the Nuclear Weapons Programs of the Department of Energy during the Reagan Administration. Dr. Owens is also a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, where as an infantry platoon and company commander in 1968-1969, he was wounded twice and awarded the Silver Star medal. He retired as a Colonel in 1994. Owens earned his Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Dallas, a Master of Arts in Economics from Oklahoma University, and his BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara.