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Mattis on Our Way of War

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in January of 2014 [1]. We are republishing it in light of Mattis’s being tapped to head the Department of Defense.

Jamestown Foundation [2] is an old-line think tank founded during the Cold War to encourage and help Soviet defectors. Today it is a large, respected think tank with continuing hard-line views on Central Asia and former Soviet lands. It focuses on Eurasia and global terrorism. Publications include Terrorism Monitor, Eurasia Daily Monitor, China Brief, North Caucuses Monitor, and Militant Leadership Monitor. Wikipedia reports “it has been alleged that Jamestown is neoconservative agenda driven… with ties to the CIA & U.S. Government.” Its directors include former top intelligence and military personnel. This writer, a long time anti-communist, participated in a Jamestown team of journalists and experts on Soviet Russia who served as observers for President Putin’s first election in 2000.

When the keynote speaker at Jamestown’s annual conference [3], a four-star Marine Corps general, analyzes America’s way of war from a realist perspective, his criticisms are well worth knowing. His views must be widespread in the military, although not in Washington’s civilian establishment. Gen. James N. Mattis [4] (retired) followed General Petraeus as commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from 2010-to-2013, responsible for military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and 18 other nations. Earlier he commanded the First Marine Division during the initial invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. He also served as NATO supreme allied commander from 2007-2009.  He served for 42 years, and the Marine Corps Times has called him the “most revered Marine in a generation.”

Some of General Mattis’s statements and reasoning follow; my comments are in italics.


–America doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.

–We have no overall strategy about how to defeat our enemy. (Just killing them is not working because, as I wrote years ago, the proper analogy comes from Greek mythology, Hercules’ adventure where, for every enemy soldier he killed, ten more sprung up in each one’s place.)

–We don’t understand our enemy. (This refers to Sun Tzu’s classic [5] dictum for war, “Know Thyself and Know Thy Enemy.” Americans have scarce interest in understanding the Muslim world’s history, wants, and fears.)

–Violent Jihad is gaining, not losing ground.  (House and Senate intelligence panel chairs say terrorists are gaining [6]. Half of Americans believe us less safe today [7] than prior to 9/11.)  

–We need a strategy which does not drive young Muslims to al-Qaeda.

–We must develop a persuasive counter narrative to that of our enemies. (With communism America held the moral high ground; today our Middle East wars have taken it away.)

–Al-Qaeda’s narrative is vulnerable, its strategy has its own poison pills.  The IRA is an example of how a group’s own extremists can cause disaffection among the public. They eventually caused the Irish public to abandon them as they competed to prove who could be the most violent and brutal using indiscriminate terror. A franchise operation is not controlled, factions will do things wrong—think of al-Qaeda in Iraq murdering so many Sunni civilians for not conforming to Sharia law and subsequently being defeated.  (Remember also that every free election where most Arabs could show their beliefs, only a small minority supported al-Qaeda’s religious fundamentalism.  Most want safety, prosperity, and security. The calumny that most want to establish Sharia law in America is a propaganda of Washington’s war party.)

–Irregular warfare must become a core competency of our military; also our new weaponry must be focused on this new kind of war.  (Most military training and procurement still concerns the strategy of World War II.)

–We must be more attentive to our allies’ sentiments and needs. We ignore them and then wonder why they won’t later do what we want.

–We must do a better job explaining and talking to the American people about our objectives.

–Palestinian peace process—two-state solution –Washington must address and promote this issue. (The conflict weakens and discredits America in the whole Muslim world. Mattis follows previous CENTCOM commanders, Admiral Fallon [8] and General Petraeus, in stating the same judgment.)

–First think how we are going to end the fight before getting involved in wars.  Democracies don’t know how to end wars.  How much longer will there be public support for the war?  American are not war weary, but rather are confused.

General Mattis reportedly spoke of his concerns during discussions over attacking Iran and thus fell afoul of the Washington establishment, so President Obama hastened his retirement. Foreign Policy‘s Thomas Ricks reported [9]:

Why the hurry? Pentagon insiders say that he rubbed civilian officials the wrong way—not because he went all “mad dog,” which is his public image, and the view at the White House, but rather because he pushed the civilians so hard on considering the second- and third-order consequences of military action against Iran. Some of those questions apparently were uncomfortable. Like, what do you do with Iran once the nuclear issue is resolved and it remains a foe? What do you do if Iran then develops conventional capabilities that could make it hazardous for U.S. Navy ships to operate in the Persian Gulf? He kept saying, “And then what?”

Washington did have a “strategy” when it attacked Iraq, the neoconservative one.  This was to intimidate the Muslim world with massive bombing, “Shock and Awe” [10] we called it, so all Muslims would be afraid of us and then do what we ordered. Then we planted giant, billion-dollar American air bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These would, they thought, give us hegemony over Central Asia, intimidate Russia and Iran, while Iraq would turn into a friendly, modern democracy dependent upon Washington. Other Muslim nations would then follow with democratic regimes which would co-operate and obey Washington’s plans.

With the neocons discredited, no other strategy has replaced theirs except to “win” and come home. This is not unusual in our history. In past wars American “strategy” has usually been to return to the status quo ante, the prewar situation. Washington violates nearly all of Sun Tzu’s dictums for success. Endless wars for little purpose and with no end strategy are thus likely to continue. They are, however, profitable or beneficial for many Washington interests.

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Mattis on Our Way of War"

#1 Comment By Liam On December 6, 2016 @ 8:35 am

The US Constitution purposely hobbles the prosecution of any war that is longer than a couple of Congressional sessions. Thus, Americans can successfully prosecute short, surgical conflicts and, with much greater effort, existential conflicts that last at most a few years. We’ve only had a handful of existential conflicts under the Constitution: the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II. If the last had not been ended by the atomic bomb, it’s likely that popular support would have been exhausted by the 1946 elections.

Why this organic reality of the United States is repeatedly ignored puzzles me.

We’re not a nation designed to prosecute mid-level wars for many years over many congressional sessions or presidential administration. Our system of government is purpose-built to frustrate that.

#2 Comment By JLF On December 6, 2016 @ 8:41 am

“Endless wars for little purpose and with no end strategy are likely to continue, because they are profitable or beneficial for many Washington interests.” FIFY

#3 Comment By J Harlan On December 6, 2016 @ 9:25 am

The two state solution in Palestine can’t work. Simply look at a map showing the settler areas. The current “plan” is to push the Palestinians out of the West Bank. In effect a “one state solution”.

The three other options 1) Jordan takes over the entire West Bank and Egypt gets Gaza 2) the settlers leave the West Bank and 3) a one state solution where Israel slowly ceases to be a Jewish state are non starters.

Given this any “work” on peace in Palestine is a waste of time

#4 Comment By Fred Bowman On December 6, 2016 @ 10:04 am

At this point in history what would a “Win” look like? All the US has acconplished in the Middle East is to open a “Pandora Box of Anarchy” all in support of our client-states Saudia Arabia and Israel. And what has America and the Middle East gotten in return? Wars and conflicts with seemingly no end. Time to ditch these client-states relationships and work with ALL Parties including Iran and Russia to start bring about peace and stability in the Middle East.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 6, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

“The two state solution in Palestine can’t work. Simply look at a map showing the settler areas. The current “plan” is to push the Palestinians out of the West Bank. In effect a “one state solution”.

Well, there’s the rub. How does one hold Israel accountable to her agreements.

But a two state solution has been a long term goal. And according to Balfour accords, there were about four to six ethnic divisions in line for parts of the region. But a scenario in which Israel rates every criminal act as a state sponsored press — as to cause for rampaging through Palestinian territory is unfeasible.

As unfeasible as our having taken the same tact in invading Iraq and Afghanistan for the acts of but a discordant few. We are now positioned to be a security agent for a good part of the middle east — it unworkable.

I think that Gen. Mattis is spot on about how our behavior breeds the very issues we are seeking to rebut. But in contrast to his engagement press, it might be wise to consider that less will yield more. Less presence of force, less terrorists created.

I think if he examines the IRA vs. Irish public sentiments he will note that one of Britain’s elemental choices was to decrease their armed presence. Leaving the IRA exposed – resulting a public rebuke of sorts. Making negotiation discussions less rife with animosity.




#6 Comment By PAXNOW On December 7, 2016 @ 6:46 am

We can write to the cows come home. There is a con game afoot. We have been sold wars not in our interest, permissive immigration policies that are warping the very soul out of Americanism (and adding to structural unemployment here), and the stacking of non-elected people to run two of our most powerful organizations, the Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve Banking system; albeit, their is nothing really federal about this privately held monopoly over our money supply. The 1967 War was a war of conquest. Major collateral damage was the USS Liberty. The handling of this affair once and for all showed who is boss. The 800 pound gorilla materialized. How can we justify Gaza and West Bank on humane grounds consistent with the best of American ideals? These situations are manifestations of a theocracy. Imagine if the Vatican started endless wars to recapture the lost provinces as a result of the 1870 Franco-Prussian war? The world has gone crazy and we apparently have joined the crazies being led around like a compliant circus animal.. I doubt Trump will swim against this tide.

#7 Comment By Seattlite On December 7, 2016 @ 7:13 pm

“America doesn’t lose wars, it loses interest.”

So we would have won Vietnam if we just would have stuck it out a little longer? This sounds delusional and in conflict with much of Mattis’ other statements. I hope he doesn’t cling to the illusion of some that the US can win any war it gets into if it doesn’t get betrayed by the weak-willed civilians back home. The most important thing for a Defense Secretary to know if the limits of what can be accomplished with warfare.

#8 Comment By Tom On December 8, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

Washington’s civilian leaders haven’t lost sight of how to win wars, they’ve re-defined what winning means. After our quick victory in WWII, a vast, bloated Military-Industrial Complex realized that they needed a new war, and quickly, if they were not to shrink back to pre-WWII size. So they arranged for the Korean conflict to keep their ball rolling, and 66 years later Korea is still a military budget sink.

With Vietnam they not only made significant progress towards endless war, they were able to combine the chaos of war with a sideline of the production and smuggling of heroin. If not for the massive demonstrations we might still be there.

The lesson they learned from Vietnam was to have better control over the media and not use a draft so as not to generate as much dissent. This lesson was applied in the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan by “embedding” all reporters and using an “all-volunteer” military.

So rather than the Middle East being a failure of the US knowing how to “win wars”, it is actually the pinnacle of perfection of “endless” war, combined with the extra profits, as in Vietnam, of heroin production inside the war zone.

We don’t need to relearn how to win wars, we need to relearn why we should stay out of them.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On December 9, 2016 @ 4:14 am

“So we would have won Vietnam if we just would have stuck it out a little longer?”

We won the Vietnam Conflict. We chose not return to ensure the South Vietnamese could establish themselves. That political choice was not the result of a strategic failure but the complete unwillingness f the public to support it. At least the vocal public.