Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a lengthy op-ed written by former secretary of defense James Mattis, his first public statement since his resignation in December. The article is adopted from his forthcoming book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, out this week.
The former Pentagon chief opens a window into his decision making process, explaining that accepting President Trump’s nomination was part of his lifelong devotion to public service: “When the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. …So long as you are prepared, you say yes.” Mattis’s two years at DoD capped off 44 years in the Marine Corps, where he gained a popular following as a tough and scholarly leader.
Mattis received widespread praise from the foreign policy establishment when he resigned in protest over President Trump’s directive for a full U.S. military withdrawal from Syria and a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan. “When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution,” he writes.
But did Mattis really offer “concrete solutions and strategic advice” regarding America’s two decades of endless war? The American Conservative spoke with four military experts, all veterans, who painted a very different picture of the man called “Mad Dog.”
“I think over time, in General Mattis’s case a little over 40 years, if you spend that many years in an institution, it is extremely hard not to get institutionalized,” says Gil Barndollar, military fellow-in-residence at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship. Barndollar served as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps and deployed twice to Afghanistan. “In my experiences, there are not too many iconoclasts or really outside-the-box people in the higher ranks of the U.S. military.”
It’s just that sort of institutionalized thinking that makes the political establishment love Mattis. “[A] person with an institutional mind-set has a deep reverence for the organization he has joined and how it was built by those who came before. He understands that institutions pass down certain habits, practices and standards of excellence,” wrote David Brooks in a hagiographic New York Times column.
But what happens when those “standards of excellence” lead to 20 years of fighting unwinnable wars on the peripheries of the planet? When do habits and practices turn into mental stagnation?
“The problem is, from at least the one-star the whole way through, for the last two decades, you’ve seen them do nothing but just repeat the status quo over and over,” observes Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L. Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, who served 21 years in the U.S. Army and deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan. “I mean every single general that was in charge of Afghanistan said almost the same boilerplate thing every time they came in (which was nearly one a year). You see the same results, nothing changed.”
“And if those guys took someone from a major to a two-star general, we’d probably have a lot of better outcomes,” he adds.
Major Danny Sjursen, who served tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, agrees:
You know when it comes to generals, whether they’re Marines, whether they’re Army, whether they’re Mattis who’s supposedly this “warrior monk,” these guys talk tactics and then claim it’s strategy. What they consider to be strategic thinking really is just tactical thinking on a broad scale…. I think the biggest problem with all the four-star generals are they’re “how” thinkers not “if” thinkers.
Barndollar says: “The vast majority of military leaders, up to and including generals at the three-, four-star level, are not operating at the strategic level, in terms of what that word means in military doctrine. They’re not operating at the level of massive nation-state resources and alliances and things like that. They’re at the operational level or often even at the tactical level.”
This inability of America’s elites (including its generals) to grapple with strategic concepts is a result of the United States’ post-Cold War unipolar moment. When there’s only one superpower, geopolitics and the need for international balancing fall by the wayside.
The only component of national security policy Mattis discusses in his op-ed is America’s system of alliances, which he believes is the key to our preeminence on the world stage. “Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together,” he writes.
“Mattis, like virtually all of his four-star peers, is a reactionary, fighting every day against the forces of change in modern warfare,” counters Colonel Douglas Macgregor, who served 28 years in the U.S. Army. “He lives in denial of the technological breakthroughs that make the World War II force structure (that he as SecDef insisted on funding) an expensive tribute to the past.”
Mattis muses that the Department of Defense “budget [is] larger than the GDPs of all but two dozen countries.” Yet having acknowledged that disparity, how can such underpowered foreign nations possibly contribute to American security?
“He has that line in there about bringing as many guns as possible to a gun fight. …What are those guns?” asked Barndollar. For example, the British Royal Navy is the United States’ most significant allied naval force. But the United Kingdom has only seven vessels stationed in the Persian Gulf and they’re “stretched to the absolute limit to do that.”
“Our problem has been double-edged,” says Davis of America’s reliance on others. “On the one hand, we try to bludgeon a lot of our allies to do what we want irrespective of their interests as an asset. And then simultaneously, especially in previous administrations, we’ve almost gone too far [in] the other direction: ‘we’ll subordinate our interests for yours.’”
“[W]hen you shave it all down, his problem with being the epitome of establishment Washington is that he sees the alliance as the end, not as a means to an end,” says Davis. “The means should be to the end of improving American security and supporting our interests.”
Mattis’s view is the old Einstein adage: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.” Well that’s all he’s proposed. He has no new or creative solutions. For him, it’s stay the course, more of the same, stay in place, fight the terrorists, maintain the illegitimate and corrupt governments that we back. That’s what he’s been talking about for 18 years. It’s all the same interventionist dogma that’s failed us over and over again since September 12, 2001.
“In the two years he was in office, what did he do that changed anything? He was a caretaker of the status quo. That’s the bottom line,” says Davis, adding, “you need somebody in that job especially that is willing to take some chances and some risk and is willing to honestly look at 18 consecutive years of failure and say, ‘We’re not doing that anymore. We’re going to do something different.’ And that just never happened.”
Barndollar is more generous in his estimation of Mattis: “He needs to be lauded for standing for his principles, ultimately walking away when he decided he could no longer execute U.S. national security policy. …I give him all the credit for that, for doing it I think in a relatively good manner, and for trying to do his best to stay above the fray and refuse to be dragged in at a partisan level to this point.”
Mattis ends his Wall Street Journal op-ed by recounting a vignette from the 2010 Battle of Marjah, where he spoke with two soldiers on the front lines and in good cheer. But his story didn’t sit well with Sjursen, who says it encapsulates Mattis’ inability to ask the bigger questions: “He never talks about how those charming soldiers with the can-do attitude maybe shouldn’t have been there at all. Maybe the mission that they were asked to do was ill-informed, ill-advised, and potentially unwinnable.”
All this suggests that a fair evaluation of Mattis is as a soldier who is intelligent but unoriginal. A homegrown patriot, but one who’d like to plant the Stars and Stripes in Central Asia forever. A public servant, but one who would rather resign than serve the cause of restraint.
“By clinging to unsustainable military solutions from the distant past, he has condemned future generations of soldiers and marines to repeat disasters like Pickett’s Charge,” says Macgregor.
Hunter DeRensis is a reporter for The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.