UPDATE December 1, 9:08 p.m. EST: President-elect Donald Trump said today he has chosen James Mattis to be his secretary of defense. Trump made the announcement at a rally in Cincinnati, calling General Mattis “the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton.” The article below was originally posted on November 21.
The Washington scuttlebutt is that President-elect Donald Trump is considering retired Marine Corps General James Mattis for secretary of defense. Mattis has a long military career and has seen combat, so he knows more than most that this is a position of immense responsibilities. For unlike many of his potential fellow cabinet secretaries, he will continue to be in the business of killing people and destroying things.
Although I’m confident he understands this, I’m not convinced many of his predecessors fully understood or respected the scope of what that means or entails at the troop level. That is probably also true of many Americans, in and out of government.
The media talking heads and think tank policy wonks will ask what Mattis will do to rein in out of control defense spending, improve efficiency, and promote diversity. They will raise questions about how a defense secretary with a nickname like “Mad Dog Mattis” will work with the more genteel members of Congress, a war-weary American public, and at the same time, show respect for our “diverse cultural sensitivities.”
Let’s take controlling defense spending and improving efficiency first. As always, the initial assumption is that government should be run like a business, instead of facing the fact that politics runs the government. As if it was the lack of solid business practices that led to the production of bullets too expensive to actually be used, instead of a military industrial complex where Congress, some government officials, and a large pool of special interest groups create the rules.
To “help” the Defense Department get its financial house in order, there’s been talk about adding a business expert in upper management. This is a good time to remind ourselves of the disasters of Robert McNamara, former Ford Company president and defense secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and his business “Whiz Kids.” And to remember the findings and recommendations of the Packard Commission, and then Vice President Al Gore’s task forces to make government more effective, just to name a few.
Many of the past and current efforts to make government more efficient were and are well intentioned. But Senator Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, showed he understood the nature of government better than most when he said, “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size.”
It remains to be seen how Mattis will deal with business efficiency matters given the way Washington works. Therefore, I want to concentrate the rest of this article on the most important part of the Department of Defense – its military people. In order to carry out their mission, the personnel under Mattis’ charge may be ordered to put their lives on the line. Operational success depends largely on whether military personnel respect the ones giving the orders.
From what I understand, there’s no problem here, as Mattis is a Marine’s Marine. One Marine friend told me that fellow Marines would, “Follow him to hell and back.” And, “If he gave the order to invade North Korea with nothing but dull spoons, every grunt I know would be there with a smile on their face. He is awesome.”
When I entered the Air Force in 1978 under the Carter Administration, morale was still low from the Vietnam War. The low morale and lack of leadership during and following Vietnam played heavily in President Carter’s failed 1980 Iran hostage rescue attempt. It took the election of Presidents Reagan and Bush (41), and a popular general like “Stormin’” Norman” Schwarzkopf to make the country proud of its military and the military proud of itself.
An obscure, but insightful, example of poor leadership was the execution of the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program. In 1997, under the Clinton administration, the Defense Department ordered all military personnel to receive anthrax vaccines. A widespread resistance movement to the vaccine program began immediately after the program’s announcement. It didn’t take long for lawsuits to start and court-martials to begin.
True leaders, especially at the flag-officer level (generals and admirals), would have been the first in line to receive the vaccines. The photos of senior officers with their sleeves rolled up taking the shots would have done more to quell the resistance and motivate morale than all the lawsuits and court-martials combined. But it never happened because there was no leadership—just some old guys in business suits or uniforms with stars on their shoulders deciding policy for everyone else.
Military personnel are required to take classes in a number of historical and political subjects. One lesson deals with essays by Carl von Clausewitz, whose famous quote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” is drilled into their heads. Military personnel know that sometimes they may be required to operate under orders they may not appreciate, but that doesn’t make them expendable. Those back in Washington need to understand that. I’m pretty sure Mattis does; that means he has the obligation to insist on time-tested rules of engagement before sending troops into combat.
One of Mattis’ toughest jobs will be to articulate to the administration and the country the environment military personnel work and live in, as well as the country’s obligations to them and their families. And here is where Mattis’ reputation is one of his greatest assets and greatest weaknesses.
Today, most Americans have no direct connection to the military. War has become abstract, fought by people most Americans don’t know and care little about. The military is seen by intellectuals and the political class to be a measure of last resort. “It’s become a noble hardship of a lesser class.” To the intelligentsia, Mattis has to be a Neanderthal. After all, who else would say, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet?” One can hear the weeping and gnashing of teeth outside every university faculty lounge.
Mattis will go up against many who no longer want America be a global leader but want it only to serve as a source of wealth, like a fattened cow under some global social justice milk redistribution plan. The end result is a series of bizarre contradictions. Borders that are not borders; welfare handouts that become voter buyouts; Army mechanized cavalry converted into global meals on wheels; a space agency sending goodwill gestures to old-world nations instead of spacecraft to new-world frontiers; and so many more.
These same people see the military as a social experiment. If we could discuss diversity rationally, it’s really an equality-of-opportunity issue, be it for gays, women, or even Wiccans. However, we cannot discuss this rationally because any new policy will quickly mutate to equality of outcome. And with that goal come the lawyers, the changes in standards, and the potentially dangerous outcomes for all military personnel who have to operate in a battlefield, not in an office.
When it comes to people, after all is said and done, the important point to remember is that the military, like any other institution, is just a reflection of the society it serves. It can’t be any more or less. It will be interesting to see how an old grunt like Mattis, if selected, handles this brave new world.