Dec. 7, 2016 It has become rare for top military officers to stand up to their civilian leaders.
By George Friedman
I have received several emails, primarily from non-Americans, asking why Donald Trump would select a man called “Mad Dog” to be secretary of defense. They are aware that “mad dog” is a term denoting a dog with rabies and are baffled why anyone normal would be given that name. I have decided to serve as a guide to the perplexed.
First, you should bear in mind that James Mattis is not normal. He is a United States Marine. As such, he is expected to go beyond the normal. Within the American family of services, the Marines pride themselves on going to extremes. Those who go beyond the extremes are rewarded with names like Mad Dog. Mad dogs are said to be tenacious, unwilling to accept defeat or to leave a teammate behind. This has little to do with rabies and everything to do with honor. And one of the tenets of honor is never to lie to others or yourself about war. War is about defeating your enemy, and that means killing them. And in killing them you may kill innocents. This is true, and you can’t lie about that. If that is unacceptable, don’t go to war.
The Mad Dog was fired by President Barack Obama, rumor has it, for asking inconvenient questions. The question of bombing Iran had come up and Mattis would not let go of the issue. He demanded answers to questions ranging from how we will know if we destroyed the nuclear facilities to what we will do if the Iranians respond with non-nuclear weapons like chemical weapons. Only a mad dog would ask questions for which planners had no answers, so Mattis was fired. Obama wanted an option and Mattis’ questions made it clear the president didn’t have the option he wanted. That was intolerable.
The United States has been waging war in the in the Middle East for 15 years. It has been dishonest from the beginning. George W. Bush said the U.S. was at war and would bring the perpetrators to justice. In a war you kill your enemies, not arrest them. If you arrest them, you aren’t at war. Obama couldn’t decide whether to leave or stay. As a result, he mostly left, except for those that stayed. Donald Rumsfeld called the insurgency the last gasp of a defeated enemy. He knew it wasn’t, but he didn’t want to admit that he miscalculated in Iraq, and that defeating the Iraqi army was the preface to the real war, not the end.
The greatest deception was in designating the enemy. The enemy is the one you must defeat and must be clearly identified. If the enemy was all of Islam, hang it up. There are 1.7 billion Muslims, and America won’t win that war. On the other hand, if you pretend that Islam is purely incidental to terrorism, you are lying and you know it. Every Muslim is not a terrorist, but almost all terrorists today are Muslims. Now if saying that will make every Muslim a terrorist, that poses a serious problem. But there is a secret that everyone knows: Muslims know that there are Muslim terrorists, that they attack the West and that the Americans are at war with them. Trying to pretend otherwise seems not to have a point. If the point is that not all Muslims are terrorists, then say that if you wish and move on.
The enemy of victory or survival is wishful thinking. The U.S. did not wish to be in World War II. The Germans wished to defeat the Soviets in three months. The Japanese wished the Americans would sue for peace. The handmaiden of wishful thinking is poor planning. First you wish, then you pretend it’s possible, then you believe it’s certain, and then you plan without thinking about reversals, defeats or the worst case.
In the war in the Middle East, wishful thinking ruled. That was coupled with confidence, and that was married to careless planning. A few years into it every enlisted man knew that even the definition of victory was unclear, and that there was no light at the end of the tunnel. They couldn’t even find the tunnel. But pulling out of a war that was being lost was impossible. So the pretense from the White House and Pentagon was that the war was being won. They may have been far enough away from the war intellectually that they might have thought the war was being won. I personally doubt it.
If the war was to be won, and I don’t know that it could be, the key was to identify the enemy. It was not al-Qaida, because when it was shattered the Islamic State emerged. The enemy was that strain of Islam that provided manpower to whatever organization arose. But that would require admitting that the war was about Islam, and that wasn’t what the political leadership wished it to be about, or at least they didn’t want to admit it.
The leadership of the American military does not challenge the authority of the president. The president is commander in chief and the secretary of defense is whom the senior leaders must report to. This is respected. But the chain of command is not at stake. The senior commanders are as far from the battlefield as the civilians, and their knowledge of the battlefield is what they read in reports from the field. Some have heard a shot fired in anger at some point. Many have never been in combat. They are part of the same system of denial as are the civilians.
But a career’s worth of effort has gotten you your stars. You don’t throw that away to tell a truth you may not know and for which your career will be ended. But this is not new. It was true when Douglas MacArthur told Harry Truman he couldn’t win in Korea without using nukes. It was not what Truman wanted to hear, nor did he want the public to hear it. So he fired MacArthur, accepted a draw and portrayed MacArthur a madman. Mad he may have been, but the U.S. couldn’t and didn’t win without nukes. The president is free to do what he wants, but MacArthur insisted on telling the truth, however unwanted it was and however inappropriately it was delivered.
William Westmoreland in Vietnam accepted the theory that attrition would defeat the guerrillas, as eagerly produced reports showed body counts mounting. The truth was that counting bodies in the jungle is harder to do than you might think, and that the Ho Chi Minh trail was choked with fresh troops entering Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson did not want to hear that, and God knows if Westmoreland knew it, or if it mattered to him. The North Vietnamese could absorb casualties more readily than the Americans. There might have been ways to win the war, but it would have involved widening the war, sending many more troops and accepting much higher casualties. Westmoreland didn’t say this to Johnson because he didn’t want to hear it. And Westmoreland had no intention of being fired like MacArthur had been.
The president is the commander in chief, but he must demand that he hear the truth as his commanders see it. That truth may confirm the path he is on, it may tell him that path is doomed, it may offer another path, or it might say that the commanders are as baffled as anyone and see no path. The president decides, but his commanders must speak and the president must not merely listen, but hear. All owe their best to those they would send to war and those they would subject to war.
The military is subordinate to civilians. But senior commanders in the military are asking their troops to go to their death on the commanders’ orders. If they can ask soldiers to give their lives, they might be prepared to accept the consequences of speaking the truth as they see it. It is not insubordinate to insist to the civilians that they are lying to themselves or to force them to do honest planning or to resign. This not about routine matters but about the terrible decisions presidents must make. That might not help, but a revolt of the generals against a policy decimating their forces, to whom they are also responsible, is not unheard of. Dwight Eisenhower told Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt that unless there was a completely unified command under him, or whomever they chose, he would refuse to take the command and resign. Churchill capitulated to the threat. Eisenhower was a man who understood politics. That did not stop him, in extremis, from asserting his position (which was the right one). During World War II, generals fought tenaciously against civilian edicts they thought were wrong.
That hasn’t been true, at the critical points, in the United States since World War II. MacArthur knew the Chinese couldn’t be defeated once they came in. Westmoreland didn’t know, or didn’t tell the truth to Johnson. When Eric Shinseki told Rumsfeld that Iraq couldn’t be pacified with less than 300,000 troops, Rumsfeld fired him. At least Shinseki had pointed out that the plan was a fantasy.
If you are going to send troops to fight and die, the least you can put on the line is your career. It’s nothing compared to their lives. But the fact is that most senior officers – and intelligence personnel – are bureaucrats who got to where they are not because they mastered the arts of the warrior, but because they were clever staff officers, doing the necessary work of managing, but they were only incidentally warfighters. Nor were they intellectuals, who steeped themselves deep in the complex texts written by those who know war and Islam and the moral virtues of a soldier. They read reports and memos. And so expecting them to confront the Roman Senate, pointing out that they don’t know what they are talking about, and being self-satisfied, didn’t want to learn – that isn’t known to happen.
It may be apocryphal that Mad Dog Mattis carries a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” with him, but I have a feeling it is not. Mad Dog Mattis assigns reading lists to his junior officers, pointing out that wisdom is in them and will help them on the battlefield. And Mad Dog Mattis reads constantly and intensely himself. And what is certain is that he allowed his career to be destroyed rather than to go along with a very bad idea.
He is truly a mad dog. He cares more for his troops than his career. If he can be fierce with his enemy he can be fierce with his president. And Mad Dog knows three critical things. He knows how to kill. He knows that to kill he must pursue wisdom in the tradition. And he knows that with these two things he can lead, and earn the name Mad Dog. He is the classic soldier scholar.
Whether he can dramatically reform the Department of Defense is unknown. It is too big, too self-absorbed and far more concerned about the battles in the Pentagon than the battles with the enemy. But if Mattis can force Washington to say publicly what they already know – that this is the enemy, that it cannot be all of Islam, but it is part of Islam, I fantasize that the Pentagon will magically evaporate in the face of truth, replaced by a few hundred people who have no personnel policy beyond finding the best and placing them in harm’s way.
I do not usually admire people, nor write about those I do. But I have indulged myself in this. I am not making a political statement for or against any politician. I am saying that the kind of civic virtue that has become rare in the American military may well be found in this man. He refused to save his job by falling silent so as not to irritate the commander in chief. He insisted on having answers to reasonable questions. Such soldiers are tragically rare, and nothing is more likely to prevent a war than a general prepared to tell the truth or demand a truth. Nor is anyone more likely to win a war at less cost. Having had two children serve in the military, I understand the cost of pretending to my wife that all is well, all the while wondering whether their commanders stay awake through the night or are the type who ruthlessly deny themselves the comfort of delusions.
Mattis is simply a man worth admiring, and I will divert myself from my regular course to admire him. I will return to more ascetic things after this.