Former LENS speaker General Jim Mattis is the right person for Secretary of Defense

President-elect Donald Trump is said to be considering appointing retired Marine General Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense.  It’s hard to think of a better nominee at this moment in history than my friend who was the dinner speaker for our 2013 LENS conference.  His participation underscored his desire to build future generations of national security law experts by his willingness to engage with the students and to frankly address their questions.

What are General Mattis’ qualifications?  Professor Mac Owens, who was on the civil-military relations panel at the just-completed ABA Annual Review of the Field of National Security Law conference has written an absolutely must-read piece entitled “Mattis for Defense: Making Civil-Military Relations Great Again” which superbly lays out the case for Mattis.

Some hand-wringing about the supposed impact of retired generals serving in civilian positions in government seems to be taking place. It’s true that if selected as Secretary of Defense, a waiver of the statutory prohibition against military officers serving in that post within seven years of their retirement would be required. But it can be done.

People may want to categorize General Mattis by putting him in a “retired general” box, but he is much more than that.  A scholar.  A historian.  A writer.  A strategist.  A leader.  Those are just a few of the many “titles” he holds.

Still, should we be concerned about a retired general serving as Secretary of Defense which is intended to be a civilian, political-appointee position aimed at enhancing civilian control of the armed forces?  Normally, sure – but there are always exceptions that prove the rule when the facts about the particular person are considered as they should be.  Professor Owens, who has written a book on civil-military relations, says in his insightful blog post:

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.  (Italics added)

What is more is that General Mattis is himself an expert on civil-military relations, having just co-edited a book (“Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military”) on the subject with Dr. Kori Schake, one of the nation’s foremost defense experts.  And he knows how to give advice effectively to civilians without military experience.  Indeed, reports indicate that General Mattis has already had what many would consider to be a positive influence on the President-elect.  Consider that Mr. Trump is apparently “scrapping” his views on torture after discussing the issue with General Mattis.

General Mattis is an authentic Marine who has seen war up-close-and-personal, and whose sayings are almost as legendary as his combat record.  Be aware, however, that not all of them would play well in neatly-appointed salons inside the Beltway.

One famous Mattis quote, and my personal favorite, is: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”  While that comment may startle and shock some, it is important to take it in context (which is something seldom done in the media today.)  As James Clark explains, General Mattis said that in a speech to his Marines in Iraq in 2003 and were “words to live by” in a place “where enemy combatants attack without warning before blending back in with the local populace.”

Even considering his saying broadly out of context, the mantra is one displayed by General Mattis – and one he encourages in others:   Have a plan.  Be prepared.  Be respectful. Do your job well. Anticipate surprise and know how to react.

If you are getting the idea that “Mad Dog” Mattis is some kind of knuckle-dragging illiterate, you could not be more wrong.  General Mattis is perhaps one of the most well-read leaders of his stature in the world today.  As was recently reported, the “legendary general sometimes referred to as ‘The Warrior Monk’ carted around a personal library of 6,000 books with him everywhere.”  His favorite?  “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius.

When an officer once said he was “too busy to read,” General Mattis gave him advice that should warm the heart of any beleaguered humanities professor struggling to explain the relevance of studying history. Here’s part of what General Mattis told the “too busy” officer:

The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.

Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.

I got to know General Mattis personally late in my career when we found ourselves in the same venues, often debating his theories of counterinsurgency epitomized in the then ground-breaking Counterinsurgency Manual that he and Army General David Petraeus co-issued in 2006 on behalf of their respective services.  I wrote a long monograph published by the Air Force critiquing their concept (my view is somewhat akin to President Obama’s approach so judge for yourself the wisdom of my theories!).  In addition, I differed with him – as did many in the Air Force – on his views about effects-based operations.

Reflecting a quality that will serve him well if he becomes Secretary of Defense, General Mattis loves to debate ideas.  But, even more importantly, he listens, gathers information, considers data, and is willing to professionally discuss issues with those who disagree.  This led to an amusing incident when Mattis, then a four-star general, called my office in the Pentagon to discuss something I had published.  My sergeant took the call initially, and came into my office saying “Sir, there’s some guy on the phone claiming to be a ‘General Mattis” and he wants to talk with you.  Should I get rid of him?”

Her skepticism was understandable: it was – and is – virtually unheard of in the military for a four-star general to directly call a two-star; the protocol is for a subordinate to call, get the two-star on the line, and then the four-star would pick up.  But that wasn’t General Mattis’ way, as my horrified sergeant learned (but, as you might expect, General Mattis was amused and, in his way, admiring of the sergeant).  His down-to-earth, caring and respectful personality empowered by a powerful intellect is but one reason he is so revered by those in uniform.

Anyway, one more personal incident to help you understand this confident yet courteous man.  Despite my differences with him on some issues (actually, fewer than many might believe) he accepted – to my great surprise – an invitation to my retirement ceremony.  As the senior officer present, he was seated in the front row.  I was in the midst of giving my remarks when a fire alarm went off.  In government buildings (in Washington anyway), fire alarms are not especially unusual, and they almost always turn out to be false, so I ignored it and continued speaking, raising my voice a bit.

One of my officers eventually came up to the podium, and whispered to me, “sir, it’s a real fire alarm, and General Mattis’ security people are getting very concerned.”  I looked down at General Mattis and he was smiling broadly.  The fact that a building may be burning down around him doesn’t distress Jim Mattis, and without a confirmed threat that needed his attention, he certainly wouldn’t let it be a reason to walk out of a retirement ceremony for a fellow officer. (And, yes, we did stop the ceremony and evacuate for a bit to sort out the alarm — thankfully it was not serious — and the ceremony resumed.)

The point is that General Mattis is gifted with the kind of authentic charisma that few people of any generation enjoy.  It engenders a confidence in his leadership that I’ve never seen equaled.  I am certain that if today he called 1000 people who knew him (or of him) – in or out of uniform – and asked them to volunteer for a one-way mission in service to their country, he would immediately get – without any further explanation on his part – a thousand replies like this: “of course sir, where’s the line of departure”?  That’s the sort of leader he is, so I’m not surprised that after a relatively short conversation with him, the President-elect is re-thinking his long-held views on interrogations.

It does concern me that my friend would be thrust into the heartless politics of Washington these days.  His fearlessness and direct intellectualism are in stark contrast to the deviousness and lack of action we too-often find inside the Beltway.  And he would need to be paired with a strong deputy (and staff) well-schooled in the intricacies of the budget and related financial issues that consume so much of the Pentagon’s attention.  But, yes, his country still needs him – and perhaps more than ever – so if the call does come, I hope he answers it.  As the President-elect has said, General Mattis is the  “real deal.”

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