By Dr. Alan Ned Sabrosky, Editor Emeritus Veterans Today
The storied departure of retired Marine general James Mattis from the office of Secretary of Defense offers an opportunity to review his appointment and tenure from a somewhat different perspective. Let’s put aside the specifics of his policy dispute with President Donald Trump: I can see arguments for the position he took as well as that of the President. These are issues about which reasonable people can disagree.
Yet the most worrisome aspect of it all to me is what it said about the characters of this iconic general and this very mercurial president. Mattis conducted himself as a professional and a gentleman, trying to make his departure and the transition to a new Secretary of Defense as smooth as possible. But Trump – initially supportive, then petty and vindictive – conducted himself as a spoiled child who saw his departing Secretary praised across the political spectrum and on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, with nothing good being said about him. Like a schoolyard bully who never quite grew up, he pushed Mattis out two months early, then belittled him behind his back, and did not even have the moral courage to tell Mattis his decision to his face: he instead sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do his dirty work for him.
The Concept of Civilian Control Reprised
Aside from being a case study in presidential bluster and moral cowardice, this entire episode lets us take a long, hard look at the concept of “civilian control of the military” supposedly enshrined in American political culture – because there has rarely been a more military general than Mattis, and assuredly never a more civilian commander-in-chief than Trump.
Let’s understand first of all that the concept of “civilian control of the military” would never have occurred to the Framers of the Constitution, drunk or sober. Making the President also the Commander-in-Chief was done to induce General George Washington into taking what was otherwise a fairly innocuous position, in a political system where most of the power and most of the military might resided in the sovereign states. I expect one and all groaned mightily when diminutive John Adams became the second President – they could no more imagine him leading troops in battle than they could Barack Obama in our day.
But just what is this putative “civilian control” supposed to do? Prevent generals and admirals from taking this country into needless wars for their own self-aggrandizement? They have never done that. From the War of 1812 through our Middle East misadventures today, all except Korea has been the brain-child (I was actually thinking of a different part of the anatomy) of civilians, brought about by their deliberate actions or stumbled into because of their ignorance and incompetence.
Or is it supposed to keep professional soldiers from squandering lives by waging war incompetently – the “Colonel Blimp” image writ large? Well, there have certainly been incompetent generals and admirals here as elsewhere. But for sheer architects of disaster, none matches Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his so-called “whiz kids” in Vietnam, although Donald Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative “chicken hawks” in Iraq and elsewhere come close – and their resurgence in the person of John Bolton and his ilk does not augur well for the future.
Or is it the “Seven Days in May” complex, the fear that having generals in key positions within the Defense Department will tempt them to collude with serving generals to overthrow the government? Nonsense. No one who has been at our service academies or our war colleges would get a breath of that sentiment, nor would anyone closely and privately observing the troops themselves come away with it. Our officers are not a landed aristocracy devoid of commitment to the country, and the enlisted personnel are not mindless serfs whipped into uniform and into battle, prepared to blindly follow their officers against the elected government. Want proof? The simple fact that they did not move against Obama and his appointed minions in the Defense Department, despite being widely (if mostly privately) loathed by a considerable majority of the military and of veterans.
But we let our men and women in uniform be run by elected and appointed civilians who know nothing about the armed forces, who have no concept of military organization or of strategy, and who often despise the military they oversee. They do not even know what questions to ask of their uniformed advisers – that is, if they deign to listen to them at all – much less how to evaluate their responses. And this applies to both parties, although for some reason the Democratic Party in recent decades has departed a long way from the traditions of that party during the years of Truman and Kennedy.
As a consequence, anyone who wants to know what civilian control of the military has gotten the United States, has only to look across the Potomac River at Arlington National Military Cemetery, and other military cemeteries in this country and abroad. Civilian control has meant needless wars entered into for specious reasons; wars fought badly because of the ignorance, incompetence and arrogance of elected and appointed civilian overseers – one cannot call most of them “leaders” in any real sense; and military establishments used as testing grounds for social experimentation that had not a shred of military value.
What James Mattis brought to the office of Secretary of Defense was real expertise for the first time since General of the Army George Marshall held that office in 1950-51, after being Secretary of State. President Harry Truman – a Democrat – had no problem with that, perhaps because he himself was a veteran, and Marshall was endorsed by a future president – Dwight Eisenhower – another General of the Army.
Mattis had his work cut out for him. He tried to swing the Defense Department away from exercises in social engineering which (e.g.) gave pride of place to policies requiring commanders to balance readiness with lactation support (a missive from Obama’s gay secretary of the Army); to manipulating physical standards to make it easier for women to enter the ground combat arms; or worrying about transgender bathrooms at Defense Department schools.
But what really concerned those who opposed General Mattis or any recently retired general officer was not any theoretical principle like civilian control of the military. It was a very real fear that he would be less inclined to willingly fill their personal pork barrels, and would reverse or completely overturn many of the so-called “progressive” (some would say “perverse”) personnel policies of his predecessor.
He tried to do many of these things, and he was not always successful. Some of his policy decisions grated on me, but I could see his point: I believe we never should have attacked either Afghanistan or Syria (among other countries) in the first place, BUT having “marched up those hills,” to march down again and withdraw without a clear-cut success (however defined) can only have adverse repercussions elsewhere – remember if you will the reactions after the U.S. defeat in Indochina in 1975.
We weathered that one and came out ahead. It isn’t clear that we’ll be as fortunate now. The world has changed a great deal since 1975, but those changes are a very mixed blessing: The USSR and the Warsaw Pact are history, but a revitalized Russia and a rapidly rising China make America’s prospects more complex, and the turmoil besetting Europe weakens what before was a reasonably firm support base. I would much rather have a professional like James Mattis at the helm of the Defense Department than the usual run of corporate executive or political hack usually afflicting that office – but I fear that is what we’ll get, with predictable consequences.
*Alan Ned Sabrosky (PhD, University of Michigan) is a ten-year Marine Corps veteran. He served two tours in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Division, and is a graduate (as a civilian) of the US Army War College.