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The Defeat of General Mattis

When Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of defense in December 2018, he was widely lauded and lamented as “the last grown-up” in the Trump administration. The tributes were commentary more on Trump than on Mattis. For if he had run the Pentagon during a normal presidency, in which grown-ups abound, his tenure would be considered undistinguished, to say the least.

Jim Mattis; drawing by John Cuneo

This isn’t to deny that for much of his time in office, Mattis—a retired marine four-star general and charismatic commander in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—served as an effective counter to Trump’s most unstatesmanlike instincts. He assured allies in Europe and Asia of America’s security commitments, which Trump repeatedly disparaged. (Mattis often said it felt like he was running “the Department of Reassurance.”) He initiated programs that bolstered the defenses of NATO’s eastern nations, especially in the Baltics, without stirring Trump’s notice. He resisted pressures to start senseless wars against Iran and North Korea. These are the kinds of things that most secretaries of defense would do routinely.

Yet Mattis left little in the way of a legacy. He slashed no weapons programs, reformed no wasteful practices, and took little part in shaping the $700 billion–plus defense budget—which is where most secretaries make their imprint—leaving those matters to the deputy secretary, Patrick Shanahan, one of the aerospace executives, mainly from Boeing, that the White House had imposed on him. He did accelerate the destruction of ISIS’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but mainly by loosening the rules of engagement—the restraints on officers in the field—and otherwise following the strategy put in place by the Obama administration (which, by the time Trump took office, had recaptured half of ISIS’s territory). And he persuaded Trump to continue abiding by the Iran nuclear deal—at least for a while.

It was a fluke that Mattis became secretary of defense at all. Throughout the 2016 election campaign and after, Trump bellowed that we, as a country, “don’t win anymore.” Hearing that Mattis’s nickname as a commander had been “Mad Dog” (possibly a myth, and in any case a moniker that Mattis hated), Trump assumed he’d have a winner in his cabinet. “We’re going to put in the greatest killers of all time,” he bragged at a rally.

In combat, Mattis had been an aggressive commander, pushing offensives with merciless firepower and relentless speed—during the Iraq war, he drove the First Marine Division toward Baghdad much faster than the training drills had anticipated. But he was also a creative tactician, agile enough to adapt swiftly when his approach met obstacles. (His call sign, CHAOS, was an acronym, dating from his time as a midgrade officer, for “Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution.”) During the occupation of Iraq, when the strategy was to win the allegiance of local tribes while fighting the insurgents in their midst, Mattis told his troops, “Be polite, be professional—but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” The thing with Mattis was, he took the first part of the directive as seriously as he took the second part.

Imagine Trump’s shock when Mattis turned out to be a bit of an intellectual, possessing a library of some seven thousand books; that he preferred to settle disputes through diplomacy; and that—like most officers who served in Iraq—he was a vocal opponent of torture. (At his job interview, he told Trump that he could get more information from a prisoner with “a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers.”)

Mattis didn’t just quit near the end of his second year as secretary of defense; he resigned in protest. He stated that he was leaving not to spend more time with his family (he’s a lifelong bachelor) or to pursue other opportunities, as most departing officials do, but explicitly because of disagreements with the president over policy—something that no cabinet member had done since 1980, when Cyrus Vance resigned as Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state over the (ultimately disastrous) attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. Mattis’s resignation letter, which he released to the public, lauded the “international order” and asserted that “we cannot protect our interests…without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies”—sentiments that he knew Trump despised. He concluded, addressing the president, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” Before Trump read the letter, he tweeted that Mattis would be “retiring, with distinction, at the end of February” and thanked him “greatly” for his service. After he read the letter, he ordered Mattis to leave immediately.

It was reasonable, then, to expect that Mattis’s memoir, Call Sign Chaos, published a little more than eight months after his departure, would flesh out his critique of Trump, supply a taste of the madness he witnessed, recall the risks he helped avert, and ruminate on the dangers that lie ahead. Yet beyond the broadside of his resignation letter (which is reprinted at the end of the book), he says nothing about the man without whom his life story would be of little interest to the broader public. In several promotional interviews, Mattis has defended his reticence as an act of principle. “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence,” he told The Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg. The president and his cabinet, he added, should be able to “carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous”—not acknowledging that the poison is of Trump’s making.

In one sense, this silence is proper. Ever since General Douglas MacArthur, one of the most popular American military leaders of the twentieth century, launched a public campaign to undermine President Harry Truman’s war policies in Korea (as a result of which Truman relieved him of duty, at some political risk to himself), the US armed forces have drummed into the heads of every serviceman and -woman the principle of civilian control and the dictum to stay out of politics.

But Mattis is too smart not to know that he’s trying to have it both ways. If he truly wanted to remain apolitical, he shouldn’t have resigned in protest. If he really were averse to adding his own “criticism to the cacophony,” he shouldn’t have admitted to harboring critical thoughts; nor should he have told Goldberg, as if teasing a pending sequel to his memoir, that his period of silence is “not eternal”—that he might speak out at some point.

For that matter, he should have turned down Trump’s job offer in the first place. The National Security Act of 1947, which established the Defense Department, barred officers from serving as secretary of defense for up to ten years after retiring, unless Congress passed a waiver (the restriction was later loosened to seven years), because its authors wanted to ensure that the military would remain under firm civilian control. George Marshall, the retired five-star general who served as army chief of staff during World War II, was granted the first waiver, in 1950. Mattis received the second. But Marshall understood that he was assuming a political position, and not for the first time; he’d earned the trust of Congress and proved his talents as a civilian-statesman, having served, just after the war, as Truman’s secretary of state, during which time he formulated the Marshall Plan and helped create NATO. By contrast, Mattis had never been involved in making policy. Congress granted him a waiver as a gamble: members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees had known him for years; they figured, judging from his record as a decorated combat veteran and a man of unusual directness, that he would hold Trump—the true wild card—in check.

Ten months after Mattis’s departure from the White House, when Trump flagrantly betrayed the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds—withdrawing troops from northern Syria and giving Turkey a green light to cross the border to crush the Kurds, the most potent and self-sacrificing fighters in the battle against ISIS—he still refused to criticize the president. “I won’t make political assessments right now,” Mattis said during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Remember that the Defense Department stays outside of politics for a reason,” he went on. “There’s a longstanding tradition why you do not want the military to be engaged in politics.”

But this is his problem: he regards “the Defense Department” and “the military” as synonyms, when in fact the former is supposed to supervise and, when necessary, rein in the latter. We don’t want the military to be engaged in politics; but the Defense Department is inherently political, and so is the office of secretary of defense. Yet during his time in that position, Mattis saw himself above all as a general, not as a cabinet secretary whose obligations to the public and the Constitution superseded his military creed. Evidently, he still does.

Born in 1950, Mattis grew up in Washington State, the son of a merchant marine and a housewife who’d served as a civilian in army intelligence during World War II. At age thirteen, he took to hitchhiking across the West. Five years later, he entered a state college, as, in his words, “a mediocre student with a partying attitude” and wound up sentenced to jail on weekends for underaged drinking. He describes the ordeal as a wake-up call: he took on several civic volunteer jobs and found himself drawn to the Marine Corps for its combination of fierce discipline and high-spirited cockiness. He enrolled in its rigorous officer’s training course, was commissioned in 1972, and spent several years touring the global network of American bases, where he first observed “the enormous value of allies.” A fervent reader of military history, he impressed his superiors as he rose up the ranks: a battalion commander in the Gulf War, a division commander in the Iraq invasion, and then the commander of US Central Command—in charge of military operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and northern Africa—as the Iraq war began to wind down and the Afghanistan war raged on.

It would be interesting to read how a man with a purely military background confronted the duties of the secretary of defense—no longer just commanding troops but controlling the entire military and its industrial infrastructure—but Mattis devotes a mere two paragraphs to his time on the job, listing a few of his accomplishments without the slightest elaboration, then concluding, “I did as well as I could for as long as I could…. When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign.” And that’s all. Mattis declines not only to criticize the president in anything other than oblique terms but also to describe anything that he himself said, did, heard, or thought during his 712 days at the helm of the US government’s largest bureaucracy and the world’s most powerful armed forces.

This is a much larger failure than merely depriving his readers of some inside skinny. In his prologue, Mattis writes that his decades in war and peace as a marine—a time that he recounts in considerable, sometimes grueling detail1—“had all been preparation” for becoming secretary of defense. The book’s subtitle is “Learning to Lead,” but it says nothing about how he applied the lessons he’d learned to a job of grand leadership that only twenty-four Americans (just one of them a general) had held before him. As a narrative, and as a guide to instruct or inspire others, Call Sign Chaos is a cop-out.

For a glimpse of the story he doesn’t tell, there’s Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by his former chief speechwriter, Guy Snodgrass, a now retired US Navy commander. It’s a weirdly schizophrenic book—half swooning hagiography, half bitter critique. The prose is workmanlike at best. (Mattis’s memoir, coauthored with Bing West, a former marine grunt who’s written popular chronicles of modern battles, is livelier but not exactly gripping literature, either.) Yet in part because of his frequent cooing about his subject (“one of the most storied living leaders in our armed forces…my kind of leader…extremely modest and self-effacing.”), Snodgrass has produced a devastating portrait, making clear the failure of Mattis’s tenure in the Pentagon, fatal weaknesses in his character, and the plain fact that, valiant as his service was as a marine, he was unsuited for this, his sole civilian job in public life.

Tales are legion of Mattis’s devotion to his troops: hunkering in a foxhole alongside them, standing guard at a base on Christmas so that one of his men could spend the holiday with family. But this same intense loyalty and camaraderie produced an unhealthy insularity when he stepped outside his zone. At the Pentagon he insisted, Snodgrass notes, on “surrounding himself with military personnel”—and even then of only a particular type: navy and marine officers, with a special preference for those who had served with him in Central Command. Mattis and his front office formed a clique, even expressing “disdain” for the army and air force.

He also sidestepped the vast array of civilians, especially the undersecretary of defense for policy and the specialists on his staff. In most administrations, these are the officials who prepare the analyses, itemize the options, serve as expert sounding boards for the secretary’s ideas. Mattis ignored them and, in meetings with his coterie of staff officers, ridiculed the few papers that he read. Before long, civilians left; expertise dried up; Mattis was left flat-footed.

But four-star generals are creatures of enormous self-confidence, which their loyal staffs tend to feed, so at the center of his tight inner circle, Mattis barely noticed the myopia. The result was classic “groupthink,” Snodgrass observes. “We were getting answers to the questions we were asking,” he writes, but, he wonders skeptically, “were we asking the right questions?” They lacked the analytic tools even to notice that they were not.

The tight crew also shut out the Pentagon’s legislative liaison, so Mattis’s stock on Capitol Hill plummeted without his knowing it. (There’s a remarkable scene in which John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, chews out Mattis in a private meeting for never telling him what’s going on; Snodgrass, who was there, describes Mattis as shocked by the dressing down.) Nor did the coterie get along with the White House liaison, so Mattis never learned how to deal with Trump: he didn’t know, until it was too late, that Trump hated lectures; when Trump turned on him, interrupted a briefing, denounced his enthusiasms, and dismissed his premises (about the need for allies, among other things), Mattis was caught off guard, sitting with a “distant, defeated look on his face.”

He might have formed an alliance with Trump’s national security adviser, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. The two agreed on almost every issue of substance, and McMaster would “routinely” call Mattis “in a panic,” Snodgrass writes, “because of turmoil in the West Wing.” And yet, Snodgrass continues, McMaster “grated” on Mattis “as few people could.” Exactly what panicked McMaster, Snodgrass doesn’t say (we’ll have to wait for McMaster’s tell-all memoir), but he does explain why Mattis found him so annoying: Mattis was a marine four-star general, McMaster an army three-star and thus, in Mattis’s eyes, a “far more junior partner.” He also resented McMaster’s “attempts to consolidate power”—although consolidating, or at least coordinating, power is what the national security adviser is supposed to do.

In the first year of Trump’s presidency, when Trump still trusted the men he called “my generals,” Mattis might have bolstered McMaster’s standing in the White House; the two could have formed a potent partnership. Instead, his belittling diminished McMaster’s standing. When Trump fired McMaster (mainly for lecturing him too much) and replaced him with John Bolton, a savvier operator, Mattis found himself increasingly isolated.

Mattis also ignored the Pentagon press corps, which other secretaries have nimbly exploited in their bureaucratic battles—something he could have done, especially since most of the reporters idolized him. But he detested reporters, denouncing them privately as “mendacious.” When one journalist reported strains between Mattis and the White House, Dana White, his likeminded press aide, derided the story as “pure silliness,” a remark that Mattis “told us that he loved,” Snodgrass writes—even though Mattis knew the story was accurate.

When Mattis resigned, he put out the word that the move was prompted by Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria (a decision he later reversed, then reinstated). But Snodgrass reveals that Mattis had in fact decided to quit the previous July, at a private meeting—which didn’t appear on his official schedule—with the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a fellow retired marine general and old friend. By then, Mattis had realized he was completely shut out of decision-making on foreign and defense policy. The warrior-commander was in over his head.

He did try, at that point, to stay relevant by aligning himself as fully as possible with Trump. “Alignment, alignment, alignment…not an inch of daylight between us [and the White House] right now,” Snodgrass recalls Mattis barking at a staff meeting. On one level, this was a shrewd tactic, to maintain what little influence he still had. But he abandoned his principles in the process. During Mattis’s final few months, Snodgrass was “bothered” to see his boss caught in a “graveyard spiral,” making “public statements in support of policies”—notably the deployment of troops to the border with Mexico—“that I knew he personally loathed.”

Mattis has no qualms in his book about lambasting Trump’s predecessors—to some extent George W. Bush, whose goals he characterizes as “idealistic and tragically misplaced,” and to a very great extent Barack Obama, whose defense policies he likens to “a car wreck in slow motion.” He has justified the inconsistency by saying it’s inappropriate to criticize sitting presidents—the implication being that past ones are owed no such deference. But it’s unclear whether military ethics makes any such distinction, especially when the officer served under the former presidents that he’s criticizing. By the same token, it isn’t clear whether retired officers have the same obligation as those on active duty to refrain from criticizing even a sitting president. (MacArthur was still a commander when he publicly challenged Truman’s authority.)

Mattis claims that his critiques of Bush and Obama are military, not political, in nature. He maintains that Bush invaded Iraq for no good reason and then gave his officers no strategic guidance when insurgents rose up after Saddam Hussein was ousted. Mattis rails against several of Obama’s moves: his withdrawal from Iraq, which Mattis says sparked the rise of ISIS (“snatching defeat from the jaws of victory,” he describes it); Obama’s announcing a timeline on the troop surge in Afghanistan (“we should never tell our adversary what we will not do”); and his decision not to bomb Syria after its president, Bashar al-Assad, crossed what Obama had called the “red line” by using chemical weapons (“a shot not heard around the world”).

John Kelly, Donald Trump and H.R. McMaster; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek
John Kelly, Donald Trump and H.R. McMaster; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Many analysts and politicians—not just hawkish ones—have criticized Obama for those decisions, but it’s odd to see Mattis joining the outcry; when he himself was given a chance to deal with these problems, he did no better. Secretary Mattis doubled the number of troops that Obama had left in Afghanistan, loosened their rules of engagement, stepped up their pace of operations—and yet he came no closer to defeating the Taliban or the other, still more radical insurgencies that sprung up. He encouraged Trump to launch fifty-nine cruise missiles at Syria after Assad used chemical weapons again—but the attack had no impact at all; the next day the Syrian air force mounted an attack on anti-Assad forces (albeit with conventional weapons) from the same air base that had just been struck with all those missiles. Mattis’s decision not to write about his time as defense secretary allows him to evade these dilemmas and, more damningly, his own responsibility for the failures.

Whether the decisions by Bush and Obama were shrewd or stupid, there is no question that they were political—each was a decision about policy. Mattis writes of Vice President Joseph Biden, whom Obama had entrusted with managing the withdrawal from Iraq, “I found him an admirable and amiable man. But he…didn’t want to hear more; he wanted our forces out of Iraq…. [His] mind was made up.” Well, yes. Obama had won the Democratic nomination—and, to some extent, the general election—because he’d opposed the war early on, and he was honoring that mandate. Mattis claims that the “assessments of the intelligence community, our diplomats, and our military had been excluded from the decision-making circle,” but this is untrue. Obama held several National Security Council meetings on the subject. He sent his emissary, Brett McGurk (who stayed on under Trump, for a while), to find a way to keep a few thousand US troops in Iraq (Mattis writes that he supported a plan to keep 18,000—far more than even hawkish senators were proposing), but Iraq’s political factions wanted all of the troops gone. Maybe Obama should have tried harder to change their minds, but he too was disposed to a full withdrawal. This is what presidents have the right to decide, and generals do not.2

The real issue is that, at bottom, Mattis thinks that generals do—or should—have that right. “If a democracy does not trust its troops, then it shouldn’t go to war,” he writes in his book. At first, I took that line as glib overstatement. It implies that presidents can decide whether and when to go to war (though he thought Bush was mistaken to invade Iraq, he nevertheless followed the order)—but that from then on, they should leave everything to the military: not just strategy, tactics, and the rules of engagement, but also decisions on when and whether to pull out short of victory. Surely, I thought, he couldn’t believe that.

It turns out, however, that he does. At the end of the book, Mattis approvingly quotes General Kelly, the highest-ranking US officer to lose a son in the Afghanistan war, as saying shortly after the death:

I think the one thing [the parents of the fallen] would ask is that the cause for which their son or daughter fell be carried through to a successful end, whatever that means, as opposed to “This is getting too costly,” or “Too much of a pain in the ass,” or “Let’s just walk away from it.” They were willing to go where the nation’s leaders told them to go and in many cases gave their lives for the mission. They were willing to see it through literally to their ends. Can we do less?

With due respect, “this is getting too costly” is often an excellent reason for pulling out of a war, if only to keep more sons and daughters from dying, especially if the war wasn’t worth fighting in the first place. Another former combat officer, John Kerry, made the point more cogently while testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in 1971, as head of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” In Kelly’s view, which Mattis fully endorses, there would have been no “last man to die” in Vietnam, or any other battlefield of folly, because war would have gone on forever.

As Georges Clemenceau, the past and future French prime minister, still more famously said during World War I, when learning of another futile bloody battle on the Western Front, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” So is running the Department of Defense.

  1. 1

    Much of this detail, at least on the wars in Iraq, has already been covered in books by Rick Atkinson, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, George Packer, Thomas Ricks, and others. 

  2. 2

    Like many of Obama’s critics, Mattis skirts the fact that the US–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, signed November 17, 2008, while George W. Bush was president, stated (in Article 24), “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 30, 2011.” If Bush hadn’t approved that clause, the Iraqis would have kicked out all of the American forces then and there. Mattis’s jab that Obama snatched defeat from victory is also overstated. General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces in Iraq in 2007, during the “surge” that helped defeat the insurgents, acknowledged at the time that the victory was tactical, not strategic—that it served only to buy some time for Iraq’s political factions to get their act together, something they never did and still haven’t done.