James Mattis Wasn’t Ready to Serve in a Democracy

After the tributes die down, the outgoing defense secretary will be remembered for recklessly expanding, and covering up, the country’s wars.

Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with military leaders in the White House in Washington on Oct. 23, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis listens while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with military leaders in the White House in Washington on Oct. 23, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s decision to rapidly accelerate James Mattis’s termination as defense secretary by two months was deeply misguided. The outgoing defense secretary had offered enough time to nominate and confirm a replacement, and to prepare that person for forthcoming summits and congressional posture hearings. Trump instead ensured that Mattis was summarily forced out via tweet, rather than in the normal White House or Pentagon transition ceremony.

This latest ignoble act by Trump was immediately invoked to burnish Mattis’s reputation as secretary of defense. Throughout his shortened term, and in the tributes written after his resignation, Mattis was generally spared criticism, because it was believed that he stood up to Trump. (Although there is—thankfully—no evidence he refused a direct order from the commander in chief.)  Mattis was also given a pass because he was a good quote, he sounded super tough, and he enjoyed several glowing media profiles that promoted him as “Mad Dog” or a “warrior monk.”

But Mattis has always been more complex than this simplistic portrait, as his many on-the-record comments made in speeches, press statements, and congressional hearings prove. For anyone willing to assess the entirety of the entirety of the public record, rather than just his supposed private interactions with Trump, Mattis’s legacy as defense secretary is unlikely to match the hagiographic eulogies the media immediately provided on his behalf.

On the positive front, Mattis exhibited many of the best traits that had been demonstrated by previous secretaries of defense. He consistently emphasized the need for diplomacy and negotiated outcomes with regards to Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Yemen. Unfortunately, he said little about how or whether the military was postured to support these aspirations, or what was the strategy to reach that end state. To quote Mattis himself, “If you don’t know where you’re going, good luck when you take off on your journey.”

He also repeated the principles he believed should guide U.S. foreign policy, even when they contrasted with Trump’s. People who had not followed Mattis’s comments found his resignation letter a shocking rebuke to the president. It was even reported that Trump did not have an opinion of the letter’s content until he watched news coverage that portrayed it in a negative light. But the letter was essentially a well-crafted compilation of the principles and values that Mattis had professed countless times before. That the mainstream media and Trump found them shocking indicates that they had not been listening to the Pentagon chief.

Finally, Mattis traveled the world constantly to defend those principles he espoused, and to personally thank deployed service members and their families for their sacrifices. He took tough questions from the assembled soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines; told bad jokes; and referenced historians and philosophers, which he hoped the service members would take the time to read for themselves.

But history will not remember Mattis for what he did from a programmatic or budgetary perspective, but rather the chaotic environment within which he did it. He often had to answer for Trump’s erratic tweets or behaviors. At times he wisely refused to take the bait, but in others he actively defended Trump. For example, stepping outside his military lane in June to defend the supposedly national security-related tariffs imposed by the White House on U.S. treaty allies, Mattis said, “We can’t have a 2 percent on imported cars and other nation have a 10 percent tax on our cars when they’re imported to their country.” Or in December, when he declared, “I have seen all the intelligence we have. We do not have a smoking gun that the [Saudi] crown prince was involved” in the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder—echoing the White House position. But, most impressively—and unlike other cabinet members—Mattis did not debase himself by groveling in Trump’s presence in front of TV cameras.

It is often overlooked that Mattis oversaw a growth in the wars that he inherited from the Obama administration. There was a steady growth in airstrikes in declared warzones (such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan), as well as in non-battlefield settings (Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan). There was also an expansion of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East, from 40,517 troops in mid-2017 to 54,180 by September of that year, according to then-available Pentagon data.

Under Mattis the Pentagon also systematically reduced its overall transparency and accountability. Between October 2017 and October 2018, Air Forces Central Command abruptly stopped releasing data on airstrikes in Afghanistan. When this was approved to be released again, the military had stripped out information on targets without explanation. The decision not to publish this happened shortly after the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released findings that showed that 66 buildings had been destroyed in the previous month—targets more likely to hold civilians. In May 2017, an anonymous military press officer confirmed that the Pentagon would no longer acknowledge when its own aircraft were responsible for civilian casualties; rather they were henceforth attributed broadly to the coalition. In January, the Pentagon ordered the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction not to publish certain data that was marked “unclassified” and available for years. Two months later, the Department of Defense reversed course and permitted the oversight authority to continue releasing the data.

But nothing captured the poor transparency of America’s military commitments under Mattis better than Syria. On Nov. 16, 2017, the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, claimed there were “about 503” troops in Syria. The following day, the Defense Manpower Data Center quarterly report announced there were actually 1,723. Two weeks later, Defense Department officials reported the figure at “slightly more than 2,000.” What did the military do to resolve this confusing message? In April, the Pentagon simply stopped providing Defense Manpower Data Center numbers for Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan—information that had been published for more than a decade.

In December 2017, Mattis defended supporting the air war in Yemen by telling reporters, “I’m never okay with any civilian casualty. Don’t screw with me on this.” It is wrong for any public servant to berate journalists for asking questions, not to mention that it establishes a poor command climate for the entire Department of Defense.

But, far worse, for somebody who claimed he was not okay with civilian casualties Mattis tolerated an enormous number of them. The most consequential decision Mattis made in this regard was to push the power to approve airstrikes—target engagement authority—to lower levels of command. In May 2017, he claimed, “We do everything we can to protect the civilians, and actually … delegating the authority to the lower level allows us to do this better.” But the evidence published by the U.S. military itself and the United Nations showed that Mattis’s assumption proved false, a fact that no journalist or congressional member seems to have ever questioned him about.

When Trump entered office, U.S. Central Command claimed that “199 civilians have been unintentionally killed” by airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the war began in August 2014. One year later, the command reported that number as 831, meaning 76 percent of all acknowledged civilian deaths in the bombing campaign occurred in the first year of the Trump administration. (These military estimates were a wild undercount, according to a  groundbreaking investigation by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal.) Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, U.S. airstrikes caused nearly 70 percent more civilian casualties in Trump’s first six months than the first six months of 2016—during which time total U.S. strikes doubled. Finally, Mattis reversed a George W. Bush administration policy from 2008, instead allowing commanders the discretion to use cluster munitions that have a failure rate of higher than 1 percent, which increases the probability of unexploded ordnance injuring civilians.

In September, when asked if women serving “in combat arms makes us more combat-effective,” Mattis replied with a strange rambling answer about how “it goes to the most almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable,” and how infantry are “cocky, they’re rambunctious, they’re necessarily macho and it’s the most primitive—I would say even evil environment.” Ultimately, Mattis proclaimed that while “there are a few stalwart young ladies,” there was insufficient data to make a judgment, and “clearly the jury is out.”

(Ironically, with even less data to go on and in contradiction to a Pentagon-sponsored Rand Corp. study, Mattis was comfortable telling Trump in a February memo that in the Defense Department’s “professional military judgment … there are substantial risks associated with allowing” transgender Americans to serve in the military. This judgement provided the needed post hoc rationalization for Trump’s Twitter declaration seven months earlier that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.”

But, Mattis had already revealed his opinion of women in the military, telling a 2014 audience, “The idea of putting women in [infantry positions] is not setting them up for success,” because “Could you find a few who could do the pullups? Of course you could,” but “Do you really want to mix love, affection, whatever you call it, in a unit where … you’ve now introduced all the affections and the testosterone and the love and everything else that goes into young people?” Women had served with distinction in front-line combat units for years—and as Marines since 1918—before Mattis expressed this embarrassing belief, one that would be immune to data.

In October and December, Mattis claimed that the United States was providing in-air refueling to the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, “so the pilots didn’t feel they had to make a hasty decision about the drop or not to drop, that sort of thing.” This was an attempt to rewrite history in real time, since protecting civilians was not the purpose of the refueling under former President Barack Obama or under Trump. As the Central Commander James Votel explained to the Senate in March, refueling was necessary because it “gives us placement, it gives us access and it gives us influence … with Saudi Arabia,” adding, “They want this type of support, and they want to improve their capabilities.” It was not, as Mattis claimed, to prevent civilian casualties but to literally fuel an air campaign that ensured them by its systematic, indiscriminate nature.

In January, when asked about great power competition with Russia and China, Mattis proclaimed, “We don’t invade other countries … we settle things by international rule of law … we respect these as sovereign nations with a sovereign voice and sovereign decisions.” This claim is totally false—during Mattis’s long and distinguished career, the United States (overtly) invaded or intervened in Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and others, without the approval of their recognized sovereign government. But, far more worrisome is how this historical amnesia is indicative of the general lack of self-awareness demonstrated by most American civilian and military officials. They literally cannot imagine how the world perceives U.S. military aggression, and why it is a flawed strategy to try to constrain China and Russian actions by championing universalist principles, which the United States itself violates.

In June 2017, Mattis told a journalist, “I don’t care for ideological people. It’s like those people just want to stop thinking.” But many comments hinted that he was as ideological as other mortals. In 2014, he stated that “victimhood in America is exalted.” (What news does he read to conclude this?) In 2016, he hinted, “we do not undercut the military battlefield effectiveness with shortsighted social programs.” (“Social programs” meaning the rights of female, gay, or transgender citizens.) That same year, he worried that “policymakers who have never served in the military” would “use the military to lead social change in this country.” (Mattis oversaw Trump’s election-year stunt deployment of 5,600 troops to the southern border.) In 2017, he asserted, “I was on dozens of college campuses in those three [retirement] years, over 30, and they don’t seem to have the degree of almost casual respect for one another. It’s just an inbred thing.” (What?) And, in 2017, he warned Congress, “If we don’t remove the defense caps, then we’re questioning whether or not America has the ability to survive.” (This is unsupported threat-mongering).

In September, Trump opined about the outgoing defense secretary, “I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.” But, listening to Mattis talk about the United States and its military, he sounds sort of like a conservative Republican—though he stated, “I’ve never registered for any political party”—and he voluntarily served in a deeply conservative Republican administration. Mattis was confirmed only after Congress agreed to waive a requirement that officers be retired for seven years before becoming secretary of defense. Perhaps future presidents and senators—who confirm Pentagon chiefs—should consider whether 42-year military officers can overcome their deep institutional biases and beliefs, and if they are best suited to be the top civilians leading and overseeing the armed forces.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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