The Madness of James Mattis

Last week, in a well-received Wall Street Journal op-ed, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis delivered a critique of Donald Trump that was as hollow as it was self-righteous. Explaining his decision to resign from the administration, the retired Marine general known as “Mad Dog” eagerly declared himself “apolitical,” peppering his narrative with cheerful vignettes about his much beloved grunts. “We all know that we’re better than our current politics,” he observed solemnly. “Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.”

Yet absent from this personal reflection, which has earned bipartisan adulation, was any kind of out-of-the-box thinking and, more disturbingly, anything resembling a mea culpa—either for his role in the Trump administration or his complicity in America’s failing forever wars in the greater Middle East. For a military man, much less a four-star general, this is a cardinal sin. What’s worse, no one in the mainstream media appears willing to challenge the worldview presented in his essay, concurrent interviews and forthcoming book.

This was disconcerting if unsurprising. In Trump’s America, reflexive hatred for the president has led many in the media to foolishly pin their political hopes on generals like Mattis, leaders of the only public institution the people still trust. Even purportedly liberal journalists like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who was once critical of U.S. militarism, have reversed course, defending engagements in Syria and Afghanistan seemingly because the president has expressed interest in winding them down. The fallacy that Mattis and other generals were the voice of reason in the Trump White House, the so-called “adults in the room,” has precluded any serious critique of their actual strategy and advice.

The wildly unpopular, if not forbidden-to-be-uttered, truth is that Mattis, while an admittedly decorated Marine and a military strategist, was an abject failure. Despite being hailed as a “warrior monk,” he was and remains a conventional interventionist figure—prisoner to the tired old militarist ideas of the necessity for U.S. military forward deployment, counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and the perpetual need to balance or “contain” Russia and China. His career-long defense of America’s post-9/11 engagements should be the first sentence of his obituary.

None of these egregious errors in judgment have derailed Mattis’ career, of course. Can-do attitudes and compulsive optimism form the bedrock of today’s military culture, if not American society at large. Indeed, it was the general’s all-too-familiar view of the “War on Terror” that likely endeared him to successive promotion boards. As he notes in his own op-ed, “Institutions get the behaviors they reward.”

But Mattis and his entire generation of military leadership ultimately did a great disservice to their subordinates and the American people once they reached four-star rank. When given an (often absurd) mission by administration officials—be they Bush neoconservatives or Obama liberals—these generals and admirals offered “how” rather than “if” responses. Cultishly eager to please, they failed to tell their frequently ill-informed superiors that perhaps a proposed conflict couldn’t be won, at least with the resources available or at an acceptable human cost. Instead, Mattis, David Petraeus and their ilk debated whether counter-terror, advise-and-assist, or counterinsurgency was the best method to achieve an ill-defined “victory.” They effectively substituted high-level tactics for strategy.

Thanks to Mattis and company, Trump’s purported desire to withdraw from fruitless Middle Eastern wars has been stifled, the result being business as usual for the military-industrial-complex and national security state. And why not? Since resigning his post, Mattis has burst through the “revolving door” of the arms industry, reclaiming his seat on the board of the fifth largest defense contractor, General Dynamics. Albert Einstein famously (and perhaps apocryphally) said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” He might just as easily have been describing the career of James Mattis, who has been proven wrong again and again and again, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Syria.

Perhaps the only thing more celebrated than Mattis’ ostensible intellectualism is his supposed integrity. Yet his record as defense secretary throws that into question as well. Lest we forget, the general only decided to resign when Trump dared suggest a modest troop withdrawal from an 18-year war in Afghanistan and a speedy end to a highly risky, and ill-defined, mission in Syria.

This man of principle apparently had no ethical or philosophical compunctions about his department’s support and complicity in the Saudi terror bombing and starvation campaign aimed at the people of Yemen. This ongoing war has killed tens of thousands of civilians, starved at least 85,000 children to death, unleashed the world’s worst cholera epidemic, and generated millions of refugees. Mattis offered not one word of public criticism as his boss sold Saudi Arabia bombs that were all too often dropped on the heads of Yemeni civilians.  

Even after revelations that Saudi intelligence agents had murdered and dismembered The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo appeared before Congress to defend the Saudis and argue for continued U.S. support in its war on Yemen. That conflict alone should have prompted him to resign, but it did not. 

Mattis, a supposed “warrior monk,” and cerebral strategist above the passions and viciousness of battle, also holds a tarnished legacy from his time commanding the siege and assault of Fallujah, Iraq, in late 2004. According to a well-documented report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, his Marines played fast and loose with their firepower, killing enough civilians to fill a soccer stadium. A year later, he reportedly used his status as a two-star general to “wipe away criminal charges” for Marines accused of massacring 24 Iraqi civilians in the village of Haditha.  

His actions in Iraq earned Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog,” of which he is now reportedly embarrassed. The former defense secretary seems always to have been a disturbingly gleeful killer, and once famously said of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, that “Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” These aren’t the words of a reluctant warrior, even if they do demonstrate surprising candor about the dark side of war rarely uttered in polite company. It sounds instead like the irresponsible comments of a senior general who was busy playing sergeant.

Mattis ends his op-ed with a brief tale about the proverbial boys in the trenches. During the (predictably failed) assault on Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2010, he recounts asking an exhausted, sweaty Marine how he was doing and receiving a gleeful reply of “Living the dream, sir!” In my experience as a soldier, this kind of quip is usually meant sarcastically, but no matter. The exchange energized Mattis, and no one in the corporate press dared examine the real essence of the story he imparted.

By refusing to question the Marjah operation, or Obama’s Afghan “surge” in general, Mattis betrayed the very ground-pounders by whom he was so inspired. A more honorable figure, a true adult in the room, would have asked what we were doing there in the first place.

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