war on the rocks

In the Wake of CHAOS: Civil-Military Relations Under Secretary Jim Mattis

February 4, 2019

Was Jim Mattis exercising civilian control, or was he under civilian control?

This question is difficult to answer not only because Mattis was just the second retired general to serve as secretary of defense, but also because of the way he conducted himself during his time in office and the degraded state of civil-military relations when he left the Pentagon. Jim Mattis may have become a civilian political appointee, but he never stopped being a marine.

Although Mattis was the co-editor of an excellent book on American civil-military relations (to which I contributed a co-authored chapter), the former general’s tenure was filled with civil-military controversy. He stepped into the E-ring of the Pentagon at a time of immense political polarization, with two ongoing wars and a host of global military deployments, amidst a widening of the civil-military gaps, after decades of weakening civil-military norms, to serve a president with an unconventional public communication style and no experience dealing with the military and a policy agenda that clashes with the Washington consensus. It was always too much to ask for civil-military relations to improve under these conditions. In fact, it was far more likely that civil-military tensions would increase.

Under these difficult conditions, Mattis avoided a true civil-military catastrophe and oversaw a period of two years without a major national security crisis. In doing so, however, he chose to prioritize his influence and longevity rather than healthy civil-military relations. This decision may have been understandable or even necessary, and at least some of Mattis’s civil-military missteps were sins of omission rather than commission, but they nevertheless will have real and lasting consequences for American civil-military relations. In particular, Mattis’s approach further: (1) blurred the lines of authority between civilian and military, as well as between active-duty and retired military; (2) enabled the rapid erosion of civil-military norms; and (3) widened gaps between the military and American society as well as between the military brass and elected political leaders.

It is possible — some would even argue likely — that America is better off overall than it would have been under any of the other nominees considered at the time, but the decision to appoint a retired general — and Mattis in particular — had an impact on the proper functioning of American civil-military relations that will persist even now that he is gone. In the end, however, Mattis passed his most important civil-military test: by serving honorably and resigning without fanfare, he reminded us that no military officer, whether active or retired, can save the republic. Healthy civil-military relations require other civilians — not the military — to hold elected leaders accountable.

General Confusion

Simply by accepting the nomination to become secretary of defense, Mattis contributed to the ongoing blurring of lines between active-duty and retired military officers in American public life. Mattis’s behavior in the job reinforced this perception. Unlike Army Gen. George Marshall, who was an expert administrator and logistician with limited command time and extensive Washington experience — including 20 months as secretary of state — before becoming secretary of defense, Mattis was a commander and combat leader. Moreover, unlike Dwight Eisenhower, Brent Scowcroft, and Colin Powell, or other generals who made the transition to senior civilian posts before him, Mattis was never generally seen as a Washington insider or civilian political leader. In fact, it is not clear how Mattis would have approached the job differently if he still had been wearing the uniform. What is clear, however, is that few Americans — including the president — made the distinction between “Secretary” Mattis and “General” Mattis.

Even before Mattis became secretary of defense, the number of retired generals and admirals involved in American politics — and their role in presidential campaigns — had been growing for decades. By explicitly drawing on these retired officers’ military credentials, candidates and causes attempted to co-opt the public’s high esteem for the military to advance their own political prospects or partisan agendas. In doing so, they also created the subtle impression that the military itself, and not just a particular retired officer or group of officers, supported their party or their candidacy.

Mattis’s elevation to secretary of defense represented an extension of this trend. Although Mattis himself never engaged in this type of politicking during campaigns and, often — at least privately inside the Pentagon — even emphasized that it was “secretary, not general,” in public he did not draw a clear line between his role as a political appointee and the responsibilities of those still on active duty. Was it realistic for him to correct this breach of civil-military etiquette every time it occurred? Perhaps not, especially because the president so often referred to him as “general” in public, but even a wry Mattis-ism, such as, “people keep calling me general, but I got promoted to secretary” might have mitigated or at least called attention to this harmful trend. But Mattis rarely, if ever, made this distinction in public.

Compounding the blurring of the lines between active-duty and retired officers, Mattis also oversaw a growing power imbalance between civilian and military authorities inside the Pentagon. As Mara Karlin and I argued last year, the power of the Joint Staff relative to that of civilian officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy already was growing during the Obama administration. During Mattis’s tenure as secretary of defense, however, this trend accelerated. From my vantage point as a military officer serving as a special adviser on the National Security Staff for Vice President Joe Biden, and, later, for Vice President Mike Pence, I witnessed the assertiveness of uniformed officers on the Joint Staff grow in interagency meetings after the administration changed. After departing the White House, I wrote about some of these concerns for The Strategy Bridge.

At least some of this shift likely was due to the difficulty of vetting civilian political appointees during the early days of the Trump administration. Mattis initially pursued several Democrats, including Michele Flournoy, for top Pentagon posts, but he ran into opposition from the White House because they didn’t find many of his early picks ideologically acceptable. Rather than accepting these constraints and identifying candidates the White House would find tolerable to fill these posts more quickly, Mattis instead decided to double-down on some nonpartisan nominees, extending the time it took him to fill key civilian political positions in the Pentagon. With many of these civilian posts empty early in the administration, experienced military officers on the Joint Staff — who didn’t change out during the transition — stepped in to fill the void.

In addition to problems filling civilian posts, however, a large part of this power imbalance simply was due to Mattis’s choice to delegate responsibilities to uniformed military leaders, rather than empowering the civilian officials that remained in the Pentagon. He also could have emphasized better cooperation between the Joint Staff and senior civil servants as a way to mitigate personnel shortfalls until he had time to fully staff his slate of political appointees. Instead, Mattis delegated authority to officers he trusted on the Joint Staff and allowed, or perhaps even encouraged, the balance of power to shift. This delegation became so severe that Luke Strange recently argued that the unequal dialogue may now be biased in favor of military, rather than civilian, leaders.

In its November 2018 report, the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission was even more pointed, arguing that the lack of civilian voices involved in defense and national security decision-making was “undermining the concept of civilian control.” The commission took particular aim at efforts to centralize global force management under the chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

The implementation of the National Defense Strategy must feature empowered civilians fulfilling their statutory responsibilities, particularly regarding issues of force management. Put bluntly, allocating priority — and allocating forces — across theaters of warfare is not solely a military matter. It is an inherently political-military task, decision authority for which is the proper competency and responsibility of America’s civilian leaders. Unless global force management is nested under higher-order guidance from civilians, an effort to centralize defense direction under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may succeed operationally but produce profound strategic problems. It is critical that DOD — and Congress — reverse the unhealthy trend in which decision-making is drifting away from civilian leaders on issues of national importance.

Prior to Mattis’s confirmation, Alice Hunt Friend and Erin Simpson suggested that close personal relationships with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of the Joint Staff, as well as service parochialism, could play a role in how Mattis chose to manage the Pentagon. While it is unclear whether these factors caused him to delegate authority to trusted fellow marines with whom he had risen through the ranks, it is certain that the growth in the power of the Joint Staff will make it more difficult for the next secretary of defense, as well as for the White House and Congress, to rebalance the civil-military relationship between policymakers and uniformed leaders in the Pentagon.

Taking the Norms out of Normal

Although Secretary Mattis personally modeled norms of nonpartisanship even in the face of great pressure to pick a side in America’s domestic political struggles, civil-military norms eroded on his watch and he did little, at least in public, to police civil-military breaches. It is worth noting that Bob Gates sometimes failed to do the same during his tenure as secretary of defense, and he admitted in his memoir that it was harder than he appreciated to speak out on difficult issues in the heat of the moment. Nevertheless, Kori Schake has argued that Mattis’s greatest such failing came early in his tenure, when he allowed the president to “sign his travel ban in the Hall of Heroes at the Pentagon … and detrimentally associated our military with the ban,” which had little obvious connection to military policy. Perhaps Mattis discussed this breach with the White House, but numerous other infringements occurred as well, some obvious and some not, but all detrimental to healthy civil-military relations.

When President Donald Trump announced his ban on transgender servicemembers via tweet, for example, he stated, “After consulting with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States government will not accept or allow …. Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military.” As Dominic Holden and Vera Bergengruen have reported, however, subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests demonstrated that the Joint Chiefs were caught off guard by the announcement. Gen. Joe Dunford told the service chiefs, “When asked, I will state that I was not consulted,” and Reince Preibus, then White House chief of staff, wrote that it “would’ve been better if we had a decision memo, looped Mattis in.” Nevertheless, Mattis allowed this public mischaracterization of military advice to stand for months without correction.

There is no doubt that Mattis faced an extremely difficult tradeoff and immense political pressure to remain silent. He likely decided that it simply was not worth it to publicly address every violation of a civil-military norm. Mattis also received little support from members of Congress, especially on the Republican side, who should have been the first line of defense in upholding these important traditions, leaving him isolated and at risk on this issue. If he had spoken up at the time, it is possible that he would have faced retaliation or undermined his influence with the president and his senior staff. Moreover, speaking out on this topic could even have led to his firing and triggered an unintended, but major, civil-military crisis of its own. As a result, Mattis may have been correct to save his political capital for only the issues he viewed as truly vital, though we will not know for sure until we have a better understanding of what influence he had behind closed doors. Mattis may also have decided that it was better to remain resolutely nonpartisan himself as he attempted to exercise influence quietly through his personal engagements. And it is notable that the president’s controversial visits with troops in Iraq and Germany, which made news when the president signed “Make America Great Again” hats that several servicemembers had brought to the event, came only as Mattis was on his way out the door.

In either case, however, it also is unequivocally true that the frequency and intensity of civil-military breaches increased during Mattis’s tenure, even if he did not cause this change. As Tom Nichols has argued, President Trump’s approach to civil-military relations is unlike anything we have seen in living memory. But while many of these violations originated in the White House, others did not — such as when critics of the president suggested that the military in general, or Mattis in particular, as the “last adult in the room,” should attempt to constrain the authority of the elected president, if only temporarily. While we might pardon Mattis for not raising his concerns about politicization of the military in public every time they arose for fear of losing influence on important national security issues, it is much harder to understand why Mattis did not mention military politicization or the increasingly frequent use of troops as political props as concerns in his letter of resignation.

Mattis’s personal silence also became policy, as he directed the Pentagon to become less transparent, significantly decreased the frequency of press briefings, and limited public engagement by senior military leaders. As Loren DeJonge Schulman and Alice Hunt Friend showed, Mattis also took steps that decreased transparency surrounding ongoing military deployments. These policies made democratic oversight and accountability more difficult. Recently, I argued that more frequent public engagement by senior military leaders — as long as it is done carefully — could enhance public discussions about national security decision-making because it would introduce relevant military information into public debates about national security policy. Perhaps more importantly, however, it would also expose military perspectives to criticism, accountability, questioning, and oversight. In this way, Mattis’s approach to public engagement — and his limitations on senior officers — actually made it more difficult for Congress to carry out its constitutional responsibilities to oversee the military and check executive power, and for the press to inform democratic decision-making and public debate. This problem became so stark that the then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. John McCain, complained about Mattis’s lack of transparency, stating that he had a “better working relationship, back and forth, with Ash Carter,” Mattis’s predecessor. Transparency and public engagement make accountability and effective oversight possible, but Mattis did his best to keep himself and the department out of the spotlight. These habits will be hard for both the military and the Department of Defense to break, even now that he has left the building.

The Missing Civil-Military Dash

Mattis also failed to embrace his role as the “dash” in civil-military relations, shirking his responsibilities to connect the military with American society or to explain defense and national security policies to the American public. According to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, Mattis’s disdain for Sunday talk shows was so intense that, after numerous requests to appear, he finally told Sean Spicer (then the Trump administration’s press secretary, and a Naval reservist), “Sean, I’ve killed people for a living. If you call me again, I’m going to fucking send you to Afghanistan. Are we clear?” Whether he killed people for a living or not, Mattis’s reluctance to appear on talk shows — the sort of media appearances that had been normal for most secretaries of defense — meant that there was no one explaining to the American people why servicemembers were continuing to kill people or die in their name. That decision was a disservice to both the American public and to those doing the killing and dying. While it may be clever to declare that the American military does not “do stunts,” that quip alone was not a sufficient explanation — to either the American public or to those in uniform — of the administration’s political decision to send thousands of troops to the southern border. As secretary of defense, Mattis had a responsibility to explain, and not just to implement, administration policies related to national security.

Anyone who had read Mattis’s comments in his co-authored book on civil-military relations would understand that he saw a civil-military divide as somewhat necessary, if not inevitable. While it is not entirely surprising that he did not try to minimize the civil-military gap, there is little evidence that he even saw it as his role to bridge it. In fact, he seemed far more comfortable staying on the military side of the gap than trying to find common ground between civilians and the military. During an impromptu conversation with soldiers deployed in Jordan that was caught on video and went viral on social media, for example, Mattis stated, “You are a great example for our country. It’s got some problems, problems we don’t have in the military. Hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting and showing it, being friendly to one another.”

Whether he intended to or not, Mattis hinted at a claim of moral superiority among those in uniform when compared to civilian society. While Mattis’s comments were off-the-cuff and different in nature, they were in stark contrast to comments by Secretary Bob Gates at West Point only a few years earlier:

But when you think about it, it is rather peculiar to suggest that attributes such as integrity, respect, and courage are not valued in the United States of America writ large.  If you spent enough time getting around this country, especially in successful organizations or close-knit communities, you would find the seven Army values are considered pretty important and being practiced across our great country and by Americans across the world.

Yet Mattis rarely chose to emphasize those things that bind us together as Americans, instead focusing on differences between those who wear the uniform and those who don’t. Perhaps this is because Mattis spent his entire adult life in uniform and wasn’t as familiar with civilian life as Gates was, which may be another reason why a retired general might not be the best fit to serve as secretary of defense.

Mattis’s comments on women in the military also probably widened the civil-military gap and likely will have an effect on recruiting for years to come. When asked his thoughts about women serving in infantry units at the Virginia Military Institute, Mattis stated that the “jury’s still out” on whether they can serve effectively in combat units. Not only did these comments fail to respect those women who already have served in combat roles and those currently serving in the infantry, but they also sent a signal to both young men and women about the culture of the U.S. military. In fact, data Mattis collected for his book on civil-military relations shows that both men and women are less likely to want to join the military, or encourage others to join, if they do not believe women have equal opportunities to serve in combat units.

Finally, although Mattis often referred to Washington, D.C. as a “strategy-free zone,” it is not clear that the policies of his Defense Department were more closely linked to political objectives than previous administrations’ had been, or that he facilitated a strong relationship between senior military leaders in the Pentagon and civilian leaders in the White House and Congress. Strategy that is not connected to political objectives is at best ineffective strategy, and — at worst — no strategy at all. Mattis’s own National Defense Strategy, for example, argued that allies significantly reduce the U.S. defense burden, in stark contrast to the president’s National Security Strategy, which emphasized that allies fail to meet their fair share of the burden. The National Defense Strategy seems even more out of step when compared to the president’s actual statements, policy decisions, and tweets. Although Mattis was a more-than-able defense diplomat who reassured allies around the globe, the striking thing about his reassurances was often that they seemed so starkly at odds with the president’s actual policies. Moreover, they fed the narrative that Mattis was trying to constrain President Trump.

While a full assessment of Mattis’s record won’t be possible until we know more about what really went on behind closed doors, there are at least some indications that Mattis’s Pentagon was not responsive to White House demands for options and that the Pentagon attempted to “box the president in” during policy reviews focused on Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. These tactics would be nothing new, but they nevertheless would be concerning. Although some level of divergence between departmental preferences and White House policy is a normal part of bureaucratic control, this gap grew untenable over time and Mattis’s statements increasingly seemed to almost contradict those of the President. In the end, it appears these policy divisions led Mattis to resign.

Mattis Held the Line, but How Long Will it Hold?

In the waning years of the Roman republic, the people disregarded a law requiring ten years to pass before they could re-elect an individual to the position of consul, breaking a longstanding civil-military norm and re-appointing Gaius Marius for six straight terms. Marius was a competent military commander and reformer, and had become the most successful general of his era and the most popular man in Rome. Seeking to benefit from Marius’s personal popularity and the allegiance of his soldiers, a powerful senator named Saturninus formed an alliance with Marius, ensuring his re-nomination.

For several years, this uneasy alliance persisted despite Saturninus’s increasing attempts to co-opt Marius — and Marius’s veterans — to support his political causes. In late 100 B.C., Saturninus began to press for measures to give colonial lands to Marius’s veterans and to lower the price of state-distributed wheat. When opposition arose in response to one of the bill’s provisions, Saturninus called on a small contingent of Marius’s army to join him in the Forum. With the backing of these veterans, Saturninus imposed his measures by the threat of force. Riots continued, until the Senate turned to Marius himself — who still was consul — to restore the stability of the state. Marius then turned on both his erstwhile political ally and his veterans. He cut off their water supply and forced the contingent to surrender. Disgusted with their rash actions, Marius relinquished the opportunity to seize power and instead sided with the Senate in putting down the revolt. Although accounts of Marius’s ambitions differ, it ultimately was his virtue and professional identity as a servant of Rome that saved his city from even greater disorder.

At the same time, however, long-term damage to the republic had already been set in motion. Saturninus’s political opponents began to recruit their own generals to counter the threat of military force, and the generals, many less virtuous than Marius, began to seek their own power and glory. Once political leaders decided to use the military to back their own political causes, the military itself fractured and polarized, and with the rise of Sulla, Rome began its descent into a series of civil wars.

Although there are significant differences between Marius and Mattis, the history rhymes enough to heed its lessons. Like Marius, Mattis was not a perfect man but they served their nations well, often at great personal cost. Both men were at least partially complicit in the erosion of civil-military norms that had the potential to bring grave consequences to both their societies. Yet, like Marius, Mattis chose not to pursue his own ambitions. He noted his serious policy differences for the record, but he chose to leave on his own terms and departed with little pomp or fanfare after two years of honorable service in extremely trying times. Mattis could have chosen a more boisterous departure, complete with a press conference and media tour, questioning the president’s legitimacy, judgment, or fitness to serve. If he had done so, the secretary who never quite stopped being a general almost certainly would have sparked a true civil-military crisis.

There certainly were those who would have liked him to do so, and indeed there was reason to think he may have had support. Upon his departure, Mattis was the most popular political figure in America, with strong bipartisan support (+40 percentage point approval among Republicans and +35 percentage point approval among Democrats). He also had the nearly unanimous approval of those in uniform. Instead, he told the president that he deserved a secretary of defense who is more aligned with his views and simply walked away.

Through his quiet but principled departure, Mattis reaffirmed his belief in America — his belief that the republic would endure and that there would be another election; that regardless of the outcome of that election, it is more appropriate for civilians, not the military, to determine the fate of the nation. As we already are seeing in the early days of 2019, elections have consequences.

The most important question today is not what happened during Mattis’s watch, but rather how Americans will respond after it. Some veterans are calling for Americans to disregard the civil-military norms that have served us well. Other pundits are arguing that their party must recruit military, rather than civilian, candidates for high office to be more credible and win elections. But answering military politicization with counter-politicization is a path to ruin. And there is no guarantee that future generals or admirals will be as virtuous as either Marius or Mattis, when push comes to shove.

Mattis didn’t cause our civil-military problems, but they did get worse on his watch. By stepping down of his own accord, however, he reaffirmed that no military officer, whether active or retired, whether general or secretary, can save a republic on his own. Although some tried to thrust that responsibility upon him, Mattis never viewed himself as a savior. He may not have been perfect, but we could have done far worse. When the republic called, Jim Mattis answered. And both as a general and as a secretary, he was always faithful.

Jim Golby is an active-duty Army strategist currently serving in Europe. Jim previously served as a special adviser to the Vice President of the United States, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, and as a company commander and scout platoon leader in combat in Iraq. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University. You can find him on Twitter: @jimgolby. These views are those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Mission to NATO.

Image: DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith