Elf Confidential: Santa’s 2020 National Security Gift List

December 15, 2020

Ho ho holy smokes! What a year!

You try to get out a delivery order for every little boy and girl all around the world with your elves working at 25 percent capacity! Thanks a bunch, County of North Pole! Does anyone know where I can get a COVID-19 test in time to travel on Christmas Eve? But — the holidays must go on. Last week, I held a Zoom meeting with the elves to figure out the right presents for the hard-working folks in the U.S. national security community. We were Zoom-bombed by Rudolph, though, who’s still bragging about appearing in a recent Hamilton parody.



Here’s a sneak peek at my working list for some of the key national security poohbahs, both naughty and nice, who deserve some joy (or at least a chuckle or two) during this holiday season. Nobody gets coal in their stockings this year, but only because we’re all trying to get through this tough time together with as much kindness as we can!

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Santa should have given this to you right after your confirmation hearings but hey, man, better late than never: a copy of On Law, Morality, and Politics. Thomas Aquinas shares his timeless wisdom on conscience, justice, obedience, and rebellion. Maybe that will help you as you reflect on the rocky summer that led to your November pink slip.

Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller. Man, did you do well in this election! From total obscurity to running the largest organization in the world. You should write a book! Well, at least the world of special operators is happy! Your gift was easy to figure out: a 2021 Special Forces Army Operations wall calendar, with Jan. 20 highlighted in gold.

Secretary of Defense-Designate Lloyd Austin. The perfect holiday gift for a man who is about to go through the adaptation of a lifetime: an autographed copy of Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime, by two renowned North Pole Visiting Fellows (and lifelong Santa supporters). Check out their 20 recommendations at the end — you might even be able to jump start a few of them in your new gig.

National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. Good news: I’ve found you a new job where you can be as invisible as you’ve been in this one! Your stocking will contain a one-way ticket to Los Angeles on Jan. 21, where you’ll begin your new gig on the next season of “The Masked Singer”! Unlike your current crew, this series and its cast are incredibly popular! And you get to pick your own fantasy costume (except for these two characters, which have already been taken).

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley. Let’s start with the positive: I’m giving you a whole new wardrobe this year. The not-so-great news: you’re going to need it. After your recent statement that “the defense of the United States depends on airpower and seapower primarily,” the Army wants all of its uniforms back. They suggested that you might find these Navy dress whites more appropriate. If I were you, I’d lay low for a while.

The Joint Staff. After quite a few years of not much oversight, Santa’s giving you a building directory for the Pentagon. Starting in January, you’ll probably need to visit the Office of Secretary of Defense to finally experience what actual civilian supervision looks like. And I’m pretty sure you haven’t been down those dusty third deck corridors for a long time!

The U.S. Foreign Service. Even Santa can’t top the gift you’re getting in January: a raft of new civilian appointees who will care about rebuilding your ranks, restoring your respect around the world, and supporting your thankless day-to-day work in the trenches that underwrites the best of American diplomacy. Santa is also sending broad hints that there might be stockings full of coal for the House and Senate appropriations committees if they don’t start pouring some much-needed additional dollars into the State Department’s starvation budgets.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. Two years ago, I gave the chief of naval operations a private session with “Project Runway” stylist Heidi Klum, because the Navy’s uniforms for that Army-Navy game were just pitiful. This year, you’re the one who needs the fashion help, because those green Army football team uniforms were atrocious. It’s one thing to try to steal the Marines’ littoral role in the Pacific, but it’s a whole new level of crazy to try to steal their uniform colors too.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. A COVID-19 outbreak on a carrier, investigations, firings, and reinvestigations. Revolving-door civilian leadership. Scrapping a burnt-out multi-billion-dollar ship. And I thought I had a rough year! You definitely need some soothing incense, luxurious bath crystals, and, if you’re willing to take some risks with your next drug test, some CBD oil to help you unwind.

Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger. I have a special gift for you: an appointment with the Armorer to get your very own suit of Mandalorian beskar armor! That’s the only substance in the galaxy that’s strong enough to protect you from the shipbuilding industry, Congressional members of the shipbuilding caucus, and a legion of those inside and outside the Marine Corps who are out for your shiny scalp. Being a trailblazer of new ideas and far-sighted concepts pretty much sucks. Just remember that you can’t take the helmet off once you put it on. This is the way.

Chief of Staff Air Force Gen. C. Q. Brown. As the newest guy on the Joint Chiefs scene, Santa thought the perfect holiday gift would be some more insight on those all-important Joint Chiefs of Staff tank sessions where the really big decisions are made. So fire up your iPad and check out this epic clip on how to deal with your 4-star buds around the table. And here’s some inspiration on how to connect with the new commander-in-chief when he comes to the “War Room” for the first time in January.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Mark Naird. For the chief of the U.S. military’s newest service, the list of possible holiday gifts is almost unlimited. Maybe a home for your new headquarters? Wait, hang on a sec … one of the elves is telling me that some guy named Jay Raymond is actually the leader of the Space Force. I think the elves have been drinking too much spiked eggnog, though. I’ve never heard of this guy Raymond, and besides, how can he be the leader when Naird has already been renewed for a second season?

Chief of National Guard Bureau Gen. Daniel Hokanson. Santa’s looking out for you here and scanning beyond the truly ugly year of 2020 out to the Pentagon budget fights of the future. You need an awesome calculator to have any chance of staving off the sharp service chief knives that are going to come out, and soon. So here it is: the world’s first AI-enabled calculator. Rev this baby up, and you can deflect attacks using every mathematical trick that machine learning can discover.

Dr. Anthony Fauci. You know, before March, Santa wouldn’t have put you on his gift list for national security poobahs. But if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that top public health officials like you should definitely be included. I’m not sure I can come up with a gift that’s better for a baseball fan like you than throwing the ceremonial first pitch of Opening Day in your favorite team’s home stadium. But if it were up to me, I’d give you a second Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Well, that’s it! I hope you enjoy the gifts that the elves and I have hand-selected for this year’s natsec luminaries. Now I need to hustle back to my workshop to prod the elves to mask up, wash their hands, and get started on wrapping this newest batch of very special holiday presents.

From all of us here at the North Pole (and from your loyal Strategic Outpost columnists), best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season! And let’s all hope for a very much happier 2021!

Yours masked up in slush and snow,




Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are visiting professors of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and senior fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also contributing editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Staff Sgt. Richard Mekkri)