By Dr. Alan Ned Sabrosky

The storied departure of retired Marine general James Mattis from the office of Secretary of Defense offers an opportunity to review his appointment and tenure from a somewhat different perspective. Let’s put aside the specifics of his policy dispute with President Donald Trump: I can see arguments for the position he took as well as that of the President. These are issues about which reasonable people can disagree.

Yet the most worrisome aspect of it all to me is what it said about the characters of this iconic general and this very mercurial president. Mattis conducted himself as a professional and a gentleman, trying to make his departure and the transition to a new Secretary of Defense as smooth as possible.

But Trump – initially supportive, then petty and vindictive – conducted himself as a spoiled child who saw his departing Secretary praised across the political spectrum and on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, with nothing good being said about him. Like a schoolyard bully who never quite grew up, he pushed Mattis out two months early, then belittled him behind his back, and did not even have the moral courage to tell Mattis his decision to his face: he instead sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do his dirty work for him.

The Concept of Civilian Control Reprised

Aside from being a case study in presidential bluster and moral cowardice, this entire episode lets us take a long, hard look at the concept  of “civilian control of the military” supposedly enshrined in American political culture – because there has rarely been a more military general than Mattis, and assuredly never a more civilian commander-in-chief than Trump.

Let’s understand first of all that the concept of “civilian control of the military” would never have occurred to the Framers of the Constitution, drunk or sober. Making the President also the Commander-in-Chief was done to induce General George Washington into taking what was otherwise a fairly innocuous position, in a political system where most of the power and most of the military might reside in the sovereign states. I expect one and all groaned mightily when diminutive John Adams became the second President – they could no more imagine him leading troops in battle than they could Barack Obama in our day.

But just what is this putative “civilian control” supposed to do? Prevent generals and admirals from taking this country into needless wars for their own self-aggrandizement? They have never done that. From the War of 1812 through our Middle East misadventures today, all except Korea have been the brain-child (I was actually thinking of a different part of the anatomy) of civilians, brought about by their deliberate actions or stumbled into because of their ignorance and incompetence.

Or is it supposed to keep professional soldiers from squandering lives by waging war incompetently – the “Colonel Blimp” image writ large? Well, there have certainly been incompetent generals and admirals here as elsewhere. But for sheer architects of disaster, none matches Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his so-called “whiz kids” in Vietnam, although Donald Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative “chicken hawks” in Iraq and elsewhere come close – and their resurgence in the person of John Bolton and his ilk does not augur well for the future.

Or is it the “Seven Days in May” complex, the fear that having generals in key positions within the Defense Department will tempt them to collude with serving generals to overthrow the government? Nonsense.

No one who has been at our service academies or our war colleges would get a breath of that sentiment, nor would anyone closely and privately observing the troops themselves come away with it. Our officers are not a landed aristocracy devoid of commitment to the country, and the enlisted personnel is not mindless serfs whipped into uniform and into battle, prepared to blindly follow their officers against the elected government. Want proof? The simple fact is that they did not move against Obama and his appointed minions in the Defense Department, despite being widely (if mostly privately) loathed by a considerable majority of the military and veterans.

But we let our men and women in uniform be run by elected and appointed civilians who know nothing about the armed forces, who have no concept of a military organization or of strategy, and who often despise the military they oversee. They do not even know what questions to ask of their uniformed advisers – that is, if they deign to listen to them at all – much less how to evaluate their responses. And this applies to both parties, although for some reason the Democratic Party in recent decades has departed a long way from the traditions of that party during the years of Truman and Kennedy.

And So?

As a consequence, anyone who wants to know what civilian control of the military has gotten the United States has only to look across the Potomac River at Arlington National Military Cemetery, and other military cemeteries in this country and abroad. Civilian control has meant needless wars entered into for specious reasons; wars fought badly because of the ignorance, incompetence, and arrogance of elected and appointed civilian overseers – one cannot call most of them “leaders” in any real sense, and military establishments used as testing grounds for social experimentation that had not a shred of military value.

What James Mattis brought to the office of Secretary of Defense was real expertise for the first time since General of the Army George Marshall held that office in 1950-51, after being Secretary of State. President Harry Truman – a Democrat – had no problem with that, perhaps because he himself was a veteran, and Marshall was endorsed by a future president – Dwight Eisenhower – another General of the Army.

Mattis had his work cut out for him. He tried to swing the Defense Department away from exercises in social engineering which (e.g.) gave pride of place to policies requiring commanders to balance readiness with lactation support (a missive from Obama’s gay secretary of the Army); to manipulating physical standards to make it easier for women to enter the ground combat arms; or worrying about transgender bathrooms at Defense Department schools.

But what really concerned those who opposed General Mattis or any recently retired general officer was not any theoretical principle like civilian control of the military. It was a very real fear that he would be less inclined to willingly fill their personal pork barrels, and would reverse or completely overturn many of the so-called “progressive” (some would say “perverse”) personnel policies of his predecessor.

He tried to do many of these things, and he was not always successful. Some of his policy decisions grated on me, but I could see his point: I believe we never should have attacked either Afghanistan or Syria (among other countries) in the first place, BUT having “marched up those hills,” to march down again and withdraw without a clear-cut success (however defined) can only have adverse repercussions elsewhere – remember if you will the reactions after the U.S. defeat in Indochina in 1975.

We weathered that one and came out ahead. It isn’t clear that we’ll be as fortunate now. The world has changed a great deal since 1975, but those changes are a very mixed blessing: The USSR and the Warsaw Pact are histories, but a revitalized Russia and a rapidly rising China make America’s prospects more complex, and the turmoil besetting Europe weakens what before was a reasonably firm support base.

I would much rather have a professional like James Mattis at the helm of the Defense Department than the usual run of a corporate executive or political hack usually afflicting that office – but I fear that is what we’ll get, with predictable consequences.


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  1. Recently, I have read reports that we are withdrawing from Agfghanistan (no more guarding the heroin supply for the globalists), Syria (no more serving Israel’s aggression in the middle east), South Korea (no more serving the military industrial complex, at least there), and other countries.

    If Mattis was not supportive of bringing our forces home from all foreign deployments, ASAP, I am happy to bid him farewell. One less globalist in our government.

    • I agree.Mattis was just one more warmongering psychopath as Ray McGovern observed
      And I worry about the weak Israeli response to Trump’s supposed withdrawal of US troops from Syria/Afghanistan.One can never take anything out of DC at face value.

  2. but, but,… if Trump nukes Iran or does some other heinous act, then we might reverse course, as many here have often in the past complained that the military didn’t stop Bush or Obama
    Civilian control is the most likely path to peace, and the policy we have,,… but not necessarily the right path at any given time and circumstance. We need better checks and balances for authorizing military force.

  3. Well, there are certainly other factors that apply to the thought of civilian control of the military. Autonomy and secrecy would be one, in spite of the fact, it has not worked the way it should, the public pays, and votes and should direct, the military. Where the system has failed, is the lack of public statements against the idea of needless war, such as the case of Colin Powell. The pathway to General, could quickly become one based in political ideology, rather than defense, and the mere notion that we might have a hive of evangelical generals craving Armageddon is not so far fetched. The tweek we need is protections for Generals to speak their minds without risk of career, and publicly question intelligence and motives for war. Every four years for president, every two for senate control, and every 30 or so for Generals.

    • The US is still young, and still an experiment with an unknown outcome. We need to be more adaptive, less influenced in foreign policy by religion, and our military should be reduced to what is necessary to protect our own shores. It is unthinkable to me, to turn over 55% of our GDP to career military at this time. Mattis proved he wasn’t ready when he called non-military personnel pussies. The way I keep score, in scenarios, the most likely peaceful path is best led by civilians. Jimmy Carter never fired a shot. And had 24 years between service in the military and the presidency. The waiting period for military to elected or appointed positions in civilian government should be minimum of 5 years, with no exception for waivers.

  4. I am not a military man. However, it is my understanding that the most basic responsibility of our military is to defend our country from attack in any way, shape or form. General Smedley Butler confirmed this in “War is a Racket”. The four star generals have been provided virtually unlimited resources to accomplish this task. They have experts in every possible field, in and out of government, to provide intelligence to them. There are also things like illegal orders which can legally be disobeyed. Suppose an adversary attacks this country but the President orders the military to stand down. Then the four star generals have the right and duty to tell him to shove it and proceed to defend the country. What happened with the 9/11/01 attack? Didn’t the four star generals obviously stand down and join traitors Bush and Cheney?

    • The point is this: We knew long ago and especially today after over 17 years and a totally fake non investigation into the crime of 9/11/01 against the U.S. that Israel, not Muslims, did it as documented here and many other places:
      None of the principals in this massive crime on America by Israel have even been questioned under oath in public let alone indicted and prosecuted for their parts in this crime. Bush, Cheney and the Four Star Generals, who were permitted to retire on lavish pensions, while traitors Bush and Cheney rub it in our faces with Secret Service armed protection! All of these traitors should be arrested and sitting in a jail cell for life. This country is a shameful disgrace to itself, the Founders and the World.

  5. PPP … Perfumed Princes of the Pentagon. Unless we get a leader that recognizes our defense spending levels are ridiculous, and suicidal, we will continue our journey into the abyss. The corruption in the defense industry is blatant to any one who wants to look for it. We produce less qualitatively (F35, Abrams Tank just examples)while spending more than the rest of the so called civilized world, (think Trillions) in it’s entirety. Did we really need to be involved in any of the wars of the past 120 years? Did we?

  6. Couldn’t disagree more with Dr. Sabrosky. I never for a minute felt our nation was safe with General Mathis at the helm in Defense. Glad he’s gone. After all this time, where has Mathis been on 9/11, the Beirut Bombing, the USS Liberty, all the lies that started the endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria? Mathis was a get along guy. Said nothing to disturb the status quo, to defend real American interest. President Trump did the right thing ordering our troops to leave Syria, that illegal war fought for Israel and not for the benefit of the American people. In my view, Mathis punked out on the American people, bragging all along he ‘enjoyed’ killing innocent Iraqis, who were just defending their country suffering an unconscionable, illegal invasion. Yeah, I.m damn sure glad he’s gone.

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