Enter the generals: Why Trump's cabinet picks give Pentagon pause

President-elect Trump's pick for secretary of Defense, retired Gen. James Mattis, is widely respected among military analysts. But he will need a congressional waiver to serve.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
Gen. James Mattis testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington July 27, 2010, on his nomination to be Commander of U.S. Central Command.

President-elect Donald Trump confirmed Thursday that retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will soon be named the new administration’s pick for Secretary of Defense. 

“We’re not announcing it ’til next week, so don’t tell anyone,” Mr. Trump told a cheering crowd in Cincinnati Thursday evening, referring to the nominee by his nickname, “Mad Dog” and calling him “the closest thing we have to George Patton.” 

It is what many former military officials consider a “good news, bad news” story for the Pentagon, which, despite its implicit focus on waging war, has a long – and necessary, analysts are quick to add – tradition of civilian, rather than military, leadership.

“The good news is that he’s incredibly competent and knows what wars mean,” says retired Gen. David Barno, a three-star general who commanded US troops in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “The bad news is that it narrows the field, in my view, of diverse opinions – maybe more than is advisable.” 

It is a concern that the Trump transition team has acknowledged, particularly given that Mattis would be the second retired general tapped to serve in the administration, and Trump is said to be eying a third.

He has named a former three-star general who clashed with the Obama administration, Michael Flynn, as his national security advisor. The president-elect is also said to be considering for secretary of State retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus, who formerly ran both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the CIA – before being forced to resign after being convicted of mishandling classified documents.

“It begins to look like Chile in the 1970s,” one source advising the Trump team told U.S. News & World Report.

Those sorts of unpleasant optics – of a kind that imply military dictatorship, or at least heavy rule – were anticipated by Congress, which has a law in place restricting retired military officers from serving as secretary of Defense for a period of seven years after leaving active duty. Anything less requires a waiver from Congress. 

Mattis, who retired in March 2013, has been out for less than four years. There has been one exception made to this law in US history, when President Harry Truman appointed former Secretary of State and retired Gen. George Marshall to serve as secretary of Defense in 1950.

“Congress must not take any changes to this law lightly, even if they simply amount to carving out an exception for Gen. Mattis,” the left-leaning Center for American Progress said in a statement. “This law exists to preserve civilian control of the military, a cornerstone of American democracy.”

It was a warning echoed this week by lawmakers as well. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), noted that while she “deeply” respects Mattis’s service, she will oppose a waiver. “Civilian control is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule,” she said in a statement issued Thursday evening.

The SASC committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and a former Vietnam Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war, was not as concerned. “I look forward to moving forward with the confirmation process as soon as possible in the new Congress,” he said in his statement calling Mattis “without a doubt one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.”

The 'warrior monk'

Mattis’s salty Marine persona, complete with generous smatterings of profanity, is the stuff of Internet meme legend. “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” is one of his tamer exhortations from his Iraq command days. On fighting the Taliban, including “guys who slap women around for five years because they don’t wear a veil,” he said: “Guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

Being a successful military officer who rises to the rank of general, particularly in the infantry, often requires a decent flair for performance where the troops are concerned. In the film “Patton,” likely seen by a Trump who has favorably compared him to Mattis, the legendary World War II general fires up his soldiers before battle: “We’re going to attack all night, we’re gonna attack tomorrow morning,” he yells. “If we are not victorious, let no man come back alive!”

When he finishes up his speech, one of his colonels implies that he might have been laying it on a bit thick. “You know general, sometimes the men don’t know when you’re acting,” he tells Patton.

“It’s not important for them to know,” Patton replies, with a wink and a nod. “It’s only important for me to know.”

Mattis, too, relieved an officer for not being aggressive enough in Iraq, but he is also considered “one of the top two or three best-read generals the military has produced in his generation,” Barno says. 

Known for his devotion to the Marine Corps, Mattis has never married and is known as the “warrior monk.”

It is this sort of single-minded study of warfare that despite the impression of generals as shoot-’em-up enthusiasts of bloodshed –which they occasionally enjoy playing into – means that they are also intimately aware of the consequences of war.

In America’s current wars, most have spent a decade-and-a-half figuring out how to best spare civilian lives. There is the mercenary reason that angry civilians generally do not support the aims of the occupying force, but it is also widely believed in an era of modern warfare to be the right thing to do.

Tough-guy swagger vs. real-world experience

Still, Trump clearly treasures the generals for their perceived tough-guy swagger, an image the Queens-raised president-elect likes to cultivate himself. But many generals, too, have navigated a highly political military chain of command and make it to the top of their fields because they are savvy and self-aware – and, as Patton noted, know the difference between playing to the troops they must fire up for war and the sober responsibility for the lives of their soldiers once they actually get into battle.

Trump said that he was “surprised,” for instance, that tough-talking Mattis counseled him against the use of torture.

“I said, ‘What do you think of waterboarding?’ ” Trump told The New York Times. “He [Mattis] said, ‘I’ve never found it useful.’ He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ ”

This thorough and often unwelcome knowledge of what can happen to human nature when it meets with the prospect of death and power – and not the movie version of enemies – is why some of the toughest critics of military command are, in fact, the military members themselves.

“It is somewhat concerning that Donald Trump continues to eye recently retired generals for some of the most important traditionally civilian positions in government,” Jon Soltz, an Iraq War veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a veterans organization, said in a statement. “While absolutely qualified, and loved by men and women who serve, we traditionally have had civilian leadership of the Pentagon for a good reason.”

Trump appears to be less concerned with this tradition than he does with the opportunity for good marketing, Mr. Soltz adds. The military is the most respected institution in America, and Trump loves winners, as he likes to say. “Trump is selling the brand of generals,” Mr. Soltz says.

Importance of civilian rule

But the glorification of generals should also give Americans – less than 1 percent of whom have actually served in the military – pause, senior military officials have noted with increasing frequency in journal articles and roundtable discussions.

“The founding fathers put democratically elected leaders in control of the military for a reason – so we don’t end up like a banana republic,” Soltz says.

And although many service members will support Mattis if he receives a congressional waiver, as he is expected to, they remain wary of Trump as a commander-in-chief. In a September poll of military service members conducted by the Military Times and Syracuse University, 68 percent of respondents said they considered Trump’s temperament “poor.”

“He has disrespected women, admitted to sexual assault, trashed the family of a dead trooper, and trashed Muslims generally, which undermines any moral authority we might have in the Middle East,” Soltz says. “There is a concern in the armed forces about this kind of toxic leadership.”

Too many Marines?

Around the halls of the Pentagon, there also is concern among some services about having both a former Marine serving as Defense Secretary, and a current Marine serving as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

The Marine Corps is the smallest service in the military, and its leadership has historically opposed integrating women into combat roles, as well as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, both policies that came to pass during the Obama administration.

“Having two [of the Pentagon’s highest leaders] from that culture is highly unusual and will potentially impact issues like how women are perceived and what role they get to play inside military services,” Barno says. “You’re going to get a pretty strong Marine Corps view of the world.”

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