Gen. Mattis to the Pentagon

by Michael Sean Winters

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The nomination of Gen. James Mattis to be the next secretary of defense is quite unlike the nomination of Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For starters, no one doubts Mattis' competence in the field to which he is being assigned. But, the nomination raises other questions.

Mattis is deeply learned and he is not only deeply read, but he insisted that his assistant commanders be deeply read too. In an email to a colleague, he wrote, "the enemy has paid when I had the opportunity to go against them, and I believe that many of my young guys lived because I didn't waste their lives because I didn't have the vision in my mind of how to destroy the enemy at least cost to our guys and to the innocents on the battlefields." His list of recommended books is impressive and spans the gamut from John Hersey's A Bell for Adano to Bruce Catton's book on Grant to Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

Many years ago, I was privileged to visit the home of the Patton family. The famous World War II general had collected the largest library in a private home I had ever seen, then or since. And, picking through the volumes, you could tell from the bindings that each of the books had been read: This was not for show. Patton, like Mattis, was a great strategist, but learning also helps avoid conflicts or minimize their lethality. Catholics, indeed all Christians, have an uneasy moral relationship with war-making, but just as our intellectual tradition demands rigor, we can take comfort, though not anticipate agreement, from the fact that Mattis understands the value of learning.

Related: "Soldier turned philosopher specializes in military ethics, just war tradition" (Nov. 28, 2016)

This will be especially important in a Trump administration. Trump has admitted that he does not really read books. Advisors past and present have said the man has a very limited attention span. We know that he will have the incendiary Gen. Mike Flynn whispering into his ear, so it is a good thing that Mattis will be there too, with all the institutional weight of the Pentagon behind him, to urge calm when it is needed and to draw on the lessons of history to avoid mistakes.

Those who are inclined to oppose Mattis should also be made to answer this question: Whom might Trump pick if Mattis is not confirmed?

The main argument against Mattis is a principled one: The law states that no one who has recently served in the military, within the past seven years, be named to the post of secretary of defense. This was intended to codify civilian control of the military. The rule has been broken once, when Harry Truman nominated George Marshall to the post. Hell, I would have voted for Marshall for pope if he had been a Catholic. Should we break this venerable rule again, and will it harm the principle in question?

The answer is yes to both questions, but the harm should be accepted. In this instance, it is the civilian, Trump, who creates the worry. Mattis, like all generals, has had to deal with the bureaucracy of the U.S. military, he has had to forge consensus, he has negotiated with allies. He will be the weight of prudence against the impetuosity of the ingénue president. It is worth indulging a bit of harm to a principle in such a circumstance.

The president-elect likes to heap praise not only on General Patton, but also on General Douglas MacArthur. There is no denying MacArthur's brilliance as a strategist and commander. The concern is that what Trump liked about MacArthur was the general's lack of appreciation for the Constitution and for precedent and for prudence. Mattis is no MacArthur. When Truman sacked MacArthur, there was an initial flurry of opposition, the GOP-controlled Congress invited the general to give his famous speech to a joint meeting of the chambers, and he enjoyed his ticker tape parade. But, then the tumult died pretty quickly. The American people, in their wisdom, appreciated civilian control of the military. Does anyone think that appreciation exists today? Americans, fattened on consumerism for decades and unwilling or unable to distinguish between real news and fake, no longer able to find Iraq or Iowa on a map, does anyone think they really give a hoot about civilian control of the military? I am not counting on it. Oddly, it is the generals who most appreciate this principle of our democracy, even while they experience it as a frustration at any given moment.

I am no psychologist, but common sense leads to the conclusion that Trump is something of a control freak. I suppose anyone aspiring to the presidency has to have at least a little bit of that personality trait in them. Usually, it induces caution. Now? Not so much. A man who brags about the size of his, ahem, hands in a public, nationally televised debate, is probably not without certain insecurities. And those hands are about to be next to the nuclear trigger for four years. Let him be as encumbered as possible by men and women like Mattis, who have studied the lessons of history.

Predictions about Trump have been more wrong than right since he announced his candidacy last year. I would not predict how he and Mattis will get along over time. But, I will venture this prediction: If, in two years' time, or two months' time, Mattis is fired by Trump, the rest of us should be very, very afraid.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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