Small Wars Journal

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, (General, USMC, Retired): Can He Be A Civilian Leader?

Sat, 11/26/2016 - 12:23am

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, (General, USMC, Retired): Can He Be A Civilian Leader?

David S. Maxwell

Because I do not have Erin Simpson’s experience with General Mattis, I am not as qualified to comment as she is on whether he should or should not be named as the next Secretary of Defense.  I only know him through reputation, recent histories of the war on terrorism, and the many stories and anecdotes from those who have served with him.  I heard him speak at a single conference where he lamented the dearth of strategic thinking in the US military and our national security apparatus.  This comment has remained on my mind ever since I have heard it and I repeat it often to students to challenge them to prove General Mattis wrong.  But that is the extent of my experience with him.

Dr. Simpson makes some excellent arguments as to why he should not be nominated and if appointed why he should decline.  Of all her excellent arguments there is one that I must take exception to and I ask this question: If a President Trump will not listen to General Mattis to whom will he listen?

Given the assessments of the President-elect, if accurate, (and the truth is we have no idea what he is really like, how he will govern, and how he will lead when he takes office) I wonder if General Mattis is not our last best hope to bring measured leadership and strategic thinking to the national security apparatus of the new administration?  If that is the case then I hope that General Mattis will do as those who are committed to supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States would:  If asked, serve.

We should also question some of the arguments against having General Mattis or any former general officer serve as Secretary of Defense.  We should cast out two myths – one is that a general is pre-disposed to the use of the military instrument of power as a first choice and the other is that a general, having seen the costs of war, is less likely to use the military instrument of power.  Generals are no more or less likely to follow either course of action as any other competent strategic thinker, either civilian or military.  They are neither warmongers nor peaceniks.  It does a disservice to “generalize” about the mindset of former general officers.  To take such an argument to absurdity, perhaps we should not allow lawyers to become judges.  We should never allow those who have served at the highest levels of the Justice Department to become Supreme Court Justices.  Should we disqualify a general officer who possesses the intellect, leadership ability, and experience to continue to serve at the highest levels of defense and national security simply because he was a general officer?

Our Congress must have had reason to enact a prohibition against any active duty commissioned officer (not just a general officer) from becoming Secretary of Defense for seven years after the officer left active service.  As we know General George Marshall was named Secretary of Defense and served in that capacity for a short time under President Truman (and at the time the prohibition was ten years).  Perhaps it was for reasons of civilian control of the military (which I will address subsequently) or that for some reason a retired general officer might be too close to current serving officers and thus there could be perceptions of conflicts of interest or favoritism.  A study as to why this prohibition was enacted would be probably be a good research paper for a graduate student in security studies or a law student studying national security law.  However, the important question is why Congress did not completely ban all former active duty officers from ever serving as Secretary of Defense and why they reduced the restriction from ten years to seven years?  Perhaps it is because there are Congressmen who recognize that former general officers can make important contributions and may have the requisite skills and experience to serve in that capacity (though of course some may not).  If they are allowed to serve after seven years, why not after five years, especially if a general is of extraordinary character and caliber?

The most important argument against General Mattis serving as Secretary of Defense is likely the perception of civilian control of the military, which is one of our most cherished principles of government.  Although it is true that a retired commissioned officer can be recalled to active duty for continued uniformed military service, the fact is that if he is not recalled, he is a civilian.  And if one were to serve as Secretary he would be serving in a civilian capacity and not a military one.  But this begs the question of what does civilian control of the military mean?  How is it defined?

In order to understand civilian control of the military we must simply read and understand our Constitution.   We have a civilian Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and our civilian legislature has the power to raise and support armies, maintain a navy and declare war (and thus fund such a war) among other duties surrounding national security.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it require that there be a Secretary of Defense (or War) who did not serve in uniform.  Having General Mattis serve as Secretary of Defense in no way threatens the principle of civilian control of the military.  He must and will answer to the President and Congress, our civilian leadership.

Beyond civilian control of the military there is the concern of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.  This criticism has existed for at least the past fifteen years and most of the Secretaries have been civilians with relatively junior level military experience from decades prior to their service as Secretaries.  It could be argued that if all of the rumored general officers are given positions in the administration (e.g., General Petraeus as Secretary of State, General Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security and General Flynn who has already been chosen for National Security Advisor) that military experience and the military perspective will dominate the foreign policy and national security structure.  That may be a valid argument broadly, but not one to be used specifically against General Mattis as Secretary of Defense.  Perhaps the focus of protest should be on the other positions.

Furthermore, General Mattis knows and cherishes the Constitution much more than most Americans.  A general officer (or any commissioned or noncommissioned officer, and soldier, sailor, airmen, and Marine for that matter) takes the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  And they take this oath seriously.  They are not about to undermine the principles of the Constitution of our federal democratic republic.

Ultimately it all comes down to this question: who is the best person to serve as Secretary of Defense?  If the President–elect believes it is General James N. Mattis and the Senate gives its advice and consent (and authorizes a waiver to the seven year restriction) then just as we are bound to support the office of the President despite who we wanted to win the election, we should support the President-elect’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

About the Author(s)

David S. Maxwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Previously he was the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University.  He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with command and staff assignments in Korea, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and CONUS, and served as a member of the military faculty teaching national security at the National War College.  He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth and the National War College, National Defense University.



Thu, 11/26/2020 - 2:37am

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Tue, 10/27/2020 - 12:10pm

Not a single institution exists on the federal level in the US whose actions are not guided or controlled by partisan politics. (Sorry for the double negative. But I give the US government a triple negative.)


Tue, 10/27/2020 - 12:09pm

This new justice and now a Supreme Court majority that actually believes in the words written in the Constitution as amended will help to defend the American Republic as a nation of law based on the individual rights all human beings are endowed. Socialism and Marxism are horrible cancer that has blighted the world and caused so <a href="">much</a> human suffering over the last 200 years.

Outlaw 09

Mon, 12/05/2016 - 3:16am

It is interesting that a number of commenters here seem to have totally forgotten that it is the NSC and the strategic security advisor to the President formally Rhodes for Obama and now Flynn for Trump that in fact often especially under Obama OFTEN overrode the SecDef actually often basically ignored the SecDef and CIA......on a series of decisions whether over eastern Ukraine....Russian failures to hold to INF OR Syria...

AND Obama was well educated.....well read and got his strategic intel briefings every morning........

NOW we have a President who has no international relations experience..WHO definitely is not well read and or educated AND WHO basically dodged the draft using a "bone spur" 4 times and who loves conspiracy theories...WITH a security advisor who also loves to throw out conspiracy theories as well.....

Mark my words...Mattis will not counter balance those around Trump and as Sec Def must follow any Trump FP decisions unless he resigns in protest.....

Something many here have forgotten......he serves at the will of the President.....

WHAT many commenters here need to fully understand is exactly where does Trump get his information for his twitter rants and his interviews....actually very enlightening......

BuzzFeed analyzed all links Trump has tweeted since start of campaign to determine where he gets his news…

WHAT is extremely interesting was comment by one of the so called Trump circle of advisors who stated but was largely overlooked by MSM this last weekend
"What we said during the election is not necessarily what we will do".......

So were the voters for Trump "sold a bill of goods" just to get elected and in fact Trump was going to do the exact opposite when elected?

Example.....slowly and carefully analyze the so called Taiwan "incident" which was initially played as a "unexperienced mistake" which now we are seeing was a well thought through provocation of China....


Sun, 12/04/2016 - 10:56pm

I'm guessing you don't serve in the ground forces. Even if DOD and its leadership are doing great things on the acquisition front (which I sincerely doubt), that pales in comparison to their hollowing out the military with social justice crusades and policies that are in the lunacy neighborhood of Nero naming his horse a consul.

EDIT - Intended for Azor, not Col Maxwell, obviously.

Someone took my argument based on a supposition in the article that an intention to make a military leader ineligible for higher political office for 7 years is the same as saying we will not consider civilians for the same jobs; there is no correlation. No one is suggesting civilians should not be considered or forced to join the Army for a period of 7 years.
Especially when Anti-war and Defense critics want to impose these strictures to demilitarize the military for an ideologically driven political agenda. Kerry might be one such man transformed from warrior to anti war activist to "law maker".
Even the Aristotelian quote prefacing this log is not comparable to the abuse of peace in our time. Aristotle never recommended unilateral disarmament in the face of still active threats to the Greeks, his reference was to the competition and possibility of war between the the City States. He also wrote "We make war so we may live in peace."
The fuller quote is, "It is more difficult to organize a peace than to win a war; but the fruits of victory will be lost if the peace is not organized." What are the fruits of war? Anyone, what are the fruits of war the mere absence of war?
Many Americans believe Obama declared Al-Qaeda was kaput simply to win an election and claimed we were no longer welcome in Iraq to fullfill a campaign pledge, and sold the Iranian deal on the platform it would leave Iran unable to amass a nuclear arsenal. Intel now surmises Iran will have nuclear weapons in about ten years. Ten years is the deadline the Ayatollah recently claimed will be the end of Israel and then the Great Satan.
Peace that is a constipated myth is not peace. And bears no fruit whatever that is.
Americans, I believe elected Trump because they want military leadership in key positions to make better decisions based on a realpolitik than the sort of diplomacy based on constipated myth and ideology that has lead to a non nuclear deterrent in the Ukraine, and a resurgence of violence in Iraq that had been successfully contained with the exception of the border with Iran. A fact Obama not only ignored but seemed to think was of greater import than the wake of violence his deals seem to create, and withdrawals ensuing in exploitable power vacuums.
In these decisions civilian prophets of peace have been woefully destructive and murderous enabling genocide.
And it does affect Americans in our homeland because now the policy makers want to bring hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the war zone to the USA on our dollar, subsidized as refugees, unprepared and even hostile to any law not dhimmi to sharia. It isn't simply a matter of finding the wolves in sheep's clothing. These are peoples who actively respond violently to criticisms we take for granted as a protected by free speech. An issue already challenging American freedoms guaranteed under the Constitution.
My concern is after protracted cultural immersion in cultures dominated by Islam if our military leaders who served a decade under the same conditioning required to submit for the sake of good relations are gone Arabist? Has taken this issue seriously, so how can I know? Sociologists once treated the issue of "going native" as disqualifying objective opinions and conclusions.
One thing is clear, when you step off the plane in Saudi, Kuwait or other Sharia religious police enforcing blasphemy laws state, your not in Kansas anymore. And winning the Insurgency required a great deal of cross acculturation. With examples of assimilation.
That asked I conclude Mattis appointment has raised the question if there is a reason to ask why would someone think he is a supericious American? One asks the question and dismisses it out f hand as untrue. But shouldn't we actually answer the question before dismissing it out of hand as "offensive"? Perhaps because it raises issues of nation before world and a commitment to the constitution before the UN charter that has been eroding American power for the past 8 years.

Tom Triumph

Sun, 12/04/2016 - 7:35am

"Furthermore, General Mattis knows and cherishes the Constitution much more than most Americans."

I'm curious what metric Maxwell uses, and if he sees how insulting this is to citizens. Mattis can know and cherish the Constitution AND other people can do so, too.

The set-up, of course, is that if you question Mattis' appointment you either a) don't know the Constitution, b) you hate the Constitution, c) you are criticizing Mattis as a soldier, citizen, etc. It is the same dynamic where if you question the military or oppose the budget you are against the troops. Untrue. Considering Maxwell doesn't even bother to look up the history of why Congress enacted a 10 year ban speaks volumes--the deliberation of our democratically elected civilian representatives is not worth his bother, I guess.

The divide exists, in part, because the power of the military is so immense and important that it requires its own checks and balances. Prior to WWII the Army was a mere 180,000 soldiers, while the massive mobilization the followed and post-war duties, combined with five years of wartime civilian life, made many to think about what it meant to live in a democracy; especially after defeating Axis powers that blurred the military and government together. America, wisely, sought to underscore its tradition of civilian oversight with the ten/seven year rule.

Today, we have the second largest military and the largest budget. Over half of our national budget is for the military. And we have been fighting a "war on terror" since 2001, a never-ending undefined war that has merged the actions in Afghanistan and Iraq with an expansion of domestic surveillance and curtailing of rights. This is the time to be watchful of a government overreaching control; a military commander overseeing the military is something to be concerned about.

A leader with civilian experience beyond trading a uniform for a suit at least nods in the direction of recognizing this. This provides a diversity of opinion where the SoD can work with the Joint Chiefs and put forth a more thoughtful option than a military mind alone might offer. It is, of course, not perfect, which is why Congress can vote to dismiss the restriction in rare cases.

Mattis is uniquely qualified, but his appointment should be an exception to the rule. His posting becomes precedent for the next SoD and the next. Mattis might be the right man for the job, but the reaction to those who question the concern of citizens should give pause to it being the norm.


Fri, 12/02/2016 - 4:28pm

Does anybody know what Mattis Big Picture views are? I have read and listened to his irregular war experience, which is considerable but what about China,Russia,North Korea. What type of weapons systems and force creation/structure does he think we need now and in the future? Haven't been able to find that much about him on these subjects.

My concern with Mattis is that his military service does not have the type of experience suited to high-end warfighting, and that the new Secretary of Defense must be focused on peer and near-peer adversaries rather than the low-end threats that have preoccupied the United States since 2001.

I roughly approximate Ashton Carter with Harold Brown, who invigorated US defense policy in the 1970s by initiating the Second Offset ("fight outnumbered and win") to counter the Soviets' quantitative advantages and resulted in the Revolution in Military Affairs that was revealed to the public during Operation Desert Storm.

Now, Brown's initiative survived four other Secretaries, and the fruits of his labor were not realized for over a decade.

Ashton Carter has similarly refocused the United States on high-end warfighting and in spite of financial restrictions. He has worked tireless on the F-35, B-21, Columbia, Virginia, railgun, laser, LRASM, LRSO and GBSD programs, in addition to re-purposing existing weaponry to meet critical needs, and improving cyber and electro-magnetic warfare capabilities. He will be sorely missed, as well as his subordinates Robert Work and Tim Roper, if they are also replaced.

Is Mattis the man to continue this turnaround?

I would sooner see Carter remain in his post for the next four years, but politics dictate that Trump reward someone with the coveted position...

Tom Triumph

Sun, 12/04/2016 - 7:44am

In reply to by cammo99

Who comes up with these rules? A democratically elected Congress.

The rule change came after WWII. Prior to that, we had 180,000 members of the armed forces. We then mobilized millions of men and put the entire nation on a war footing and economy, which extended after the war to hold the peace. Our armed forces have only grown since. Our democratically elected government thought it best to underscore the long held belief in civilian oversight as the size and scope had grown so much.

Today, we have the second largest force and the most expensive. We have been at war against terror since 2001, and on the ground in that war since 2003. It never seems to end, and has moved from the battlefield to domestic surveillance and a loss of freedoms in the name of that war. If ever there was a time to flex our democratic, civilian values it is now.

That democratically elected body can give Mattis an exemption, but the vetting and discussion is key to reinforcing the principles that have gotten us this far.


Mon, 11/28/2016 - 4:54pm

In reply to by cammo99

Obama's initial defense appointees were from the previous administration, which had failed miserable on the defense file. The Carter-Work team is superior to anything since Cheney-Atwood, and has had arguably much greater challenges.


Sat, 11/26/2016 - 12:36pm

General Mattis's fitness to be Secretary of Defense is a question? It reads more like General's can't do civilian jobs. Although except for academics and other elements of the left I can not get who sponsors this nonsense. It might shock the academics but many Americans are better able to accept the idea a General not a civilian approved of by academics to be Secretary of Defense. I know that is hard for academics to understand, that's just the way it is.
The issue is not one of civilian control of the military, unless they want to admit to the discriminatory anti-military beliefs they have by claiming military service in and of itself disqualifies a person from running for office, which certainly seems to be the case here.
The very idea that someone leaving the military should have to wait 7 years to serve in a high public office is offensive.
Who comes up with these made up rules?
I know some analysts that have been advising the Obama administration are terrified by the change of command, what are they going to do for work now? This seems more like a pitch by appointees of the Obama administration to keep their jobs. In which they have defined and embodied epic military failures and are rejected by electoral majority.
Good luck finding a job.