The General Who Should Lead the Pentagon

New York Times

Nominating a retired general to be secretary of defense is an unusual move in American politics. Since just after World War II, when the Department of Defense was created, only one general has held the post. That was George C. Marshall, who was more a supreme administrator in the Army than a combat leader. In World War I, Marshall was an excellent staff officer. In World War II he oversaw the American war effort.

The retired Marine general James N. Mattis, who is President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice to lead the Pentagon, is very different from Marshall. He is revered in the Marine Corps, where he served for over 40 years, for his aggressive and decisive approach to fighting. He led the Marines into southern Afghanistan in 2001, then commanded the Marine part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was involved in heavy fighting in Falluja a year later.
But General Mattis is not another George Patton, a comparison Mr. Trump is fond of making. General Mattis, who retired in 2013, after leading United States Central Command for three years, is far more disciplined than Patton was, and a far more strategic thinker.

Usually, I’d oppose having a general as secretary of defense, because it could undermine our tradition of civilian control of the military.

But these are not normal times. The incoming president appears to be a profoundly ignorant man who often seems to act on gut impulse or on what pleases the crowd. That is a dangerous combination to have in the White House. Having known General Mattis for many years, I am confident that he will be a restraint on Mr. Trump’s impulsiveness. I also think he will provide a strong counterweight to some of those around Mr. Trump who hold isolationist or pro-Putin views.

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He is an unusually forthright man, which is one reason his sayings have become so popular among Marines. (One of the more printable is, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”) He will tell the president what he thinks, and that is a good thing. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he believes it part of his duty to give his candid views to his superiors.

Indeed, it was just that sort of unvarnished approach that got him in hot water with the Obama White House. In discussions of Iran, he kept pushing civilians to consider the secondary consequences of actions. “Then what?” is a favorite question of his. On Iran, he asked, what if you get a nuclear deal with Tehran and then it starts escalating conventionally in the Persian Gulf?

General Mattis also was more hawkish than Obama’s advisers on how to deal with Iranian export of mischief to other countries in the region. And he expressed unhappiness with how the administration was responding to the Arab Spring, though the nature of his disagreement isn’t publicly known.

It helps that General Mattis, unlike Mr. Trump, is extremely well read. I once casually mentioned to him that I planned to learn more about the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He immediately named two books that he considered good studies. He told me once that in combat he liked to have a copy in his rucksack of “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman philosopher-emperor, the better to help him gain some mental distance from the battlefield.

I also think that General Mattis will provide a useful balance to Michael Flynn, the retired Army lieutenant general chosen by Mr. Trump to be national security adviser. General Flynn strikes me as an erratic figure. For example, his joining in the “lock her up” chant at the Republican convention was unseemly and, for a career military officer, unprofessional. Also, General Flynn did not have a good reputation as an administrator when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency before being moved out by the Obama administration. It will help that General Mattis retired with four stars, while General Flynn wore just three — among military men, rank matters, even in retirement.

The public notion of generals is that they know how to use only the military as a means of policy and so are more likely to get the nation into wars. That is a false conception in most cases, but especially in this one. General Mattis knows that war is the last resort, not the first one. He also understands that the threat of force works best when it works in conjunction with robust diplomatic efforts.

Some in Congress have said that they oppose waiving the law that bans recently retired generals from being secretary of defense. (Such a waiver was required to give Marshall the job.) But Congress did not bar generals from the office, it only required that they be out of uniform for seven years. The idea was to make people consider that it is unusual, and a departure from American tradition, to have military men or women in the position. In this case, waiving the law is the best course.

Thomas E. Ricks is the author, most recently, of “The Generals: American Military Command From World War II to Today.”