James Mattis is making the talk show rounds, promoting his new book, “Call Sign Chaos.” Interestingly, while openly critical of President George W. Bush for being unprepared for the Iraq War, and President Barack Obama for lacking a strategy and being too soft toward enemies like Iran, Mattis is remarkably circumspect about his service as Secretary of Defense under President Donald Trump. Perhaps Trump’s non-disclosure agreements really do pack a punch?
I’ve written about Mattis before. Trump may have picked him in part because he looks a little like George S. Patton of World War II fame. While serving under Trump, Mattis was deferential but not as big of an ass-kisser as most of Trump’s subordinates. Mattis was a disappointment nonetheless, bought off by all the money Trump and the Republicans (and Democrats as well) shoveled to the Pentagon.
Mattis, among several generals Trump called “his” own, did nothing to end America’s disastrous overseas wars and the profligate spending on them. He also did nothing to curb the U.S. military’s desire to spend $1.7 trillion on genocidal nuclear weapons. He had no vision for a U.S. military that would be less imperial, less wasteful, and, in two words, less stupid.
Mattis was more interested in better relations with allies than was Trump, especially NATO, but that was about the only notable difference. That and the fact that Mattis seemed even more dedicated to using the U.S. military in debacles like Afghanistan and Syria, whereas Trump, displaying his usual fickleness and ignorance, waxed between total destruction and total withdrawal.
Strategic chaos has been the result of Mattis’s service under Trump, so the book’s title is unintentionally accurate. If only retired generals would do what they used to do way back when, such as fishing and golfing, enjoying a sinecure or two but otherwise doing no harm. But, sadly, that’s no longer the American way. Too many generals, retired or otherwise, are spoiling the Democracy, and Mattis is one of them.
Among noteworthy American generals who could, men like Patton and Ike and Grant and Sherman, Mattis is yet another pretender like David Petraeus, a man who couldn’t. He couldn’t win a major, enduring, victory, and he didn’t define a new course forward that would truly safeguard America’s national security. Call sign chaos, indeed.
In my latest article at TomDispatch.com, “All the President’s Generals,” I examine Trump’s affection for retired military generals to fill America’s most senior civilian positions related to national defense. I urge you to read the entire article at TomDispatch.com; here I wish to focus on the quartet of generals/warriors Trump is empowering as part of his drive to “win” again. Trump seems most pleased that “his” generals are allegedly cut from the same cloth as George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur, two of America’s most anti-democratic generals.
Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Like Prussia in the age of Frederick the Great, America is increasingly becoming a colossal military establishment with a state attached to it. Unlike Prussia, our colossus is not producing any meaningful victories. And no one, I think, would confuse the educated and enlightened Frederick with America’s angry and undisciplined Tweeter-in-chief.
Too Many Generals Spoil the Democracy (from TomDispatch.com)
General officers, by the way, have come to resemble a self-replicating organism. The grooming process, favoring homogeneity as it does, is partly to blame. Disruptive creativity and a reputation for outspokenness can mark one as not being a “team player.” Political skills and conformity are valued more highly. It’s a mistake, then, to assume that America’s generals are the best and the brightest. “The curated and the calculating” is perhaps a more accurate description.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Trump’s chosen threesome, starting with General Mattis. He has his virtues: a distinguished career in the Marine Corps, a sensible stance against torture, a dedication to all ranks within the military. Yet like so many high-ranking military retirees — take General Mark Welsh of the Air Force, for example — Mattis quickly cashed in on his career, reputation, and continuing influence via the military-industrial complex. Despite a six-figure pension, he joined corporate boards, notably that of military-industrial powerhouse General Dynamics where he quickly earned or acquired nearly $1.5 million in salary and stock options. Mattis is also on the board at Theranos, a deeply troubled company that failed to deliver on promises to develop effective blood-testing technologies for the military.
And then, of course, there was his long military career, itself a distinctly mixed bag. As head of U.S. Central Command under President Obama, for instance, his hawkish stance toward Iran led to his removal and forced retirement in 2013. Almost a decade earlier in 2004, the aggressive tactics he oversaw in Iraq as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during the Battle of Fallujah have been characterized by some as war crimes. For Trump, however, none of this matters. Mattis, much like General Patton (in the president-elect’s view), is a man who “plays no games.”
And Mattis seems like the voice of reason and moderation compared to Flynn, whose hatred of Islam is as virulent as it is transparent. Like Trump, Flynn is a fan of tweeting, perhaps his most infamous being “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” A brusque man convinced of his own rectitude, who has a reputation for not playing well with others, Flynn was forced from his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, after which he became a harsh critic of the Obama administration.
In his brief retirement, Flynn served as a paid lobbyist to a Turkish businessman with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, while running a business consultancy that is due to profit by providing surveillance drones to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. Rising to prominence during the Trump campaign, he led the chant against Hillary Clinton (“Lock her up!”) at the Republican National Convention in July. (His son recently helped spread the false rumor that Clinton was involved in a child sex trafficking ring involving a Washington, D.C., pizzeria.) Flynn, who sees Islam as a political conspiracy rather than a legitimate religion, is an angry warrior, a dyed-in-the-wool crusader. That Trump sees such a figure as qualified to serve as the nation’s senior civilian security adviser speaks volumes about the president-elect and the crusading militarism that is likely to be forthcoming from his administration.
Serving in a supporting capacity to Flynn as chief of staff of the National Security Council (NSC) is yet another high-ranking military man (and early supporter of Trump’s presidential run), Army retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg. Almost a generation older than Flynn, Kellogg served as chief operations officer for the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, which badly mismanaged the U.S. military’s occupation of the country after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. Like most retired generals, Kellogg has profited from close links to defense-related industries, including CACI International, Oracle Corporation (Homeland Security Division), and Cubic, where he was senior vice president for ground combat programs. It’s hard to see fresh ideas coming from the NSC with long-serving military diehards like Flynn and Kellogg ruling the roost.
General John Kelly, the last of the quartet and soon to be head of the Department of Homeland Security, is yet another long-serving Marine with a reputation for bluntness. He opposed efforts by the Obama administration to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, claiming that the remaining detainees were “all bad boys,” both guilty and dangerous. He also ran afoul of the administration by criticizing efforts to open combat positions to qualified servicewomen, claiming such efforts were “agenda-driven” and would lead to lower standards and decreased military combat effectiveness. Despite these views, or perhaps because of them, Kelly, who served as senior military assistant to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and has been well vetted by the system, is likely to be confirmed with little real debate.
Of Coups and Crusades
Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military. With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower. Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president. It’s far worse. Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?
In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process. His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.
A recent article in the New York Times about how General (Ret.) David Petraeus is being honored by the New York Historical Society featured a word often used to describe Petraeus as well as another retired U.S. general fallen on hard times, Stanley McChrystal. The word is “ascetic.” The American media loved to hype the ascetic nature of both these men: their leanness, the number of miles they ran or push-ups they did, how hard they worked, how few hours of sleep they required, and so on. Somehow “ascetic” became associated with superlative leadership and sweeping strategic vision, as if eating sparse meals or running ten miles in an hour is the stuff of a winning general.
Of prospective generals Napoleon used to ask, “Is he lucky?” In other words, does he find ways to win in spite of the odds? It seems our media identifies a winning general by how many chin-ups and sit-ups he can perform, or how few calories he needs in a day.
The whole ascetic ideal is not a citizen-soldier concept. It’s a Spartan or Prussian conceit. And it’s fascinating to me how generals like Petraeus and McChrystal were essentially anointed as ascetic warrior-priests by the U.S. media. So much so that in 2007 the Bush Administration took to hiding behind the beribboned and apparently besmirchless chest of Petraeus.
Of course, both Petraeus and McChrystal bought their own media hype, each imploding in his own way, but both manifesting a lack of discipline that gave the lie to the highly disciplined “ascetic” image of the warrior-priest.
And of course both are now being rehabilitated by the powers-that-be, a process that says much about our imperial moment.
Something tells me we’d be better off with a few plain-speaking, un-hyped, citizen-soldier types like Ulysses S. Grant rather than the over-hyped “ascetic warriors” of today. Or as a friend of mine put it, “I’d prefer a little fat at the gut to lots of fat above the ears.”