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.
The National Review labels the idea of a military coup in Trump’s America “hysterical.” Here’s David French criticizing my recent article at TomDispatch.com:
Here we go again — another article talking about how the retired generals in Trump’s cabinet, civilians who are nominated by a civilian and confirmed by a civilian senate, represent the erosion of the principle of civilian control over the military. But this time, there’s a hysterical twist. The nomination of James Mattis for secretary of defense and John Kelly for secretary of homeland security and the selection of Michael Flynn for national security adviser is worse than a real-life coup. No, really.
French goes on to say the following:
Lots of people read this nonsense. Lots of people believe this nonsense. I’ve been arguing for some time that the prime threat to our national unity isn’t action but reaction. Activists and pundits take normal politics (retired generals have a long history of serving this nation in civilian offices, beginning with George Washington) and respond with an overreaction that pushes their fellow citizens into believing that the sky is falling.
In my article for TomDispatch.com, I made the same point that retired generals have a long history of serving this nation, beginning with Washington. But Washington was a special case, an American Cincinnatus, a citizen first, a soldier second. As I mentioned in my article, today’s generals are cut from a different cloth. They self-identify as warriors first and foremost. Even when they retire, they usually go to work immediately for the military-industrial complex, making millions in the process.
French seems to think that if a civilian like Donald Trump nominates four recently retired warrior/generals, and if a civilian Congress approves them, this in no way constitutes a coup. And, strictly speaking, that’s true.
Yet consider this. These four warrior/generals will direct the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the National Security Council. Professional warriors are filling the highest leadership positions in a superpower military complex that is supposed to be overseen by civilians. They will command budgetary authority approaching a trillion dollars annually. If this isn’t a de facto military coup, what is?
Consider as well that their boss, Donald Trump, professes to admire two American generals: George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. In choosing Patton and MacArthur, Trump has all the signs of an immature military hero-lover. Mature historians recognize that generals like George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley were far more distinguished (and far more in keeping with the American citizen-soldier ideal) than Patton and MacArthur. Indeed, both Patton and MacArthur were over-hyped, deliberately so, for propaganda purposes during Word War II. MacArthur was a disaster in the Philippines, and Patton wasn’t even needed during D-Day. Both fancied themselves to be warriors; both were vainglorious showboats, stuck on themselves and their alleged military brilliance.
“Retired” warriors are simply not the right men in a democracy to ride herd on the military. Warrior/generals like Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly — men defined by the military and loyal to it for their entire lives — are not going to become free-thinkers and tough-minded critics in a matter of months, especially when they’ve already cashed in after retirement by joining corporate boards affiliated with the military-industrial complex.
Look, I realize some Americans see nothing wrong with generals taking charge of America. As one disgruntled reader wrote me, “I value the experience of generals who led Soldiers and Marines in combat on the ground.”
Well, I value that too. So does our country, which is why the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) advise our president. But what Trump has done is to surround himself with a rival JCS, his own band of warriors, generals that he sees as the equivalent to Patton and MacArthur. He’s created a dynamic in which the onlyadvice he’ll get on national security is from military minds. And if you’re looking to Congress as a check on military rule, consider that the last time Congress formally exercised its authority to declare war was December 1941. Yes, 75 years ago this month.
Hey, nothing to worry about here. Don’t get hysterical. Let the “civilian” generals rule! After all, what could possibly go wrong?
Further Thoughts: I think many in America equate militarism to fascism; they think that, so long as jackbooted troops aren’t marching loudly down American streets and breaking down doors, militarism doesn’t exist here.
But militarism, as a descriptive term, also involves the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout civil society and political culture in America. Since 9/11, if not before, Americans have been actively encouraged to “support our troops” as a patriotic duty. Those troops have been lauded as “warriors,” “war-fighters,” and “heroes,” even as the U.S. military has become both thoroughly professionalized and increasingly isolated from civil society. This isolation, however, does not extend to public celebrations of the military, most visibly at major sporting events (e.g. NFL football games). (A small sign of this is major league baseball players wearing camouflaged uniforms to “honor” the troops.)
Trump’s decision — to put four senior “retired” generals in charge of America’s military and national security — acts as an accelerant to the permeation of military attitudes and values throughout America’s civil society and political culture. Again, the USA, one must recall, was founded on civilian control of the military as well as the ideal of the citizen-soldier. The latter ideal is dead, replaced as it has been by a new ideal, that of the warrior.
And civilian control? With four generals in command, enabled by an inexperienced civilian commander-in-chief whose ideal general is defined by Patton and MacArthur, you have in essence a repudiation of civilian control.
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.
Donald Trump’s cabinet choices form an anti-government of sorts. A climate change skeptic as head of the EPA who’s involved in suing the EPA. A head of the Energy department who previously said he wanted to eliminate that department. A head of Education who’s a fervid proponent of charter schools and further privatization. A head of housing and urban development with no background in government and no apparent sympathy for the poor. A head of Labor who’s a fast-food mogul, an opponent of a higher minimum wage, and a proponent of robots replacing humans because the former don’t get sick or need health care or strike for higher pay. And, let’s not forget, a gaggle of retired generals in civilian security positions at the Pentagon and within the White House.
You have to hand it to Trump and the Republicans: when they select cabinet members, they’re not trying to triangulate; they’re not trying to reach out to the Democrats or rule in a bipartisan fashion. Their attitude is “We won — and we’re taking no prisoners.”
Remember how newly elected President Obama triangulated in 2008? He kept on Republican Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense. He selected retired Marine Corps General James Jones to be his National Security Adviser, which drew high praise from John McCain. He appointed Tim Geithner at Treasury, a former member of the Kissinger Associates and advocate of the TARP (the Wall Street bailout). He tried to appoint other Republicans to his cabinet, such as Judd Gregg at Commerce. Despite Obama’s huge mandate and his message of “change,” most of his cabinet appointees were conventional Washington insiders, more than acceptable to Republicans.
Of course, this is just further proof (if more is needed) that Democrats like Obama and the Clintons are just another business party, a Republican-lite party. I’d say establishment Democrats don’t have the courage of their convictions, except I’m not sure they have convictions.
Well, Trump has convictions. And he’s unafraid to act on them with his cabinet choices. You think the Democrats might learn something from this?
At Informed Comment, Juan Cole has an excellent column on this whole issue, “Why do GOP Presidents get to go Hard Right, and Dems are just GOP Lite?” Here’s how Cole begins his column:
After it was confirmed that Donald J. Trump will appoint former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson Secretary of State, the shape of the Trump cabinet and team has become clear. Neofascist Steve Bannon is White House Strategist. Openly racist Jeff Sessions is Attorney General (guess how many civil rights actions he is going to initiate). General James “Mad Dog” Mattis is Secretary of War (call it what it is). Notorious Islamophobe and conspiracy theorist, who denies that Islam is a religion, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn is National Security adviser.
But Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, when they came to power (and both were very popular and had real mandates) did not go left in the way that George W. Bush and now Trump have gone right.
In fact, the anecdote is told that in 1993 Clinton and his cabinet looked around the room at each other and observed, “Here we are, Eisenhower Republicans.” Why?
Why, indeed? Just imagine if a true liberal Democrat won the White House. And let’s imagine he or she is casting about for a suitable Secretary of Defense, someone who thinks outside of the pentagonal box. How about Ralph Nader or Noam Chomsky? (Cole mentions Frida Berrigan, another provocative choice.)
Call it spine, call it stones, call it sand, call it whatever you want, but Trump’s Republicans have it and the spineless Democrats don’t. Just wait until January, when we start to hear about a few Democrats crossing the aisle to work with Trump in the spirit of “bipartisanship” and “putting government back to work.” It makes me think of another saying of my parents: Trump and his cabinet of billionaires and millionaires “will be laughing all the way to the bank.” The rest of us? We may be laughing, but only to hide the tears.
Note: Revised on 12/19 to add retired Marine Corps General Jones as another example of Obama’s ill-fated effort to “move to the center” and to appease Republicans.