Mattis’ Military Background a Plus
‘America has two fundamental powers. One is the power of intimidation… the other … is the power of inspiration.’ That statement by retired Marine Corps General James Mattis indicates a perspective that emphasizes discipline, discretion and awareness of the limits of military force alone.
In our democracy, military discipline includes respect for the ultimate authority of elected civilian officials over the military. That discipline also includes not playing self-interested political games with defense.
Media anxiety about having a former career flag officer serve in the top Pentagon post is quite understandable. Concern over this matter led Congress to require a seven year waiting period before a military veteran could be considered for the job.
Consequently, Mattis required a special waiver from Congress. He received this in an overwhelming 81-17 vote in the Senate, following a vote of 24 to 3 by the Senate Armed Services Committee. The waiver for Mattis passed the House by a vote of 268-151.
Such a waiver was provided once before, in 1950 for George C. Marshall to become secretary of defense. Marshall’s career and style are highly germane in the current climate.
Recent secretaries of defense have gone public with criticism. In 2014, former secretary Leon Panetta brought forth memoirs. He bluntly criticizes many others, including President Barack Obama. This imitates Robert Gates, Panetta’s immediate predecessor at the Pentagon.
Marshall as U.S. army chief of staff was vital to World War II victory. He then led the state and defense departments, where he became a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy and associates in the anti-communist hysteria of the time.
When Marshall died, I was working after school as an office clerk for a Pacific war veteran who ran a small business. Mr. Henricks survived horrific combat on Bougainville, but with disturbing physical and emotional scars apparent to a young boy.
He usually tried fiercely to focus on the business but took a break to discuss the general with reverence, uncharacteristic sentimentality from a usually restless, tormented man.
Marshall never produced memoirs, and turned down enormous offers from publishers. From a vastly different America, he viewed public service as a special privilege. He was concerned about embarrassing others and inadvertently compromising national security.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was annoyed the military chief refused to be called by his first name, or meet socially with their wives, but also emphasized he could not sleep at night if Marshall was outside the country. Marshall captured FDR too.
As respected nonpartisan public servant, Gates shielded Obama and the Democratic Party. In the 2008 campaign, a representative ABC-Washington Post public opinion poll indicated voters generally viewed the Republican Party as better at protecting national security. The Republicans have continued to poll relatively strongly regarding defense concerns.
By dramatic contrast, Gates’ memoirs helped the Republicans in partisan political terms. Likewise, Panetta’s criticism of others, in particular President Obama, no doubt assisted the opposition. This is even more ironic, given his career as a Democratic Party spokesman and member of Congress.
Nominated by President Richard Nixon, Republican Congressman Melvin Laird of Wisconsin became a remarkably successful defense secretary in the turbulent years of the Vietnam War, domestic violence and the Watergate scandal. He did not write memoirs. Dale Van Atta’s book ‘With Honor’ describes Laird’s skills.
Marshall believed in putting the country first, and so did Laird. They are right, and worth emulating more than ever before in today’s self-absorbed America.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War’. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org