The place of military history in today’s defense planning

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis arrives to welcome Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei Fenghe to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., November 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas - RC1F0A5D6A90

Much of the recent public discussion around former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s new book, as well as Mattis’s own opinion piece excerpted from that book in late August, focused on his policy disagreements with President Trump. That was natural, and appropriate in many ways. Specifically, Mattis made an impassioned defense of U.S. alliances, contrasting his own view with that of his former boss’. Many wanted Mattis to go further and pick a direct fight with the president; instead, he wisely made his return fire much more indirect and impersonal. In any case, that debate will go on.

But the book itself, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, is much more of a memoir about Mattis’ remarkable career than a rendition of his disagreements, or agreements, with President Trump, President Obama, President Bush, or anybody else. While the conversation is fresh, and impressions of the book are still malleable, it would be regrettable not to appreciate all the other types of wisdom within its pages.

What I find most intriguing, and instructive, in the book is Mattis’ use of military history throughout his career to spark imagination and inform big decisions — especially on matters involving combat. Citizens, scholars, policymakers, and educators would all do well to learn from Mattis on this point. After all, though Trump liked to call him “Mad Dog Mattis,” and though “Chaos” is the nickname that Mattis (and coauthor Bing West) chose to employ in the book’s title, the never-married and book-worm’ish Mattis also had a third sobriquet:  “warrior monk.”

Without giving away too many of the book’s best nuggets, it is worth noting a couple examples of how Mattis used history to guide his thinking and leadership. As a one-star general in Afghanistan in 2001, Mattis commanded the Marine detachment that came ashore by helicopter from ships in the Arabian Sea shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Those Marines, as well as CIA and special forces advisory groups working with the Afghan Northern Alliance, enjoyed considerable success in driving the Taliban out of the country’s main cities. Eventually, they also helped develop intelligence that suggested bin Laden was holed up in the Tora Bora mountains near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. As is well known, the United States ultimately trusted Afghan tribes to watch those passes, but doing so proved a costly mistake, as their familiarity with the terrain was not enough to compensate for their lack of advanced equipment — and their aversion to patrolling at night on cold late fall evenings. Bin Laden managed to escape over the border to Pakistan as a result.

This outcome was hugely frustrating to Mattis, because in reflecting on the U.S. Army’s pursuit of the Apache leader Geronimo near the Mexican border in the 1870s, he had come up with and proposed a much better idea. With his knowledge of history, it was as clear and simple as the day, but sadly it did not carry the day with General Tommy Franks at Central Command (CENTCOM) or with Washington.  Like the Army of a century and a half ago, Mattis wanted to establish combat outposts with overlapping fields of view at various locations in and around the Tora Bora mountains, then use small maneuver force packages to move into the valleys and try to ferret out bin Laden and cronies.

A second example took place just over two years later, this time in Iraq, where two-star Mattis led Marine forces in Iraq’s Anbar province. By the spring of 2004, things were going badly fast in Iraq — especially in Sunni strongholds like Anbar, where a growing number of tribal leaders resented the Shia-heavy Iraqi Advisory Council as well as the U.S.-led occupying force that had put those Shia in positions of political power. The terrible Fallujah tragedy, in which four U.S. contractors were murdered and mutilated, with their bodies then hung up from a bridge, took place in this time period. Mattis thought back to the battle of Hue in Vietnam in 1968, a horribly bloody experience in response to the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive that did no net good for the U.S./South Vietnam counterinsurgency campaign. Seeking to avoid anything like that experience, he concluded that the Marines needed to be careful in their retaliation. Conjuring up phrases like “no better friend, no worse enemy,” he sought to apply “an iron fist inside a velvet glove.” The brutal Iraqi extremists who carried out the brutal acts, then took photos of themselves with the dead bodies that amounted to evidence for American authorities, would be patiently tracked down and taken out, one by one.

Unfortunately, an infuriated President Bush did not think of the Hue precedent when contemplating his options, and overruled Mattis’ preference for a patient, targeted campaign of retaliation. Insurgent strongholds throughout Fallujah were to be attacked comprehensively and forcefully. Mattis carried out the orders, of course, to the best of his abilities — until U.N. officials found the resulting violence so repulsive that they pressured U.S. authorities into an early termination of the takedown. It was a colossal and tragic sequence of errors. Mattis was right the first time. If only others had seen it with clarity, and historical sagacity, as well.

What is particularly impressive about these and other cases is not just that Mattis could dredge up these kinds of historical allusions and precedents when writing his memoirs at a quiet study in Washington State or Stanford University, where he often hangs his hat these days. Rather, he had the deep knowledge of history to think of its lessons quickly and easily even when under pressure — indeed, at times even when under fire. Among his other favorites are Thucydides’ accounts of the ancient Peloponnesian Wars; the writings and sayings of Marcus Aurelius, Clausewitz, and Napoleon; and the Paratrooper’s Prayer from a young French lieutenant in the desert campaign of World War II.

Elements of Mattis’ powerful legacy at the Pentagon can and should be debated, of course. Personally, I think today’s U.S. national security community needs to remember a bit more about the outbreak of World War I in our understanding of today’s world.  In that war, hyper-rivalrous great powers stumbled into a conflict that made little sense on any grounds and should have been avoided. The tendency is to dwell somewhat excessively on the lessons of World War II and the Cold War — which translates for many into an expectation of new cold or even hot wars with Russia and China. Again, the point is that this was a type of conversation you could have with Mattis (who liked to begin conversations by asking, “what am I getting wrong, what am I missing?”).

While he may be among the best of them, Mattis is far from the only modern American officer who studies and expounds on military history. Retired Admiral Bill McRaven, the man who ultimately did “get bin Laden” when leading Special Operations Command, wrote a gem of a history of covert operations (mostly from World War II) in a book called Spec Ops. Retired Generals Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, and John Allen are among those who frequently consult U.S. Civil War history as a guide to all aspects of combat. Retired Admiral James Stavridis traces the evolution of U.S. naval strategy in his recent book, Sea Power. The U.S. military’s war colleges, where most mid-career officers headed for higher command spend a year or two in their careers, are still strong in these disciplines. The military service chiefs have required reading lists for their personnel with heavy representation by the tomes of history.

Unfortunately, many civilian academic institutions do not follow this example. For example, while a few policy schools like those at Columbia, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins/SAIS, and MIT provide strong grounding in military history, most others fall short. A couple universities like Yale and Ohio State have excellent grand strategy or military history departments, but most universities do not. Modern political science emphasizes quantitative methods, often at history’s expense. To be sure, not everyone fancies trilogies of 700-page books that recite in detail the movements of each regiment on each hill throughout the course of a given war. But understanding the basic choices that political and military leaders faced, and made, in key battles in history should be a much more central part of any preparation for the field of security studies than is often the case.

Even more so than is usually the case with hot new bestsellers that generate a political buzz, Mattis’s book is one you really should read, rather than simply read about.