Why Gen. Mattis Is No Gen. Marshall

President-elect Trump’s pick of retired Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis to run the Pentagon raises questions about civilian control of the military, especially compared to the precedent of Gen. George Marshall, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Useful perspective on issues surrounding the nomination of the retired Marine Corps general James Mattis to be Secretary of Defense, including the issue of civilian control of the military, can come from reflecting on the career of the one other general ever to be U.S. Defense Secretary.

Whether the appointment of Mattis turns out to be good or bad will depend as well on other things, but for comparison and context, consider the role and talents of the third Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall. (After World War II, a reorganization transformed the Department of War, which had existed since 1789, into the Department of Defense.)

Gen. George Marshall, who also served as secretaries of State and Defense.

Gen. George Marshall, who also served as secretaries of State and Defense.

Marshall had a career as an Army officer but, apart from 18 months as a second lieutenant of infantry during the insurgency in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, he rose to five-star general without ever commanding troops in combat. He instead was a brilliant planner and organizer.

During World War I, he was a staff officer who was heavily involved in the planning of operations for the American Expeditionary Force. As Army chief of staff throughout World War II, Marshall could be said to have managed the enormous allied war effort as much as any one person did. This was one of two roles that earned him a distinguished place in history.

His other big role was as a post-war diplomat, beginning when President Harry Truman dispatched him to China to try to arrange a political settlement between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. He served as Truman’s Secretary of State during the critical years of the beginning of the Cold War, from 1947 to 1949. It was during his tenure in that office that he led implementation of the economic recovery program that bears his name — work for which he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

A World-Class Diplomat

Marshall’s service as Defense Secretary (following a stint as president of the American National Red Cross) thus came after he had already been one of the most prominent members of the Truman administration and a diplomat of world-class stature and accomplishment.

Truman’s calling of Marshall back to his administration to be Secretary of Defense was a short-term (Marshall served in the position for only a year) fix to a problem of bad morale and organization in the U.S. military establishment. The job of Secretary of Defense, which had been established in 1947, had not yet enjoyed a leader who would set a strong and positive model for future occupants of the office.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's choice to become Secretary of Defense.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to become Secretary of Defense.

Truman removed each of his first two secretaries of defense (James Forrestal and Louis Johnson) after just a year and a half in the job. Marshall took the position at the low point of September 1950, after three months of the United States reeling from the North Korean invasion that began the Korean War.

As secretary, Marshall was involved in one of the best-known assertions of civilian control of the military: Truman’s firing of an insubordinate Douglas MacArthur, an action in which Marshall concurred. With that personnel problem resolved and the tide turned in Korea, Marshall retired to private life in September 1951.

In short, Marshall is not a precedent for the Mattis appointment except in the technical sense of having once worn stars on his shoulders. Putting Mattis in the job really would be a departure, in that he is at short remove from being a warrior and has had nothing like the career that Marshall had when he took over leadership of the Pentagon.

It is with good reason that the high school in Fairfax County, Virginia that is named after Marshall calls its athletic teams the Statesmen.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

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23 comments for “Why Gen. Mattis Is No Gen. Marshall

  1. Thomas Houlahan
    December 9, 2016 at 22:19

    Leave it to a CIA guy to completely miss the point. It is of no moment that Marshall only commanded soldiers in combat once as a 2nd lieutenant. The point is, that unlike Mattis, who has not been a civilian for as long as the law requires, Marshall was not a civilian at all. He was an active-duty general and continued to be while he served as defense secretary. His waiver was a complete departure from the concept of civilian control, and “it was just for a year” cuts no ice. With Mattis, they are being asked to waive an arbitrary time-out requirement. On a departure-from-principle scale of 1 to 10, the Marshall waiver was a 10. This is a 1.

  2. Ragnar Ragnarsson
    December 7, 2016 at 15:19

    For myself, I intend to do my own research regarding Mattis, Flynn and any other generals Trump appoints.

    Going back thru almost 20 years worth of Trump interviews, his views on foreign policy are geared towards peaceful relations with the rest of the world and have been so consistently. Mattis has publicly stated the war in Irag was a big mistake, Flynn was outed from his position in Obamas administration because what…. he wasn’t following the party line on Syria?

    Yeah, these men are generals, their training is warfare, but not every general is a belligerent hawk.

    As far as Mattis statements about it being fun to kill people, he was addressing troops about to go into battle and possibly die for their country. Reading his statements in context, he was doing his utmost to boost the morale of men who would understandably be scared of what was coming. What’s he supposed to say? Be careful and play nice? No! Be the hunters, not the hunted. Go out there, kick some serious ass and have a good time doing it! Context people, context.

    Like I said, I need to research these guys further, maybe Fallujah was a war crime someone’s responsible for. Like the entire Iraq war wasn’t a war crime? The shining city on the hill is chock full of war criminals.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 7, 2016 at 22:41

      As far as Mattis statements about it being fun to kill people, he was addressing troops about to go into battle and possibly die for their country. Reading his statements in context, he was doing his utmost to boost the morale of men who would understandably be scared of what was coming. What’s he supposed to say? Be careful and play nice? No! Be the hunters, not the hunted. Go out there, kick some serious ass and have a good time doing it! Context people, context.

      Boosting the morale of his men before a fight is one thing. Inciting them to unrestrained violence and possible violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg Principles is another. When the full story of Fallujah is written it will very likely prove to be of greater shame to the US military than My Lai in Vietnam.

      • Ragnar Ragnarsson
        December 8, 2016 at 03:15

        This isn’t specific to Falluhjah, but I don’t see anything that incites violations of the Geneva convention in this:

        MARCH 2003
        1st Marine Division (REIN)
        Commanding General’s Message to All Hands

        For decades, Saddam Hussein has tortured, imprisoned, raped and
        murdered the Iraqi people; invaded neighboring coutnries without
        provocation; and threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction.
        The time has come to end his reign of terror. On your young shoulders rest
        the hopes of mankind.

        When I give you the word, together we will cross the Line of
        Departure, close with those forces that choose to fight, and destroy them.
        Our fight is not with the Iraqi people, nor is it with members of the
        Iraqi army who choose to surrender. While we will move swiftly and
        aggressively
        against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency,
        demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have
        endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression.

        Chemical attack, treachery, and use of the innocent as human
        shields can be expected, as can other unethical tactics. Take it all in
        stride. Be
        the hunter, not the hunted: never allow your unit to be caught with its
        guard down. Use good judgement and act in best interests of our Nation.

        You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage
        your brain before you engage your weapon. Share your courage with each
        other as we enter the uncertain terrain north of the Line of Departure.
        Keep faith in your comrades on your left and right and Marine Air overhead.
        Fight with a happy heart and strong spirit.

        For the mission’s sake, our country’s sake, and the sake of the
        men who carried the Division’s colors in past battles – who fought for life
        and never lost their nerve – carry out your mission and keep your honor
        clean.
        Demonstrate to the world there is “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy” than
        a U.S. Marine.

        J. N. Mattis
        Major General, U.S. Marines
        Commanding

      • Ragnar Ragnarsson
        December 8, 2016 at 03:25

        And then you have this. Making a big deal out of this is like making a big deal out of the Trump tape where they were talking trashy about women. Guys talk crappy sometimes, it’s what happens in real life. People aren’t saints.

        “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them. Actually it’s quite fun to fight them, you know. It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up there with you. I like brawling.”

        Followed by another of his quotes:

        “The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event. That said, there are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”

        It’s the military.

      • Bill Bodden
        December 8, 2016 at 16:33

        There is the official story for publication, and there is the reality such as this: “The Under-Examined Story of Fallujah: Although you’re unlikely to have read about it in the press, the ongoing health crisis in Fallujah shows that the legacy of the U.S. war in Iraq is far from over.” By Hannah Gurman – http://fpif.org/the_under-examined_story_of_fallujah/

      • Ragnar Ragnarsson
        December 8, 2016 at 20:46

        Thank you for the link. I haven’t finished reading it yet but will get back to it soon. I’ve also bookmarked a few pages on Mattis so that I can get a better overall picture of who he is and what his role was in Falluhjah. It doesn’t appear, at a glance anyway, that he was the sole architect and executor of that particular battle, but I’ll know more as I read more. I have to admit, I have a lot of catching up to do.

        I appreciate that fact that you and I can continue this discussion even tho we disagree. Right now we all need to be able to not only speak but listen and I thank you for your courtesy. We may never agree, but that’s ok as long as we can treat each other with respect. Thanks again for the discussion.

    • December 8, 2016 at 14:34

      Embarrassing

    • JayHobeSound
      December 13, 2016 at 07:12

      Re: Flynn fired from DIA because he was adamant about finding evidence to support his preconceived theories. For ex: Flynn announced Iran was behind the attack on Benghazi CIA station, then wanted staff to gather evidence that supported his conclusion.

  3. Zachary Smith
    December 7, 2016 at 14:33

    Marshall had a career as an Army officer but, apart from 18 months as a second lieutenant of infantry during the insurgency in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, he rose to five-star general without ever commanding troops in combat. He instead was a brilliant planner and organizer.

    So far as I know, all this is perfectly true. And it’s a very good thing that Roosevelt chickened out on making Marshall the commander of the French invasion – Overlord. Marshall had decided that dropping several airborne divisions deep inside France near Paris was a great idea. Had he been made commander some version of this might have happened and those men would have been slaughtered.

    As Army chief of staff throughout World War II, Marshall could be said to have managed the enormous allied war effort as much as any one person did. This was one of two roles that earned him a distinguished place in history.

    I want it understood that Marshall probably was the best possible Army Chief of Staff we could have had in WW2, so I’m not attempting to drag down the man. I just want to state that if some of his positions had been better publicized some of the luster on the man would be dimmed.

    George Marshall, along with most of the rest of the US Generals, wanted to use poison gas against Japan. Plans were drawn up ot smother Iwo Jima with gas while jamming all air waves so as to keep the Japanese troops there from reporting what was happening. Roosevelt flatly told his military NO! But President Roosevelt was a dying man, and shortly thereafter did die, so all of a sudden that obstacle is gone.

    https://ia800303.us.archive.org/19/items/TheJournalOfHistoricalReviewVolume16Number3/TheJournalOfHistoricalReviewVolume16-number-3-1997.pdf

    That link is to an online copy of a Journal with an article (page 14) about the plans to saturate Japanese targets in advance of the first invasion of Operation Downfall. It says that Admiral King and General Marshall got President Truman’s approval for this poison gas use.

    One of the few benefits I have of living in Indiana is my access to the State Library’s Inspire database. Thus I was able to read the full article at this link:

    hXXp://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2015-08/another-alternative%E2%80%94poison-gas

    It’s horrifying stuff. Examples:

    The Army planners selected 50 “profitable urban and industrial targets” in Japan, with 25 cities listed as “especially suitable for gas attacks.” These targets included Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The study declared, “Gas attacks of the size and intensity recommended on these 250 square miles of urban population … might easily kill 5,000,000 people and injure that many more.” Each city was divided into zones based on population density. The greater the concentration of people, the better the zone as a gas target.

    and this from the supplement the authors tacked on at the end:

    In 1947 U.S. Army officials added a secret directive to the gas-attack study: If the report ever was declassified, it should be retyped and the word “retaliatory” frequently inserted to make it agree with announced U.S. wartime policy. As announced during the war, U.S. policy called for the use of poison gas only in retaliation.

    To preserve the appearance of that policy, the 1947 Army directive ordered that the report be downgraded at the time from top secret to the next lower classification, secret. The retyping never happened, but the basic released document in possession of the authors has inked-in changes made in 1947, adding the word “retaliatory.”

    Some general reading from American Heritage.

    hXXp://www.americanheritage.com/content/why-we-didn%E2%80%99t-use-poison-gas-world-war-ii?page=show

    There is one other thing Marshall did which has caused the US untold trouble since WW2. He realized that the US was rapidly becoming war-weary and casualty-shy, and feared Truman would buckle under and allow Japan to essentially win their war. That would have (just as with Germany following WW1) led to a second war with a much stronger Japan around 1965, so Marshall began lying to Truman about the expected US casualties in Operation Downfall. That dishonesty has given supporters and opponents of the A-bombings two sets of numbers which cannot be reconciled without understanding how they came about.

    Setting up George Marshall as a plaster saint to contrast with Mad Dog Mattis is not at all a good idea. Mattis is almost surely a war criminal for what he did in Fallujah, but in my opinion his prosecution schedule ought to be way down on the list compared with George “codpiece commander” Bush and the unspeakable Richard Cheney. Also there are Bush’s un-prosecuted torturers – something BHO must also answer for.

    Mattis has already done one thing which – in my opinion – justifies the risk of making him Secretary of Defense. He has educated Donald Trump about the uselessness of torture for anything besides police state intimidation and allowing uniformed perverts to have fun with helpless prisoners.

    Give the man a chance, and don’t beat him up until he actually does something awful in his new role.

    • Zachary Smith
      December 8, 2016 at 23:23

      I must apologize for not noticing that my first link was to a far-right or even neo-nazi publication. I found it at the archive.org site via a Google search and at the time didn’t look at anything besides the brief poison gas essay. That discovery led me to other and much more reputable sources.

      In retrospect, I’d have still used the first link, but there would have been a cautionary note added. Nazis may be vile and nasty, but every now and then they blunder into the truth. Consider the mass graves the WW2 German Nazis first found in the Katyn Forest of Poland. This was a propaganda triumph of the first order for Joseph Goebbels, and the worst part of it all is that those German Nazis were telling the truth. Stalin’s goons had murdered many thousands of Polish Officers as part of his plan to wipe out Poland as a nation.

      A person has to be mighty suspicious of known liars, but sometimes even they have reason to tell the plain truth about this or that subject.

  4. Bill Bodden
    December 7, 2016 at 14:09

    Marshall had a career as an Army officer but, apart from 18 months as a second lieutenant of infantry during the insurgency in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War,

    Oops! I didn’t know Marshall fought in that crime against humanity. It does tarnish his otherwise stellar image.

  5. Bill Bodden
    December 7, 2016 at 13:56

    After World War II, a reorganization transformed the Department of War, which had existed since 1789, into the Department of Defense.

    First step for whoever is appointed secretary of defense: Change the department’s name back to the honest “Department of War.” When, since the end of the Second World War has our military acted in defense and not as the aggressor?

  6. Herman
    December 7, 2016 at 13:41

    This paragraph reflects our Orwellian inclination.

    “Whether the appointment of Mattis turns out to be good or bad will depend as well on other things, but for comparison and context, consider the role and talents of the third Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall. (After World War II, a reorganization transformed the Department of War, which had existed since 1789, into the Department of Defense.)”

    Call a wolf a sheep and its still a wolf.

    If you do have a general inclined to ride herd on the military and more importantly confront our hawkish policies, someone who has been there is more apt to be listened to and to get things done. Maybe he will scatter the hawks.

  7. Olu
    December 7, 2016 at 10:36

    Good article Mr Pillar!
    The crop of military and political leaders in Washington is a testament to how low the United States has fallen.
    The appointment of Gen Mattis will not be a departure from the stance of the current Def. Sec Ash Carter – belligerence and whipping up threats to national security at every opportunity.

  8. Joe Tedesky
    December 7, 2016 at 04:18

    While I do believe that our military should be controlled by civilian leadership, I fail to find a credible argument to be made for civilians over military Defense Secretary appointments, when thinking of McNamara or Rumsfeld types heading up our Defense Department. Seriously, were either McNamara or Rumsfeld any better than having some old warrior in they’re place to head up the overspending and destruction, that these two Secretary’s of Defense were use to ordering up?

    The argument that we don’t want a military junta would work find with me, but we the people are already living with inside of a police state. Between boarding planes, subway stations, professional sport venues, along with watching our local polices forces become militaristic trained, and equipped, could it get much worst with a retired general in charge? It probably can, but the unknown unknown is still yet to be seen.

    I don’t know enough about Mad Dog Matthis, but I’ll take all the warnings seriously enough to make me be more of a doubter than a proponent of such appointees, until further notice. God, I hope something shows improvement soon, because God knows we could use a change in foreign policy, along with so many other things that are needed done as well.

    • Bill Bodden
      December 7, 2016 at 14:14

      I don’t know enough about Mad Dog Matthis, …

      Mattis’s statements about it being fun to kill people and his leadership in the assault on Fallujah – Iraq’s Guernica – are good enough – or should that be bad enough – for me to give a thumb’s down.

      • Joe Tedesky
        December 7, 2016 at 22:07

        With your opinion Bill, I will put a X in the doubtful column.

    • Akech
      December 7, 2016 at 15:58

      The biggest tragedy is that the powerful ruling elites have succeeded in making sure that the rest of the powerless population below them are given reasons to view one another as a potential enemy! We are kept divided and barking at one another all the time while the environment under which we live, including financial and/or physical security, get smaller and smaller and smaller!

      • Joe Tedesky
        December 7, 2016 at 22:17

        Akech, I couldn’t agree more. Beside the many other things that need attended too, uniting the American public would be a terrific accomplishment all on it’s own. I’m not talking about our becoming complacent to our individual beliefs, as much as I’m talking about our ability to communicate with each other in a civil way. I blame the media for sponsoring this decay in our public discourse. Call me a conspiracy nut (others do) but I believe we are being separated by wedge issues to the point where we turn on each other, at the drop of the hat. Ever since our media became infotainment hucksters instead of news gathers, we have been suckered into the slant trap that takes us all down that slippery slope, everyone mentions when we tweak the narratives of a news story. Thanks for bringing this up, because it certainly needs discussed.

      • Bill Bodden
        December 7, 2016 at 22:28

        we are being separated by wedge issues to the point where we turn on each other

        Joe: If we checked the history of humanity we would most likely find this a continuing theme. In this regard, and many others, America is not all that exceptional. It just happens to be one of the biggest wedges at the present time.

      • Joe Tedesky
        December 8, 2016 at 03:04

        You are right. Wedge issues are more peripheral on a platform, but I think the media has control over us, with programming slanted more towards those peripheral wedge issues, and thusly taking our eye off the ball….so now we become distracted to the degree that we study the popcorn vendor instead. We are not special in the course of the generations who have traveled through this circle of life, but we do have a professionalism who have learned through research and technology how to control our conversations and thoughts. Like let’s talk about Trump tweets about his critique of SNL. Why when it comes right down to it, we as a nation discussed more about the personality barbs that were being thrown about by the various candidates, that we forgot to talk about the environment, detailed healthcare plans, specific strategies for world events, and more, lots more….but we did talk about small men’s hands.

  9. Wm. Boyce
    December 7, 2016 at 02:16

    Another wholly inexperienced and unsuited trump appointee. People say he’s (Mattis) a nice guy, but Dar Jamail thinks otherwise.
    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/38620-james-mattis-is-a-war-criminal-i-experienced-his-attack-on-fallujah-firsthand

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