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The Limitations of the Military Mind

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The Limits of the Letter

James “Mad Dog” Mattis, USMC, has resigned – or been fired, depending on who you believe – as the Secretary of Defense in response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria and draw down in Afghanistan. This resignation is the closing of a circle, so to speak. America’s shift from an isolationist position to a more aggressive interventionist and alliance-seeking one began when William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State on June 9, 1915. It thus seems fitting to see a resignation as a result of a policy change back towards non-intervention – albeit a highly limited one.

This article’s purpose is not to swiftboat Secretary Mattis. As I’ve written before, all military careers are easily swiftboatable. Mattis had some issues as SecDef, but in my view they were small. The two collisions involving US Navy vessels that occurred in 2017 were not unprecedented; the fire on the USS Forrestal in 1967, under Robert McNamara, was a much bigger naval mishap. But the War in Afghanistan is playing out for the United States and Great Britain much like how it played out for the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Regardless, all of these negatives are easily countered by much greater accomplishments, such as ISIS evaporating during Mattis’ term, and his successful deployment of US troops to defend against the migrant caravan.

What needs to be pointed out, however, is the utter lack of genuine thought in Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. The letter can be read here. Much of the letter is standard Department of Defense boilerplate: “men and women in uniform,” “ideals,” “progress that has been made,” and so on. The problem of the genuine lack of vision is summed up in two very serious paragraphs in the middle of the letter. In the first paragraph, Secretary Mattis writes:

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

This paragraph contains three basic assumptions that should be examined:

  • The strength of the United States is linked to its comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.
  • The United States is the indispensable nation of the free world.
  • America must respect allies.

The first point is highly dubious. Managing the comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships is no easy task, and tends to embroil America in others’ problems. First, many of those in the “comprehensive system” are mortal enemies with one another, such as the Turks and the Kurds. Second, some of these allies have had clashes with the US as well. France, for example, was out of NATO’s command structure from 1967 until 2009 due to political differences. And under this system, America’s problems likewise become others’ problems. Given that most of Europe is in NATO, one might imagine that there is resentment due to the fact that NATO’s Article 5 (an attack on one member is an attack on all) has only been invoked once, and that sucked all members into the endless War in Afghanistan. Article 5 was invoked because of 9/11, and 9/11 occurred in part because of America’s lax immigration policies and support for Israel, neither of which was Europe’s fault. Indeed, as George Washington said regarding alliances, “The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.”

The point about the US being an indispensable nation is laughable. The laws of history don’t stop for America, but more important is Mattis’ use of the term “free world.” This is a Cold War term, one which became irrelevant since 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. To use such a term indicates that one is mentally trapped in the past. One can discuss “The Core vs. The Gap” or “the clash of civilizations,” but sorry, folks, the Soviet Union is long gone, and so is “the free world.”

Perhaps the most alarming thing Mattis endorses is “respect” for allies. Naming “respect” as a central goal of any endeavor is to fatally wound it from the get-go. The loudest cries for “respect” come from those who least deserve it, and its definition is also conditional. Is America “respecting” Turkey when they protect the Kurds from Turkish troops? By putting “respect” at the center of an endeavor, any malcontent or sub-par entity can insist that they aren’t being “respected,” regardless of the circumstances. “Respect” as a primary goal cedes authority to others.

The next paragraph also deserves a look. Mattis writes:

It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model – gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions – to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies.

It is true that China and Russia are rivals of the United States. The US must therefore match the military technology developed by Russia, in part because these weapons get sold to other nations and groups and are then used against American forces (like the T-72 tank and the AK-47 rifle). There are also all sorts of cyberwarfare issues one needs to deal with. However, both of these rivals are limited in their reach. China, for example, doesn’t develop weapons; it copies designs stolen from others. Additionally, if one really wants to clip China’s rise, endorsing a Trump-style trade policy is the rational way to do this, rather than through force. Lastly, China’s history is one of stability for several decades, followed by decades of instability. It might not take much for China to implode.

Russia’s ability to project power has also been limited since the end of the Cold War. When Communism still had global appeal, Russia as the Soviet Union could influence events around the world. Since the end of Communism, this capability has vanished. Now Russia is primarily confined to being a regional power. One reason it has been fighting so hard to defend Assad’s regime in Syria is that this is their last outpost of political-military influence outside of their immediate neighbors.

The Limited Military Men of the Past

General Mattis is indeed accomplished, but as mentioned above, his mentality is quite limited. But he is not alone in this. Consider:

  • General Henry “Old Brains” Halleck was considered “a first-rate clerk” by President Lincoln. Union strategy during the Civil War was directed by Bible-quoting politicians, such as President Lincoln himself and his Secretary of War. As Georges Clemenceau said, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.”
  • General Westmoreland actually believed that the South Vietnamese liked Americans more than the French because the Americans paid for sex there, unlike the French.
  • General Colin Powell really did hold up a vial of “anthrax” and claim the Iraqis had WMDs. If he really didn’t believe it, as he later implied, why did he do this?
  • General Casey really did endorse diversity after a highly predictable attack by a “diverse” field-grade officer on unarmed people at Fort Hood.
  • General McChrystal got a bit too open with a Rolling Stone reporter, and his unflattering remarks about the Obama administration went viral. It is probable that McChrystal allowed a falsified story about the death of the celebrity recruit, Corporal Pat Tillman, to be distributed, also. These incidents showed a lack of judgement and discernment, and a willingness to misread data.

Why the Limit?

Since the end of the draft in the United States, America has adopted veteran worship. Part of this cult involves granting enormous credibility to fast-talking generals who say things which appear to pierce the veil of political correctness. General Mattis rose to the top in part because he said things like, “There are some assholes in the world that just need to be shot.”

It is important to remember that at the time when the draft was in effect, veteran worship didn’t exist, and general officers were viewed along the lines of Beetle Bailey’s General Halftrack, or the leapfrog-playing leaders in Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). There were also popular TV shows like M*A*S*H and Sergeant Bilko, which lampooned military life and military “lifers.”

And in truth, the military mind is indeed a very limited thing. I can only speculate as to why this is so. But part of the problem today is undoubtedly that the American military officially endorses racial integration, especially the integration of Sub-Saharans with whites. Those that best carry out this charade are promoted. There are senior leaders in the Pentagon today who claim to have chased off “The Klan” and “white racists” in their barracks, while in reality, their white female soldiers were being raped by the black junior-level NCOs in their unit. If one really believes in racial integration, one always, always misreads data. (Yet this is correctable.)

Life-long military men coast on what they achieved as teenagers and as young adults. If one passes Airborne or Ranger training – which is only possible when one is young – one sometimes gains more credibility than one deserves and never corrects course. Military men tend to rest on their laurels and cut down anyone who questions their abilities. (This is not correctable. For an example of this, read about the later career of Colonel Steele, famous from the “Black Hawk Down” incident.)

The military is subject to the Peter Principle, which states that in any hierarchy, people are promoted until they reach a position for which they are unsuited. (This is not correctable, although the Peter Principle might not always apply.) A military career consists of ticket-punching, where one collects modest accomplishments until one accumulates enough of them to advance to the next level. But ticket-punching career tracks don’t necessarily produce greatness. (This is probably correctable.) And in today’s military, the officer who was selected by affirmative action and the strategic genius are on the same track. (This is probably correctable by introducing brevet ranks in a combat theater.)

In conclusion, what we’ve seen in “Mad Dog” Mattis’ resignation is a sign of a world-historical event, and President Trump’s reputation will be enhanced by it in the same way that Lincoln and Truman were enhanced when they sacked troublesome generals. Ultimately, Mattis should serve as a reminder that while military service is an honorable thing, it is not the sum of all human accomplishment.


  1. Posted January 8, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Becoming a specialist of any kind means molding oneself into a tool for generalist leaders to use. A good military man is a hammer and he thinks in a way appropriate to a hammer, and a good leader will use him for tasks appropriate for hammers, but any good leader must have an entire box full of tools to use.

    • Joseph S. Salemi
      Posted January 9, 2019 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      It’s what the French call “deformation professionelle” — the twisting of one’s mind in such a way as to suit the convenience of one’s occupation, but which disables the mind for wider and intellectually important tasks or perceptions.

      General Mattis’s job was not to argue with the Commander in Chief over policy issues. His job was to shut up and take orders. There’s a saying in the business world””Personnel is policy.” Its basic thrust is to say that you should never hire anyone who is unsympathetic to your basic policy. Only hire persons who will enthusiastically carry your policy out. And this includes members of the cabinet! Trump’s big mistake is to trust too many self-important schmucks who think that they have the right to make independent policy, regardless of what the President thinks and wants.

      • Posted January 10, 2019 at 12:27 am | Permalink

        Ah, but see, one of the great ‘achievements’ of Modernity is staffing the government with independent-minded, professional civil servants to prevent muh autocracy. In reality, it makes the government itself ungovernable – the president has very little power over these obstinate, unionized bureaucrats.

        This idea that they exist to check the president flows upwards into the political appointees like Mattis. However, in light of recent actions on the part of Bolton, I can conclude that Mattis did the honorable thing. He realized he couldn’t function as part of the Trump team and left, rather than Bolton who subverted Trump’s Syria pullout.

        • Joseph S. salemi
          Posted January 11, 2019 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          Nevertheless, Mattis made a nasty exit comment that undercut Trump’s policy, and which can now be used by the enemy (the Democrats). How “honorable” was that?

          A lot of these stupid generals aren’t happy unless they’re fighting a war, even if the war is against American interests and all common sense.

  2. Benjamin
    Posted January 9, 2019 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen edgelords like Andrew Anglin speculate that Gen/SoD Mattis endorsed all of the bad foreign policy decisions he did because someone (e.g., FBI, Mossad, AIPAC, etc) had something on him that they were blackmailing him with to get him to go along with a US foreign policy that benefitted Israel and other special interests.

    However, I think there’s a far simpler and less conspiracy-ey explanation.

    As Noam Chomaky once stated, to paraphrase: the ruling class of any given society is the most brainwashed segment of that society’s population– they make, promote, distribute, and are exposed to the most propaganda of any segment of the population, ergo, they’re also the most (self)brainwashed part of it.

    Remember when the mainstay of the alt-right brainwashed themselves into believing that Donald Trump was a crypto-WN, Furher 2.0, or Crusader-type figure? They spread this propaganda in an attempt to make use of “meme magic” and/or rustle leftist jimmies. And as a result, they eventually came to believe their own hyper-exaggerations (i.e., lies) due to the echo-chamber effect.

    Pretty sure James O’Meara’s recent expositions on the “New Thought” movement goes into this and similar phenomenons. Beyond the new-agey type of woo-woo as expoudned by the likes of works such as “The Secret”, the less sensationalistic core of the general theories as proposed by “meme magic” are correct: thoughts are powerful things and the placebo effect is often as strong, if not stronger, than the actual thing that a placebo purports to be.

  3. Lord Shang
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    The most intelligent men rarely go into the military anymore. And the US military is far more of a conformist socialist bureaucracy, where one advances based on NOT being a creative thinker and problem-solver, than a nimble war machine.

    And Mattis was basically himself one of those assholes to which he refers.

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