Retired Marine General Jim Mattis (AKA Chaos, AKA Mad Dog, AKA The Warrior Monk) spoke recently with a small group of junior officers and enlisted veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The discussion covered a range of topics - giving recent combat vets the chance to ask questions that aren't appropriate in more public settings.
General Mattis asked not to be quoted directly to avoid stirring up any controversy. Here are some of the main topics that were covered and summaries of the discussions that followed.
On Washington DC
With regard to politics, process is more important than people. In America's case, bad process is trumping good people. The folks in our nation’s capital may mean well, but good intentions don't stop them from screwing up time after time. Progress is non-existent, and power increasingly resides in the hands of Congressional staffers, who are neither elected nor accountable to the public.
Political dysfunction manifests itself in strange ways; an example being the types of issues we all choose to discuss. The truly serious - even existential - problems such as the national debt, mass incarceration, and failing K-12 systems are all swept under the rug. Meanwhile news shows are full of pundits discussing the possibility of Speaker Boehner using a tanning bed, or the First Lady's fashion.
The civil-military divide
A lot of Americans cannot identify with the military.
All the "Thank you for your service" and "You're a hero!" sentiment hides a growing unfamiliarity with the men and women in uniform. It's disingenuous to thank someone when you have no idea what they do, or how they do it.
General Mattis has often been quoted saying "We're the Good Guys, not the Perfect Guys." That's another way of saying that people in the military are human and make mistakes. Unreasonable expectations for the military (we're all heroes, after all) leads to overreactions when problems arise.
Part of this is cultural. There is a growing divide between civil society and the military that is protecting it. The resulting misunderstandings were both less frequent and less severe when Congress was comprised of over 75% veterans in the 1970s, as opposed to fewer than 25% today. Back then, the majority of the country had been through the Great Depression and at least one World War. Compare that to modern America, where most shared experiences are delivered through Netflix.
Without a firm grasp of the military and its mission, civilians devote their attention to the things they understand - mostly social issues, such as sexuality. This also bleeds into legal action, where civilians demanding punishment often don't understand that the Uniform Code of Military Justice takes precedence.
Were Iraq and Afghanistan worth it?
Every combat vet has asked themselves this question. The problem is, this is actually two questions - one about personal contribution and the other about national strategy.
For veterans, "Was it worth it?" should be intensely personal. The focus should be on experiences while deployed and since returning home. What sorts of relationships were formed at war? How deep and rewarding were they? How have you stayed in touch with your buddies since returning home? Have you been able to integrate into civil society in a healthy and sustainable way?
You have some control over the answer to these questions, even if doesn't feel like it a lot of the time. This is where the ultimate judgment must reside for each of us. We claim - or lose - that mantle through our actions.
At a strategic level, the question involves a different set of considerations. Were our national security interests advanced? Is America stronger? Is America safer? What about the rest of the world? How much blood and treasure were spent?
It's hard to answer these questions.
We tend to focus on the Vietnam War as our example of poorly formed and executed strategy, but the same can be said of every major war in the 20th century.
World War I was called "The Great War" because no one thought the world could equal its brutality and scope. The ridiculous treaties and ill-conceived League of Nations sowed the seeds for an even "greater" war less than thirty years later. World War II may have defeated several totalitarian regimes, but it left much of two continents under repressive Communist governments and the entire world shook in fear of a nuclear apocalypse. The Korean War also failed to fully roll back Communist expansionism and has defined the peninsula's development in the aftermath.
The Navy As America's “Big Stick”
There are certain things only the United States can do. We have the only military that can project power globally, and much of that rides on our naval fleets. The ability to reach out and touch anyone anywhere should not be underestimated.
The Navy is different than the Army. If thousands of troops are flown into an airfield near another country, that’s considered preparation for an invasion. However if thousands of troops sail into a port, that’s just routine operations. And - while I've never been a ruthless dictator - I imagine there is something pretty chilling about seeing a carrier group floating less than an artillery round's range from your capitol.
Such a show of force is a calculated move intended to remind anyone who happens to have forgotten that the United States runs the world. And the Navy is our “Big Stick.” These gentle nudges are designed to open up diplomatic space and avoid other, less desirable, means of negotiation.
Can the United States stay on top?
The last century - roughly the period where America has been dominant on the world stage - has been the greatest in human history. Despite wars and natural disasters (which we had already), there are now more people living in relative peace and comfort than ever before.
Make no mistake - America did this. Sure we had help from allies, but it was our government, citizenry, and way of life that catalyzed this explosion of prosperity. Now we are being told that the nation's strength is waning, that we no longer have what it takes, and that someone else will take the reins.
Of course, plenty of Americans don't accept this narrative and a lot of them are wearing a uniform or took one off in the not-too-distant past. We embody the American Ideals of hard work, dedication, and personal initiative. We understand our rights, but also the responsibilities that cannot be separated from them.
Are we different from others?
Yes, in the sense that our formative years were spent walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
We know when and how to roll up our sleeves.
Reviving America and ensuring the world's prosperity are worthy goals. Our generation will underwrite the continued expansion of individual liberty, civil rights, and economic opportunity that made the last hundred years, if not a perfect era, at least an American one.