Big Red Car here on a sunny Christmas Eve awaiting Christmas and the Prince of Peace which brings me to the subject of generals, politicians, and wars.
As a soldier (combat engineer officer), I spent a lot of time around generals. As a class of the species, they represent the top 0.1% of any year group of officers. The road to the top is a meritocracy and a very tough one. [Sure, there are some political generals, but as a general assessment they are the best of the best — if they remember to stay in their lane.]
Generals are at the top of their profession which is to wage war against the enemies of the United States and WIN.
The part about winning is an essential element in the General business.
In the American system, a General who functions as the top link in the chain of command is subordinate to a civilian leader. The Secretary of Defense is, obviously, subordinate to the President. The Commander-in-Chief of the United States is the President.
This is the way we have been since before we were a nation inasmuch as General George Washington reported to the Continental Congress (which did a lousy job of directing, funding, provisioning the Continental Army and the state militias who rallied to the revolutionary cause).
It is a good system in that war is often the last step in a failed diplomatic effort. Generals are neither politicians nor diplomats.
All of which brings me to the recent dust up between President Trump and Secretary of Defense Mattis, Mattis, of course, being a retired, four-star Marine General. [I like Mattis and enjoyed his recent speech at VMI, my alma mater.]
In case you have been living under a rock, General Mattis our Secretary of Defense recently resigned. Here is his resignation letter:
If you desire to be a well informed citizen, you owe it to yourself to read the letter.
I find the letter to be a preachy diatribe which is unworthy of a seasoned warrior such as General Mattis. That is, of course, my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
Decision Making in the military chain of command
A Defense Secretary is the President’s principal adviser on defense matters, which subsumes just the military. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the President’s military adviser though the Chairman is not a link in the chain of command.
The military is an organization which plans for the worst and hopes for the best. When it decides how to pursue a military objective — whether on the attack or defense — it engages in staff work to assess the best course of action to achieve the attainment of a specific objective.
Part of that staff work is often a healthy debate on how things might work out. As an example, when General of the Army Douglas MacArthur proposed the landing at Inchon during the Korean War, it was roundly criticized by the Pentagon and many others. But, he was the Mighty MacArthur and he rammed it through — marking himself as a military genius and his critics as naysayers. The landing — conducted by the Marines — was one of the most brilliant feats of arms. Ever.
Subsequently, MacArthur dismissed the likelihood of the Chinese entering the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans and watched as his army made a two pronged approach to the Yalu River (never, ever, ever separate your forces is drummed into lesser officers for their entire career thanks to the Little Bighorn and Gen Custer). That had a much different outcome, eventually leading President Truman to relieve General MacArthur of command.
Early in his campaign for President, Candidate Trump promised to end the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. This is something from which he never wavered. This was true when General Mattis decided to take the job as President Trump’s Secretary of Defense. He knew it going in.
Syria has been a conundrum for the United States since its beginning. Syria was an unrepentant combatant against our ally, Israel, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They were a Russian lackey state then and are a Russian lackey state now. [Egypt wisely lamented and entered into a decades long peaceful relationship.]
[As an aside, the Russians have a warm water port and airfields in the Middle East, so it is easy to understand their motivations.]
The current butcher running the show, Bashar al-Assad (son of the predecessor butcher), has been engaged in a civil war that was an outgrowth of the Arab Spring protests of 2011. He has killed more than 500,000 of his own people.
The US backed some rebels in a half-hearted way to oppose Assad, but never really went in hard and with our own military power. The CIA comes in for well-earned criticism for screwing this up. These rebels (a splinter group of Al Qaeda), who we armed, became the genesis of ISIS–the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
This bunch used social media and religious fundamentalism to rally fighters to their cause resulting in an army once estimated to be as large as 40,000 fighters controlling as much as 30,000 square miles of territory with an annual operating budget of $2,000,000,000.
From that high water mark emerged a Caliph–Abu Bakr al Baghdadi–and dreams of a Caliphate stretching from Iran through Iraq through Syria to the Mediterranean.
Today, depending upon whose numbers you believe, they are either a handful of surrounded fighters in 200 square miles of land in a corner of Syria or a resurgent terrorist force of 30,000 lurking in the shadows.
As to Syria proper, the Obama administration famously “red-lined” their use of chemical weapons and did nothing when the Syrians used chemical weapons against their enemies, civilians, men, women, and children.
President Trump has twice unleashed the power of the US Navy in deadly cruise missile strikes that knocked out 25% of the Syrian Air Force and that decapitated the chemical warfare infrastructure of the Syrians. President Trump promised to punish Syria and to destroy ISIS delivering on both of those promises. He is a promise keeper.
Total civilian casualties in Syria are estimated to be in excess of 500,000 while military losses are more than 200,000. Refugees number more than 11,000,000 with 5,600,000 fleeing the country and the balance displaced within.
In the current situation, you have the Syrians and the Russians fighting against any “legitimate” rebels (including folks the US once supported) and ISIS.
The US and partners including the Kurds and Iraq are also fighting against ISIS with as many as 2,000 US troops on the ground. The US provided massive air power and artillery as well as special operator leadership.
In December 2017, it was generally agreed that ISIS was no longer occupying any meaningful territory and had ceased to fight as an organized and effective force. The ISIS capital of Raqqa was taken by forces supported by the US. When you lose your capital, it is usually an important development.
Candidate Trump promised to pull the US out of Syria and Afghanistan as soon as the military situation signalled a worthy instant in time.
President Trump last week indicated that time had come. He caught the military establishment, the political establishment, and the media by surprise. It is said he gave American allies very little notice.
It would be fair to say that this action — long since promised by Candidate Trump — met with some skepticism from the Defense Department and precipitated Secretary Mattis’ decision to resign with him saying the President deserved someone in that position who supported his policies, the thinly veiled implication that Mad Dog Mattis was not that man. Boom!
President Trump has also been an ardent critic of “not telegraphing the US’ punch” and the surprise with which everyone was caught falls into that notion.
I think the resignation by Secretary of State Mattis was a punk move, meaning he has resigned because he found himself carrying out the policy of a President with which he did not agree. The time to have plumbed that depth was before he took the job when Candidate Trump/President-elect Trump spoke those same words.
Mattis’ letter — of which he already had 50 copies printed before he entered the Oval Office to chat with President Trump — is a political diatribe. It is a litany of grievances about decisions in which Secretary Mattis participated. If the yardstick held up to duty at that level is that the President has to provide a Secretary of Defense policies with which the Secretary firmly agrees — never should have taken the job.
Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice which is the law pertaining to active duty and retired military there is an Article 88 prohibition against using contemptuous language against the President (Commander-in-Chief). I do not suggest that Mattis’ letter violates that provision, but it does set a tone of unfair criticism of the Commander-in-Chief which is inconsistent with how the chain of command works, particularly in the military world.
This is why I categorize it as a punk move. I cannot imagine either General Dwight Eisenhower or General George Catlett Marshal writing such a letter and making such a dramatic, histrionic departure. There is a snowflake scent to it.
President Trump wisely took away Secretary Mattis’ platform to rail against the President by accelerating his departure to a week from today, 1 January 2019. Mattis had originally intended to stick around through 28 February 2019 and the media intended to canonize him solely because he opposed President Trump, that being the sole criteria for canonization in their minds.
Iraq, Syria, the War on Terror, Afghanistan
I want to make an original criticism of the military leadership at the General Officer level. First, please recall the high regard in which I hold them, but now listen to me when I say, “The Generals were responsible for assessing the threat, understanding the national security objective, making the battle plans, and winning these wars at which they have collectively failed for the last two decades.”
General Schwartzkopf took on the vaunted Republican Guard, handed them a barbed wire enema, and came home. Not that bunch, but the bunch of Generals since then.
I grade these wars as having been too long, too expensive, poorly Generaled, well fought at the troop level, and unwon.
We have been in Afghanistan for seventeen years — through three regimes of General officers and we are further from winning today than when we first joined the fray.
Presidents since George W Bush listened to Generals advise them how to win in Afghanistan for seventeen years — Bush, Obama, Trump — and we have not won.
The Generals have to own this outcome in Afghanistan and Syria.
Wars used to end when the enemy surrendered unconditionally, like when the Japs surrendered on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo harbor to end World War II in the Pacific.
Since then we have not concluded a war in such a fashion. Maybe because we had better Generals in those days who focused on defeating our enemies in detail, destroying our enemies’ army, occupying our enemies’ territory, and focusing on winning the war.
This current crop of Generals — Mattis included — are not the Generals of WWII. These Generals have fought fairly small asymmetrical warfare campaigns devoid of large operational challenges such as Normandy or Okinawa. Hey, listen up, this crop of Generals didn’t fight large standing armies. They fought bands of terrorists and rebels who did not have air power, massive artillery, sound supply arrangements, and a competent office corps.
Most of the conflict in Syria and Afghanistan is patrol level, platoon or company level engagements in which the American forces have enjoyed total air superiority, incredible artillery power, and domination of the communication umbrella.
And, still, we have not defeated our enemies in the same fashion as WWII.
When President Trump follows through on his recent announcements withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan, the bleeding stops and the wars end — for the United States.
The cost of war
War is a very expensive proposition in human capital, in financial capital, and in diverted attention.
Wars are deadly and result in massive civilian and military deaths. Iraq cost the US 4,424 KIA, 31,952 WIA while Afghanistan cost 2,372 KIA and 20,320 WIA.
Stop for a second. Imagine yourself the father or mother of one of those KIAs or WIAs. How does that make you feel?
The total cost of Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan is estimated at more than $5,000,000,000 — five TRILLION dollars.
The USA went to the moon in the Apollo program for $25.4 billion dollars.
Like Vietnam, the Middle Eastern wars are a huge diversion of American energy, attention, and political infighting.
Bottom line it, Big Red Car
As a veteran, as a graduate of a military academy, I applaud the recognition that the US is done in Syria and that the current force structure of the directly involved countries is sufficient to finish off ISIS.
It is time to come home from Syria and Afghanistan because we no longer have a strategic interest in those conflicts, the Generals have not provided us with a clear path to victory, the cost in blood and treasure is too high, and all wars must end.
One other small note — the United States is on the verge of total energy independence. This bears on the strategic importance of the Middle East. Very important consideration.
Bottom line — Secretary of Defense James N Mattis should never have taken the job if he couldn’t commit to the policy initiative of ending the war in Syria quickly. It was a punk move on his part to politicize his departure. As a General, he never gave us a path to victory and he and his fellow Generals own that failing.