By Matthew Wadler:
Secretary of Defense (SecDef) is a position of great power and responsibility. This figure is responsible not only for the nation’s security, but also for the health, wellbeing, and motivation of the service members he commands. According to the Department of Defense (DoD) website, “The Secretary of Defense is the principal defense policy advisor to the president. Under the direction of the president, the secretary exercises authority, direction, and control over the Department of Defense.”
Given that this position stands as the voice of the military and proponent for the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, it would seem somewhat obvious that it would naturally avail itself to a former war-fighter. Yet, this is not the case, as the overwhelming majority of appointees have had virtually no such experience.
With that being said, I do not believe that military experience is a requirement or a precursor to excellence. I remember once when I was a lieutenant sitting at the motor pool talking with several of my peers. We were speaking specifically about prior service officers vs. ROTC/Academy officers. Enlisted often look upon prior service with a bit more respect due to the fact that they have an understanding of what it is like to be a soldier, as well as the pain bad leadership can bring.
Then, one of our West Point graduates said something that really changed my perception of experience: to paraphrase, “I don’t need to dig a foxhole to know that it sucks. What I need is to know that it can save a soldier’s life and make them do it because it is the right thing to do.”
Experience matters, but it is not the only important factor. One cannot dismiss wisdom and competence, because without them, experience amounts to nothing more than fireside stories.
Several years later, I was at the Captain’s Career course for adjutant generals. As a branch, we did not get many opportunities to command, and I had been presented with a chance to command a recruiting company. I was speaking with my senior instructor, and he told me that I should never turn down a command. “Not only will it set you apart from your peers, but one day you are going to be in a position to set policy for soldiers,” he said, “and being in command gives you a perfect opportunity to see how policies affect both command and the soldiers you are responsible for. You can draw upon that knowledge later to temper what is needed with what is right.” In essence, he was defining a common Army mantra—“mission first, people always.”
If a military veteran is not appointed to the SecDef billet, then there are two absolutes that cannot be substituted: First, the individual must be open-minded and foster an environment where open and honest feedback is not only encouraged, but demanded. Second, and just as important, the appointee must surround themselves with generals who speak directly and with absolute integrity without concern for their careers. Military leadership, especially during times of active combat, teaches lessons in leadership that have no equal or substitute. There is no greater burden than knowing your decisions—or lack thereof—led to lost lives under your command. It is this burden that must guide the decisions made at the level of the DoD.
I remember the Army under SecDef Dick Cheney. It was a simple concept—train as you fight and train to kill. It was understood that war was a bloody and awful endeavor. We trained to kill the enemy efficiently and without remorse. The intent was to dissuade the enemy from wanting to engage us in combat. The fear that an Army projects into the psyche of its foe does more damage than the destruction it can inflict. Sun Tzu in the Art of War makes this case: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Then, the SecDef changed; Les Aspin took over for a short time, followed by William Perry. It was at this point that there was a tangible change to the warrior spirit in the Army. We changed from a warrior ethos to that of a policing mentality. Our missions became peace-keeping and monitoring actions.
It was this attitude that emboldened Bin Laden to believe he could bring America to its knees.
In 2004, then-SecDef Donald Rumsfeld was ambushed with a question from a National Guard soldier preparing to deploy to Iraq. The soldier asked what was being done to address a shortage of armor and equipment for their upcoming deployment. Rumsfeld answered with, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” While I agree with this statement in principle, it is only half an answer. The other half of the answer lingers in his failures (along with those of the four subsequent SecDefs). The second part of that answer should have been, “As the boss, I will not rest until every military member is outfitted with the proper equipment and the military is funded to ensure operational readiness of all vehicles and airframes.”
Clearly, this has not occurred. The military is in the midst of an equipment and personnel crisis the likes of which it has never seen before, yet seemingly little is being done to address the issue. I do not know if this blame lies solely in the SecDef and his recent predecessors, or the advisors that surrounded them. But I do know that it is the SecDef’s exclusive responsibility to ensure that the forces under his command are properly outfitted is their responsibility, and not one has succeeded in this endeavor.
This is where General James Mattis comes into the picture. He has been nominated to take over a department that has become completely politicized overseeing a military stretched to its breaking point and suffering from years of social experimentation. His leadership will be tested with this new post, but his nomination gives the military new hope.
During my career, I was blessed with some of the best leaders our military could produce. I remember attending an officer professional development once with a particular general officer about the role of the commander’s staff personnel. We were having a very open discussion on the importance of honest feedback to the commander. He said that he had no tolerance for cowards who were afraid to voice their dissent to his ideas, and would often have subordinates come into his office, close the door, and fight it out with him over a policy or decision he had made. The only rule was that when they left his office, they were on the same sheet of paper. Sometimes they would win him over, but oftentimes he would win them over. Either way, as the boss, it was always his decision.
The point is that his subordinates felt comfortable expressing their concerns, and he listened to them (I confirmed this with his aide, who had a few stories that won’t make it into this article that backed this up). While I don’t know General Mattis personally, I know that he carries this same willingness to listen and adapt. This is a trait that only confident and capable leaders are imbued with.
Having been a combat leader during multiple deployments, he also comes in with the tempered experience that the military is desperately looking for. This experience gives him a clarity of sight for what is needed that would be hard for an advisor to replicate.
A perfect example of this would be his famous quotes: statements like, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you [mess] with me, I’ll kill you all.”
Or, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
His voice is the kind that gives the military a clear indication that he will bring us back to a warfighting spirit. He is far from some Rambo-like figure, however. He is also an incredibly well-read and exceptionally intelligent individual. His ability to coalesce forces and bend others to his desires will serve him exceptionally in an age of political divisiveness.
There is one factor that makes Mattis an exceptional pick, and it has nothing to do with his time in the Marines. After his retirement, General Mattis wrote letters to the parents of every Marine who died under his command. He then visited those who would agree to meet with him to honor their children for their sacrifice to our nation. He did this without fanfare or media attention.
This type of leader that our military deserves.
I don’t know what kind of SecDef Mattis will make. I only know that the type of leader who views the death of every Marine under his command with the same reverence as General Mattis does will ensure that every decision he makes is tempered with the welfare of his subordinates in mind.
Sun Tzu stated, “Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.” It is clear that this is how General Mattis viewed his Marines and in turn how they viewed him.
It is also clear that with General Mattis as SecDef, the troops will finally have a leader who understands not only their mission requirements, but the cost in human life that goes along with it.
Matthew Wadler is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army Veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and Veteran communities.