From the moment his nomination was hinted, Secretary of Defense James Mattis presented a rich canvas for the civil-military relations wonks and amateurs to ply their trade. There are no comparable moments in recent history where the role of the military — or, more specifically, former general officers — in U.S. politics, policy, and society was so widely and arduously debated. In his career, Mattis gave his mind and body and offered his life for his country; in the last two years, he involuntarily offered his name as an object lesson for those taking to the op-ed pages seeking more complexity — more, perhaps, than a “Mattisism” — on matters of peace and war, civilian and military, veteran and uniformed.
And then Mattis departed. Many scholars of civil-military relations continue and will continue to study his tenure and whether the exceptional Mattis was worth the exception to the law established in the foundations of the Department of Defense barring recent general officers from such roles. Jim Golby does a most admirable job dissecting these two years and how they shaped civil-military relations, for better and worse. But while there is merit in history and beauty in eulogy, the civil-military field would do well to assess the aftermath of “CHAOS” and consider where it goes next: Where has the balance of civil-military relations been reset? What precedents did Mattis, in his effort to preserve stability at all costs, establish? Where did the role of the secretary become that of the marine? As President Donald Trump’s trusted generals have all departed, do the authorities they were delegated remain in the hands of their less experienced successors?
And it’s not only the civil-military wonks who have homework. For two years, Mattis led the most trusted institution in America as the most trusted cabinet member. He was also held in high regard inside the Department of Defense as compared to his predecessors, particularly by uniformed personnel. As in all bureaucracies, his most thoughtless habits became bureaucratic law, as did his personal prejudices, his ideals, his discretion, the tasks he left in the inbox, and his unspoken hierarchy of advisors. And both in and out of government, it became common to assume that a general was all that would — or could — save us. Given the near-cult of personality Mattis represented, a smart successor and a wise Congress should closely examine the civil-military grooves Mattis left behind.
Read the full article in War on the Rocks.