On Oct. 17, I attended the Al Smith Dinner, an annual charity gala in New York City. Political big-shots mingle with media celebrities and corporate executives. It is always an entertaining experience. This year’s keynote address was by retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, President Donald Trump’s erstwhile secretary of defense. Trump once praised Mattis profusely, but more recently has made him the object of his scorn, calling him “the world’s most overrated general.” (Full disclosure: I know Jim Mattis and can report that he is among the finest officers I have met since I first donned a uniform 53 years ago.)
Although Mattis has a well-developed and wry sense of humor, he is judicious about using it.
Although Mattis has a well-developed and wry sense of humor, he is judicious about using it. His public persona leaves one with the correct impression that he is the consummate professional warrior. But at the Al Smith Dinner, he chose to deploy his weapons of erudition, surprising and amusing the hundreds of attendees with a rare counterattack directed at the president's "overrated" insult. “I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress,” Mattis said in his keynote speech. “So, I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals.”
The barb was doubly surprising given Mattis’ previous reluctance to criticize his former commander in chief, a decision that has garnered its fair share of criticism. But there’s a reason for Mattis’ reluctance. Generals in Mattis’ position, even those who are retired, do not criticize the sitting president. Until this administration, Mattis’ joke would have been unthinkable. And yet, Mattis is merely the latest in a line of commanding officers who have recently rebuked the president’s decisions. This collective decision to go against such entrenched military traditions should give their warnings even more weight. When the generals are speaking out, something is really wrong.
Earlier in October, retired Adm. William McRaven, also a very highly respected warrior, was even more direct in an opinion piece in The New York Times, in which he asserted that our nation is under attack from within.
“Last week I attended two memorable events that reminded me why we care so very much about this nation and also why our future may be in peril,” McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote. “But, beneath the outward sense of hope and duty that I witnessed at these two events, there was an underlying current of frustration, humiliation, anger and fear that echoed across the sidelines. The America that they believed in was under attack, not from without, but from within.”
Very early on, service members are taught that the success of our national defense rests on the strength of the chain of command.
Very early on, service members are taught that the success of our national defense rests on the strength of the chain of command. Yes, one can argue and even disagree with the boss. Indeed, commanders routinely insist on critical input from their subordinates. But once the decision is made, unless the order is immoral or illegal, it must be obeyed.
In America’s long history, we have made many strategic errors in the use of the military instrument of power. We strenuously avoided getting involved in World War II, and as a result, millions of people were slaughtered before we finally answered the call. Fighting in Vietnam, while supporting its corrupt and inept government, was a deadly folly. Invading Iraq was a huge mistake, and the error of doing so has not yet been fully realized.
But even in these cases, criticism of the national command authority by members of the military was, at most, muted. Four-star generals were certainly not directing criticism specifically at the commander in chief. Not so today. Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria seems to have been the final straw for several leaders. Also in October, retired Gen. John Allen, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, told CNN the events in Syria were "completely foreseeable" and that the U.S. had “greenlighted” the crisis. "This is what happens when Trump follows his instincts and because of his alignment with autocrats,” Allen noted.
Last year, retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal went so far as to call Trump “immoral.”
Over at the Atlantic, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, former commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) who helped lead the fight against the Islamic State militant group, wrote that Trump’s Syria “abandonment threatens to undo five years’ worth of fighting against ISIS and will severely damage American credibility and reliability in any future fights in which we need strong allies.” Even more three- and four-star generals voiced their frustration with Trump to Mark Bowden in a separate piece, some on the record and others off.
When warriors of the caliber of Mattis and McRaven or Votel and Allen publicly reprove the president, citizens may properly conclude that our national security decision-making is truly dysfunctional and that the nation is dangerously at risk.
To be sure, from the very beginning of his tenure, the president has given critics plenty of reasons — both stylistic and substantive — to be excoriated. But, as in the past, we have not heard dissent from warriors. Until now.
Perhaps the proximate impetus for the military’s disaffection was the president’s latest decision, to withdraw precipitously almost all American forces from Syria. For the United States, there has been nothing positive that has resulted from this misguided choice, and all the strategic gains have accrued to Turkey, Syria, Russia, Iran and ISIS.
On the other hand, maybe this decision’s effect on these officers’ thinking is more wide-ranging. We are now in the unenviable and dangerous position of having convinced both friends and adversaries that we are withdrawing from the world stage. Mattis, for one, would gladly suffer a lifetime of adolescent, ad hominem criticism if the result were the safety, security and prosperity of his country.