Episode 55: General Jim Mattis: Reality is a Terrible Adversary

Opening Season 3 of the podcast, Peter Roberts talks to General (retd) James Mattis, US Marine Corps, former US Secretary of Defense, about the military as guardians of values, war as a chameleon, celebrating mavericks, and attitude as the primary weapons system of successful militaries.

Play the episode

  • Peter Roberts: Welcome to The Western Way of War. This is a weekly podcast that tries to understand the issues around how to fight and succeed against adversaries in the 2020s. I'm Peter Roberts, Director of Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute on Whitehall, and every week, I'll talk to a guest about the western way of warfare. Has it been successful? Is it fit for task today and how might it need to adapt in the future? We open the third season of this podcast with retired US Marine Corps General James Mattis, a name known well to the audience, who started in the infantry and served more than 40 years in the US military, ending up as a Combatant Commander for CENTCOM as well as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation in NATO. Beyond that, he was selected and served as the US Secretary of Defence during the rather challenging period. Europeans might describe his approach as, I guess, his outlook as somewhat hawkish and aggressive in European standards, but it's one that relishes intellectual challenged and informed descent. At his heart, you get the feeling that Jim Mattis is a coalition builder and a big fan of alliances. Now there are more stories, fables, myths and legends about General Mattis, but one that sticks in the mind more than others is Nate Flick's story in One Bullet Away that talks about finding the General down a foxhole with a couple of Marines in 2003. Despite all his other responsibilities, duties and command calls, Call Sign Chaos was living one of his key leadership tenets, caring. The other two are conviction and competence. On leadership, it's worth explaining that Jim Mattis subdivides leadership into three levels.


    Direct, executive, which is two- star and above, and strategic, which is four- star and above. I hope we can do justice to all three of those over the course of this episode. To many, General Mattis is the archetypal solider scholar. A man who always has fresh reading matter close to hand. Maybe new, maybe revisiting older classics. So I'm intrigued as to what he's going to make of our first question. So, General Jim Mattis, what does the western way of war mean to you?


    Jim Mattis: Well, thank you, Peter, for having me on. I think these kinds of programmes are especially useful right now, as the western democracies try to sort out what kind of world they want and what kind of world they don't want, what they stand for and, just as importantly, what they stand absolutely against, or what they will not stand for. To me, the western way of war is encapsulated inside the western values. The western values here, just for definition reasons, certainly you look at NATO and you see them reflected, but also you can go to Australia, New Zealand, Japan. I mean this is not just the west anymore. It's a western way of thinking about democracy, about people ruling themselves vice (ph 03.05) authoritarian and totalitarian models that we've seen so many times in the past. So the western way of war is caught up in society's view of what is the role of war? What should be the primacy of war? Should we turn to it early or late? Should we use it for certain purposes but not for other purposes? Conquering, for example, other people. That definitely is not part of it. So it's mostly a values-oriented framework, within which I look at the western way of war. You mentioned in your opening remarks, has it been successful? Well I would only tell you that democracies still stand. Against all the odds, against all the naysayers, the sceptics and the cynics, the democracy of these wonderfully imperfect experiments in governments of the people, by the people, for the people still stand. That brings us to one fundamental point. The role of the militaries are to ensure the survival of our values, of our democratic values, of just and responsive governments.


    We have no divine right to victory on the battlefield, so for those who practice this, who are the guardians of values that we hold dear, that grew out of the enlightenment, that grew out of the renaissance period. Today, we carry on with that requirement that we can afford survival, but it's going to take sacrifice on the part of our militaries to ensure, in fact, the western way of war continues to defend those values. Back over to you, Peter.


    Peter Roberts: Coming back to those values, would you accept the idea that our values in society have changed? There's no doubt the western way of war has changed. You know, we went from a reliance on mass and low-tech. We went to, you know, through airline battle to shock and awe, to the surge. We looked more and more at precision. We looked at greater technology, we looked at greater information, we became more casualty averse. We liked less risk in many ways. It feels as though those values have changed somewhat. Naturally, they would evolve, right? I mean, I think you're right. You could find those tenets right back in the renaissance, the enlightenment. But they are changing. They do morph. They do evolve with society, right? That feels like we're continuing to see that evolution in how militaries fight today. Would you agree with that?


    Jim Mattis: The military and how they fight evolve all the time. They reflect their society's values. They reflect their leadership. They incorporate and integrate, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so, new technologies, new tactics and that sort of thing. As that dead German fellow Clausewitz said, you know, war is a chameleon and militaries are chameleons. They adapt to their circumstances all the time. Although at least today a fundamental nature of war has not changed, so you find many of the leadership tenets and many of the strategic framing principles remain somewhat unchanged through these changing times. That's because one is the fundamental nature of war. The other is its character. Character constantly changing, nature less so.


    Peter Roberts: So, on that, I'm fascinated, because I've heard you talk before about we're currently at an inflection point, changing. Whilst the strategic framing principles, which I think is a really useful term that you just used there, but whilst those principles might be the same, there is this idea that we're at an inflection point. Whether it's because we're in democracies, whether it's because our values are changing, lots of people are talking about this inflection point. More and more, I hear people referring to this because of technology, but it strikes me I've never heard you talk about an inflection point because of technology. Do you think technology plays a core part in driving change, or do you think it's something else?


    Jim Mattis: Well, there are times in the world when the technology seems to be rather stable. I mean, if you wanted to call them ships of the line in the 1700s and 1800s or battleships or dreadnoughts in the late 1800s-1900s, we were still talking about basically how do you get big ships with big guns to out-range and out-fire the enemy? Then along came the air-plane and suddenly technology took it in a totally different direction and the dreadnoughts of the past were basically more targets than they were effectively military instruments. So we're always in times when the case of technological change adapts to the larger issues. I would just point out here that for thousands of years, the poets, the philosophers, eventually the lawmakers were in charge of how we integrated things. You integrated them more slowly. Technology changed slowly and look at us today where the folks in Silicon Valley are out in front of the poets, the philosophers, the regulators, the legislators and they're creating capabilities that we could not have dreamed of, or few dreamed of, even a few short years ago. So that's why some people say the inflection point now is sharper and perhaps outpacing society's ability to incorporate these new technologies in ways that maintain, I would just say, support of the human endeavour of life-giving results. In some cases, in many cases, it's a double-edged sword. The technology brings forward something very positive. We can develop vaccines at breakneck speed today and yet we could also create bioweapons at the same speed.


    So we've got to look at this as a different time. You cannot address the challenges of today using the legislative pace of the past. Now democracies have proven to be very, very agile at times, but so do fascists, so do totalitarians, so do authoritarians. So we're going to have to assume that this idea, the values we defend, are going to have to embrace the times in which we live. That means we're going to have to use technology to reinforce what we do. Not to be a straitjacket that we find ourselves tied in knots over.


    Peter Roberts: I always get in trouble for this, because I would always still prefer the poets and philosophers to be ahead of the technology, right, and people get very angry with me for expressing those views. They want technology to run off. From what you're saying, it doesn't seem that we (TC 00:10:00) cam hold it back, nor should we, in the competitive environment we're in, right? We just have to accept that either the poets and philosophers get faster, or we have to leave them behind and do some stuff retrospectively.


    Jim Mattis: I think you're hitting the nail squarely on the head. Reality is a terrible adversary. If you take on the reality of technological change at this high speed right now, the technology is going to get even further out in front if you grudgingly go along, trudging behind it, saying, 'It's not fair. It's getting out there too far. It's too fast.' So reality is we're going to have to adapt. Now the thing is, the processes inside democracies can become crustified (ph 10.43), cemented in, even when they aren't necessarily fundamental to the will of the people to be responsive. So you do have to adapt the processes. Something I've learned over many years with big organisations, sometimes a quarter of a million troops and all, if you have bad processes, and you mix with good people those bad processes, the bad processes will win nine out of ten. So you're going to have to adapt your processes and legislatures and democracies. We're going to have to speed up and integrate more with each other in this globalised world. As the World War Two generation said, coming home from World War Two to America, 'It's a crummy world' and, like it or not, we're part of it. So we're going to have to engage more, is the bottom line. We're going to have to engage more. We're going to have to come up with solutions that take into account more conflicting interests. It can be done. Look at post-Napoleonic Europe to see something similar in the more political realm, but change is change. There are ways to embrace change but fighting it right now would be futile.


    Peter Roberts: It's interesting because in your background, in the Corps, there is a history of people who embrace radical and fast-paced change, right? I mean, you know, whether it was Brute Krulak or the adoption of manoeuvre wholescale, way before anyone else in other militaries were going for it, there is this idea at its heart that the Corps is always striving to look for the next framework. The next big thing, the next moment that it needs to adapt to. Do you think that that has been inbred in right from the start? Right from the time back in ROTC, you know, that this is at your core? It's finding this part of adaptability and pushing it forward?


    Jim Mattis: Yes, you know, the Marine Corps could be the most regimented and close-minded force in the world. It doesn't have a service song, it has a hymn. It's been compared a cult, maybe even a religion, that sort of thing. But a couple of points. Beneath its rather crisp uniforms and its Prussian haircuts, I have found that it tolerates, even celebrates, mavericks more than many of the places I've been since leaving the Marine Corps business. Academia. It's been quite interesting to see it, to look now back at my experience in the Marine Corps for what it was. I think the Navel character of it is one of the things that precludes it from getting too rigid in its thinking. Another thing is you've got a required reading list for all new Marines, Privates and Second Lieutenants. They all have to read a half a dozen books. So you start out with mental models and we all need them for how we're going to perform our roles in the world. We may construct them out of movies, or books or biographies. The Marine Corps uses history and biographies. Then when you get promoted to Corporal or Captain, to Sergeant or Major, you get a new reading list. You make General, you go in, you look at those new stars on your collars in the mirror and out comes the hand right through the mirror with another 25 books now you have to read, with many multi-syllable words from Henry Kissinger and all. The point is that you always can look around a table and give Marines a model of what we are going to do or not do, what worked or didn't work on a similar situation in the past. So you're always, to put in field artillery terms, shifting from a known location intellectually.


    But the idea too of manoeuvre warfare when it was brought in was that you always focussed more on the adversary than you do on yourself. That does a lot of things to an organisation that unleashes the two qualities you need most. Initiative and aggressiveness. That's what you look for in your young NCOs, your young petty officers, junior officers. Do they have the initiative and the aggressiveness, and then do you train them to practice that judgement so you can delegate authority down? I think that under that condition, institutions get the behaviour they reward. In the Marine Corps, you are rewarded for many things that took doctrine. You had to know the doctrine but you could not fall back as that's the only way to do it. You had to shift from that. We weren't proud of any amateurs that didn't know their doctrine and simply winged it. That wouldn't pass muster. But understanding the difference between a mistake made when you're trying to carry out a Commander's intent and a lack of discipline was critical. I made mistakes at every rank. Had an Army Major who at Fort Sill or Fort Leavenworth was doing a study of my career. Came to see me at Stanford. I said, 'First of all, son, you've got to get out more if that's what your studying, because certainly there's something more interesting than that.' He informed me as he went through my career, and he'd done a pretty job. He said, 'Are you aware you got in trouble of some kind at every rank except one?' I was kind of irritated that I'd actually missed, you know, and how did that happen? But here's the thing. What did the Marine Corps do each time I made those mistakes?


    They promoted me. They knew it was my way of learning what right looks like. They weren't lapses in discipline. They were mistakes made trying to push the envelope. So I think institutions that reward that behaviour stay out of these intellectual straitjackets that have too often burdened some militaries when they have to confront change.


    Peter Roberts: It's really interesting because when you look at that and you go back to, you know, right back to the start of the Corps and the first World War One engagement, you compare how the Corps behaved in (inaudible 16.53) compared to Pershing or Haig or Pétain, who were rather restrictive in how they thought about it. You could almost feel the manoeuvre approach that was in the Marines at that stage, this idea that we will not retreat. That we will always move forward. That this was us, you know. For very good reasons. The other generals had their reasons for being there but it felt like the USMC were behaving, at that stage, very differently. I think you've said before that, you know, the heart of-, (mw 17.22) lies at the core of every single Marine, right?


    Jim Mattis: Absolutely. You know, I think too, what you see there is a belief in the Marines that number one, your greatest honour is to fight alongside a fellow Marine. Number two, every Marine's a rifleman, no matter if they're flying fighter jets or they're supply guys. But most importantly it's their attitude is their primary weapons system. So when you are putting that together, you have to look back. Where did that come from? I think a lot of it, again, has to do with Naval service. When you get landed on beaches, you either win or you're dead. It's that simple. Nothing like that to clarify your thinking that you must be very aggressive, you must move forward. That's the initiative of every young sailor and Marine in the landing force is absolutely critical. So I think what you're looking at is an institution that has no institutional confusion about its role in the world. That clarity alone brings a co-equal status between a Marine, whether he be a Private first class or he's a General. They see themselves as co-equal in carrying out this ethos.


    Peter Roberts: What's interesting is when you talk about that and then you put it within the context of the alliance structure, where you can identify that with the Corps. You can identify that in parts of the US Army, certain divisions. You can identify parts of that with parts of the British Army or the Royal Navy or wherever else, but it's hard to match that exactly against lots of elements that you'd find in the coalition. I'm aware when you get up the chain you find that you have very different systems of operating across different militaries, right? So when you're running a coalition operation, you find that whoever from NATO doesn't want to play this part of the rules, and doesn't believe in that part, and don't have this, it's one of the weaknesses of any alliance, right? Is actually trying to put this together, trying to marry a core feeling of values, if you like, that they can fight together. Yet somehow you manage it. I mean, you experienced that when you were Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. It was one of those big moments, wasn't it, for you?


    Jim Mattis: Well it was but really because you're a Naval service, my first Lieutenant and Captain years in the Marines were spent on six different shipboard deployments, some as long as nine, ten months. You're always in somebody else's country. You learn to do things. When in Rome, you know, do them as the Romans did them. I would bring up that Naval services cannot solve (TC 00:20:00) a lot of problems with mass. So often times the Marines find it easier to work alongside allies who don't have all the capabilities of the US Army and the capacity of the US Air Force. In other words, you can only carry so much stuff on the ships. You can never carry everything you want, so you have to make decisions. Everything's got to count. When we move in with some other force, we don't feel like we're some so much larger force. I realise the US Marine Corps is larger than the British Army, so it's a matter of scale but once you're out at sea with the landing forces on a half dozen ships like I've been, you don't have a sense of this is going to be solved simply by adding more to the mix. You're going to have to figure it out and intellectually outclass that adversary. We do remember, we were brought up on this, the three words you must always remember if you want to win on the battlefield. I've had the privilege of fighting many times for my country. Not once did I fight in an all American formation. Those three words are allies, allies, allies. Nations with allies drive nations without them (mw 21.15). It's that simple. History is a wonderful teacher here. So the role often times of US Forces, and certainly of Marines, was to bring out the manhood in an alliance.


    To make people feel confident that this air-ground team that could be brought anywhere by the US Navy could break through to you and be with you if you're in trouble. Think of Kuwait here. It can reinforce you. It can cause the enemy to spend an awful lot of time on defence in order to defend a whole lot of places, because it's such a mobile force. I think that one of the responsibilities of our young flag officers and whether they're French or Norwegian or American or British or Italian, is how do you take an alliance where forces have different capabilities and instead of seeing that as a weakness, see that as an asset? You play each to their own strengths. Here's the word I would give to any of the young officers from the democracies who are listening to your programme. We with malice and forethought are not going to give you the authority that you need and want in order to make this happen on purely authoritative, 'I'm giving you orders to do it.' You are going to have to have a very powerful force of persuasive personality there that allows you to persuade people, that allows you to find the common ground. That allows you to see the strengths of a force that doesn't look like yours, train like yours, talk like yours and use them for their strengths. We're going to expect great things and neither history nor your commanders, your political leadership will accept difficult as the reason for your failure. You're to figure it out, you're to build teamwork and if you think it's all new, take a look at Winston Churchill's study of one of his ancestors there in the fight.


    Look at what Wellington faced in terms of trying to weld together allied forces. No sucking your thumb. Just get on with it, figure it out, but you can do it. But you're going to have to look at things with a very un-regimented perspective and play people to their strengths.


    Peter Roberts: I guess that's the other part about alliance operations and this Naval way of thinking, as you talk about it, is the decision making in coalitions is very different. You've done this at all levels, across your three levels of leadership, direct, executive and strategic. You know, you've covered it across the three. It's a very different way of having to make decisions in this collaborative way. A lot of people talk about this as being watered down to the lowest common denominator, right? To operate at the pace of the slowest. To operate at the level at which you can gain sufficient consensus, but do you buy into that? Or do you think there's a different way of operating and allowing multiple speeds?


    Jim Mattis: It's the trigonometry level of warfare. As Winston Churchill, a guy I'm so proud of quoting because he's smart, yes he put it, 'The only thing,' I think he said, 'harder than fighting with allies is fighting without allies.' If you read the books written about Eisenhower in World War Two, you'd think he spent more time making peace between the Americans, the British, the French, the Polish than he spent fighting Mr Hitler. It's interesting to watch what real leaders are capable of. Look back at Alexander the Great and see how he welded an army together. Look at George Washington. We have this terribly difficult, nasty argument with King George III, and it turns into a revolution. Yet, the whole point of the revolution is we're free men. We don't take orders from anybody. How did he, with French advisors, with Prussian advisors, Polish advisors, British advisors, take an army of free men, guys from South Carolina, who spoke in such a funny way they couldn't understand the guys from Boston? The watermen from Delaware said, 'Thanks very much but I float my own boat. I'm a fisherman. Don't give me orders.' Then the Virginia Grandees who think that, 'We should be in charge of everything,' and find they're not going to be under Washington. How did he do it? He's the most boring leader I've ever studied, but what he does time after time is he listens and he doesn't just listen by not talking. He listens with the willingness to be persuaded, frankly. Then he learns from them how they see the world. That shows respect. He's not into judgements yet.


    He's listening, he's learning, he's curious. Then he finds a way to help them. At Valley Forge you might find socks for your troops whose feet are freezing. In other case, you may just, say, give empathetic reinforcement. 'I know you can do it. I'm confident in you. You will pull this off.' This way, and then he leads. Listen, learn, help, lead. That's the way you put coalitions together. That's the way you find the common ground or create it. That's the way you let people sign up for what they know they can do. For example, I'm in Kandahar airfield and this is right after 9/11 in 2001. It's December and we've been joined there by a dozen other Armed Forces and countries militaries. I get in from my Army Commander in Kuwait a big thick order with some aerial photos and I call in everybody around the table. I throw the aerial photos there in front of them and I don't command any of these folks except the US Marines. I say, 'Okay, there's bad guys up here. They want us to go after them up in the high country, up near the border.' So all the leaders are looking and it looks like a scene out of the bar scene in Star Wars, all these different uniforms. The first guy to speak up was the Australians. No surprise, the SAS say, 'We've been up there. We can do the strategic reconnaissance. We know the ground.' The Marines say, 'Okay, we can lift everybody up to the 12,000 foot level in our big helicopters. We can surround the area so nobody gets out.' The Germans say, 'We haven't been in a fight yet. We want to be there.' So I ask them, 'Are you on our side this time?'


    'Yes.' 'Okay, you're on. No problem, you're good to go.' The CIA guys say, 'Our Afghan boys want a ride in a helicopter.' 'Good enough, you're going.' The FBI guys say, 'We want to go up and cut little snippets of hair off people, see if the DNA matches anybody we're looking for.' 'Well, sounds kind of weird but you're on. Bring the (inaudible 27.57) rescue team. You don't know (inaudible 27.59) with it.' On and on like this, because we had Norwegians and we had Canadians, New Zealanders and Turks and Jordanians and all. Basically, okay, 'It's 22:00 now. At 24:00, come back in,' and my Lieutenant (inaudible 28.16) had called the Marine Corps the central coordination element, not the headquarters. I don't have control command over any of these forces. You know what those buggers did, Peter? They went back and they used my comms system to call Ottawa and Berlin and Canberra and, in some cases, got Prime Minister, Chancellor level authority, because they were representing what they knew their force could do. They came back in and with very modifications, we turned out the order that would then put all this in motion, and it worked. It was supposed to be about a nine-hour operation that went for eleven days. It was so rich in targets. So you can do this but you've got to have an understanding that other nations take as much a sense of ownership in their troops as the Americans take in theirs. Just get on with it. There's nothing here that Wellington didn't have to deal with, or some of the others in the past.


    Peter Roberts: I guess there's that point at which military officers, you know, at a certain level are acutely aware of what their national policy will allow them to do. I want to talk about now rules of engagement. We're talking about what the Chancellor, what the Prime Minister, what the President of the country is going to allow them to-, how far they can push their permissions, right? These military leaders now are quite in tune with the politics of their country, which is very Roman, in many ways, isn't it? It is understanding exactly what the Emperor will go for and what is just pushing it too far. But at some stage do you think that because they're so far into that, they forget the realities of what just purely military advice is? I sometimes worry that when you hear people talking about this, they won't even consider (TC 00:30:00) options that they feel are not politically acceptable, and yet they're not actually the ones who are responsible for making those political decisions.


    Jim Mattis: Sometimes it could be misused, but that's why best military advice must remain that. Don't try to do your civilian overseers job for them. Give them the options. You will be surprised sometimes that they have freedom to manoeuvre on some things. For example, as one political person told me, 'Don't worry about that. Whether we have 3,000 of you here in this job or we have 1,300, we pay the same political price. So don't get concerned about coming to me by limiting how many troop-, you tell me what you need.' That would be the first President Bush, who when told how many troops would be needed for how long of a fight to liberate Kuwait, he said, 'I want it done fast and double the number of troops,' basically. You know, and we all know what happened in Gulf War One. So I think one of the most important things here is you maintain respect for the others. You don't try to do their job and you remember what your job is. At the same time, if you get into strategic level leadership, you do have to advocate for what you believe is right. The question is, for me, how do you do it without antagonising people? Remember nobody elected we who wear uniforms. The ones who were elected were elected with the idea, Peter, that we're going to have better healthcare, education, all the things we want for our children's future. So often times, what you're doing at the strategic level in the discussions, is you're reconciling some very grim polarities. That's your job. Don't get frustrated by it but try to avoid antagonism. Best way to do that, bring in historic examples. History's not perfect but it's the best thing we have to light the path against.


    So bring in historic examples where other people tried to confront the same type of situation and it worked or didn't, because sometimes that will reduce a sense of personality conflict, and allow you to keep open lines of communication, which are critical.


    Peter Roberts: That civilian military relationship, as you see it, as you went up the chain and you went to two- star, you went to, you know, three- star and CoCom. You have a different relationship with the political leaders, the people who are giving you those permissions. It's always been a tension in the US between civilian and military, just as it is here. I remember speaking to a minister relatively recently who was saying, 'Actually, as a civilian going in to sit round with a bunch of military commanders, who are all in uniform, they've all got acres of experiences, they've been doing this for, you know, 30 or 40 years, it's quite an intimidating moment. To walk in there and try and get them to do what you want.' That must be quite a difficult moment for them and whilst you get, as you say-, the military are getting quite hot under the collar about what they want to do and what they're prevented from doing, actually there's a moment at which the civilian leadership, and you must have seen it in the SecDefs that you worked for when you were CoCom, they have quite a difficult time too, right?


    Jim Mattis: Well it is difficult but it's understandably difficult. The polarities are there and they're not going away. I think they've always been difficult and the more you read of history, I just look at the fight over whether we should land on the coast of France in 1943 or 1944. That was between two militaries and it rose to the political level. So this is not pure on the military side, if there's some objective reality. Further, there are times when the political leadership is actually correct about how to sustain the fight and the will of the people. So by having a good dialogue, and I would say using Hegel's dialectic as a process that allows you to solve problems, knowing full well that simply brings another set of problems, keeps you from being frustrated or going into some kind of non-productive relationship between the principles. Remember too that in the US system, because of that nasty argument we had with the King, that couple of hundred years ago, we actually set up a government that wouldn't work easily with any one branch being in charge. So while we have an elected commander in chief, so the military is always under a civilian commander, the legislature has the authority under a constitution to raise armies and to sustain navies. So you have to sign a piece of paper when you're nominated for the advice and consent of the Senate for, for example, four-star. The last question on that piece of paper is, 'If asked your personal professional opinion, do you promise to give it to this committee?' So you've actually created a much wider berth of problems for yourself with this, because now you have to bring along a legislature.


    Just to really mess it up, we adopted the Romans' idea of a senate and now we have a bicameral legislature that's got to be brought along. So it's not easy but in a democracy, go back to our opening remarks together, Peter, you're there to defend the values you stand for. You know, if you don't want the job, don't take it. This is part of the terrain.


    Peter Roberts: There is a point that we're getting to now where we can-, I can define, because I don't work for anyone, so I can define it. So we have enemies out there who we can clearly define, who are fighting in a very different way than we want them to. In a very different way than we expect them to. In a very different way that we've designed forces to. Whether it's Russia or North Korea or Iran or China, they're not fighting the way we want them to. They have a very different way of fighting. In many ways, people I speak to think that we are bound quite a lot by those permissions of societies. By how our constitutions are written, about how we're supposed to behave in accordance with the values that our adversaries are not caught in. When the eastern way of war starts fighting the western way of war, are you optimistic about the result?


    Jim Mattis: Yes, I mean democracies can afford survival. Yes, we try to maintain our values. I remember being told by a Secretary of the Navy, when he was graduating us from our young officers course, he said, 'We are going to need you to do some very evil things. Do not become evil in the process.' The fact is that, I think it was the Field Marshall Lord Hackett who said, 'You don't win wars by being kind.' Now he didn't mean you just go in and kill everybody, but he did say that you've got to be able to do the rough things in order to win. Yes, there's a cost to the human beings that do this. There's a cost to the survivors, not just to the casualties on the battlefield. But democracies have shown the willingness, when the time came, to sustain high casualties. We say that, you know, we're averse to high casualties. Well in our Civil War, you know, we were born with a birth defect that we imported from the old world. I know of no other nation in history that fought itself to decisively end slavery. Least of all at the cost we paid. So you saw a country that had never taken casualties like this and sustain them year on year. You look at World War Two and the cost to what we call the greatest generation. Hundreds of thousands of our youths, in the Russians case millions, killed to stop fascism. So we can adapt. It takes leadership, is one thing that I think we all study in this regard, but whether you're Mandela trying to put a society back together after a hateful war, apartheid, civil war in South Africa, or you're Mannerheim trying to do that twice in his lifetime, after World War One and after World War Two in Finland.


    Or you're President Ulysses Grant, not General Grant, trying to put the country back together after our Civil War, there are combinations of leadership portrayed by these people who are thrust forward into these positions that show that democracies can certainly adapt to these kind of demands, these kind of challenges and rise to meet them. But it takes a strategic view and, frankly, I think across the western democracies of 1991, we've been in a pretty much strategy-free mode. The cost of that has been severe. I've been very encouraged recently to see the integrated review by the UK followed by a strategy. So often, in the American news, what passes for strategies in the last couple of decades have been simply ways to grab budgets. They weren't real strategy. The British actually decided to budget a few upfront. You could say, 'Well that's not good because it may not give them everything they need.' Well at least they've got a budget they can count on, and now you see the strategic work going on. So it could be that the UK will start leading the western democracies into a more strategic approach. We've got one, too, in the US, drafted here about four years ago, and it seems to be holding, even during this rather tumultuous change of administrations from Trump to Biden. So we may be (TC 00:40:00) getting back to a more strategic approach, Peter, and that's the real answer to your question.


    Peter Roberts: So it strikes me that you're kind of stoic at the moment but there is a glimmer of optimism on the horizon?


    Jim Mattis: Yes, absolutely. I think democracies are, again, as Churchill put it, 'Trust the Americans to do the right thing once they've exhausted all possible alternatives.' I think we've fought wars we didn't need to fight. We can get a strategy out there that is not just bonding allies together, it's also an appetite suppressant that you don't go off and just try to be all things to everybody. It actual limits you to what are your vital interests. There I think the strengthening of NATO under the current administration is a very positive sign. The strengthening in terms of the US is with you. There is no equivocation.


    Peter Roberts: Jim, a huge pleasure to have you on. Thank you very much for coming on. It's been a great pleasure talking to you.


    Jim Mattis: Thank you, Peter.


    Peter Roberts: Rather than start this season off with a sales pitch for RUSI membership, can I make a couple of recommendations related to this episode instead? Get some reading material. You can find our guests' reading list, across a decade or more, on the Internet. Good bookshops will stock Chaos and also Brute: The Life of Viktor Krulak by Robert Coram, as well as One Bullet Away by Nathaniel Flick. Apart from that, you can never go wrong with some Marcus Aurelius instead of that damn dead Prussian. So if you're preparing to start some formal, professional military education in September, or you just want to become truly professional within the profession of arms, do yourself a favour and pick up a book. Engage with the literature, and the discussions on websites like RUSI or War on the Rocks or Wavell Room. Write something. Stretch your mind. Crack open your intellectual curiosity. Exercise isn't just phys, it's also mental. This show was produced by Peppi Väänänen and Kieran Yates and is sponsored by Raytheon UK. Thanks for listening.

Western Way of War Podcast Series

A collection of discussions with those in the Profession of Arms that tries to understand the issues around how to fight, and succeed, against adversaries in the 2020s. We pose the questions as whether a single Western Way of Warfare (how Western militaries fight) has been successful, whether it remains fit for task today, and how it might need to adapt in the future? It is complemented by the ‘Adversarial Studies’ project that looks at how adversaries fight.


Professor Peter Roberts

Director, Military Sciences

Military Sciences

View profile

Explore our related content