Yesterday, in response to a Newsweek article about whether or not President-elect Biden should pick a retired general officer, specifically GEN (ret) Austin, to be the next Secretary of Defense, Senior Chief Nance had a very strident response:
BULL: As a combat veteran I don’t think the @DeptofDefense should be run by a K-Street think tank. An African-American combat veteran like General Austin as #SecDef is the right choice. He will quickly rename bases from Southern Generals & Not. Budge. One. Inch. https://t.co/rBqeiygP6i
— Malcolm Nance (@MalcolmNance) December 3, 2020
GEN (ret) McCaffrey then replied attesting to GEN (ret) Austin’s character and experience. Senior Chief Nance co-signed that by tweet.
— Malcolm Nance (@MalcolmNance) December 3, 2020
What GEN (ret) McCaffrey did not do, however, was explicitly endorse GEN (ret) Austin for the position of Secretary of Defense, though this tweet from 28 November might be taken as an implicit endorsement.
Retired Army four star General Lloyd Austin. 41 years service. Our best combat leader since WWII. West Point. MA Auburn. Commanded in combat 4 tours. Dir JCS Staff. JCS J3. CENTCOM CDR. Vice Chief US Army. Incredibly good judgment. Easy to deal with.
— Barry R McCaffrey (@mccaffreyr3) November 28, 2020
While I appreciate Senior Chief Nance’s enthusiasm, as well as his concern about the think tank world inside the Beltway, I think he’s wrong regarding the appointment of another general officer/flag officer to the position of Secretary of Defense. While the Newsweek article’s focus, specifically the focus of the people that provided statements to the reporters on this possibility, all seem to focus on reestablishing the Civilian-Military relationship, I think there’s another reason for President-elect Biden to be cautious about appointing a retired general or admiral to be his Secretary of Defense: a 40 plus year career of acculturation, socialization, and indoctrination to deferring to the president as the commander in chief of the military.
While deference to those above one in the chain of command isn’t confined to generals in relation to the President, we have reporting that indicates this was a major problem for Secretary Mattis in his relationship with Trump. Specifically, when Trump threw a temper tantrum at Secretary Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (now retired) Gen. Dunford, and the Joint Chiefs in the Tank at the Pentagon in the summer of 2017 when they, along with Secretary of State Tillerson and Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, tried to hold an explanatory briefing for Trump about the United States national security commitments and posture. This was the meeting where Trump lost his shit and screamed at Mattis, the Joint Chiefs, and the rest of the military personnel in the room that:
“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.
Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
What happened in response is not just telling, but it provides us with the central reason why a general officer/flag officer may not be the best choice to be the Secretary of Defense (emphasis mine):
Tillerson in particular was stunned by Trump’s diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes, others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson thought to himself, “Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren’t you saying something?”
But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment that Mattis was genetically a Marine, unable to talk back to his commander in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.
Others at the table noticed Trump’s stream of venom had taken an emotional toll. So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he couldn’t stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump’s tirade, this one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.
“No, that’s just wrong,” the secretary of state said. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”
Tillerson’s father and uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was deeply proud of their service.
“The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune,” Tillerson said. “That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die . . . They do it to protect our freedom.”
There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down his guard.
“He’s a f—ing moron,” the secretary of state said of the president.
Secretary Mattis is considered to be the most highly regarded Marine of his generation. His Marines affectionately called him the Warrior Monk because of his scholarly, self contained, bachelor lifestyle. He calls himself CHAOS (Colonel Has An Outstanding Suggestion). Those who don’t know him, and don’t realize he hates it, call him Mad Dog. But my Marine teammates all speak of him in the highest regard. Those of my former teammates that know him and have served with and under him all have their own unique stories about him and why he is held in such high regard. Unfortunately, over a forty plus year career Secretary Mattis had been socialized, acculturated, and indoctrinated to defer to the President as the commander in chief. Just as he and every other officer in the Marines, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force, had been socialized, acculturated, and indoctrinated to defer to those above them in the chain of command. This is a real problem. One of the now retired general officers that I was assigned to as cultural advisor/senior civilian advisor used to refer to the problem as the Legion of Frightened Men. Colonels and lieutenant colonels and even in some cases general officers who wouldn’t speak up when the most senior general officer in the room asked if anyone had anything to add, any suggestions, any concerns. Not because they didn’t have anything to add or any suggestions or any concerns, but because they had been taught and trained to defer to those who ranked above them in seniority.
I’ve got no dog in the fight over who does or does not become the next Secretary of Defense. Each of the people whose names have been floated – former Undersecretary of Defense Flournoy, former DHS Secretary Johnson, GEN (ret) Austin, and Senator Duckworth – would each be a vast, vast, vast improvement over Secretary Esper and the current acting SecDef. The former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Kath Hill, who is running the DOD transition team for President-elect Biden would also be a vast, vast, vast improvement. But the bulk of my career for the better part of the past 15 years has been serving as a senior civilian advisor to senior Army leaders, from colonels commanding brigade combat teams to lieutenant generals commanding Army Service Component Commands. And I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been either permanently or temporarily assigned to an excellent batch of senior leaders. It is important to realize, though, that they’re professionally raised differently than civilian senior leaders. I watched one general officer I was assigned to, who was senior in overall time of service, defer to a higher ranking general officer on an issue – a general officer who lied to his face about what was going to be done to deal with that issue – because of socialization to the chain of command. Because that’s what a more junior officer, even if that junior officer is a general or an admiral with more time in service, does when given an order or guidance by a more senior leader. And there is no more senior leader for the US military than the president.
I know GEN (ret) Austin, but not well. I met him in Iraq in 2008 when he was the Commanding General of 10th Mountain Division. The brigade combat team my team was assigned to had been split off from the rest of 1st Armored Division in Multi-National Division North and sent south and east of Baghdad to Multi-National Division Central. 10th Mountain Division fortunately took over Multi-National Division Central two months into our deployment. I met GEN Austin when he came to our FOB as part of his initial battlefield circulation. I was introduced to him, he spoke to me for about 90 seconds, and my part of his briefing lasted about two minutes tops. I also provided support to him when he was the Commanding General of CENTCOM via his Command Sergeant Major, who was my point of contact in the CENTCOM command group.
I barely know GEN (ret) Austin, but what I know of him indicates he’s an excellent general officer. However, given the dynamic we’ve seen with the retired senior military leaders – generals and admirals – appointed to senior positions over the past four years by Trump, many that required Senate confirmation, my professional opinion (for what it’s worth) is that if a highly qualified, exemplary civilian senior leader can be appointed as the next Secretary of Defense, then she or he should be nominated instead of a retired general officer/flag officer. This does not mean that retired senior military leaders are unfit for senior civilian appointments, it just means that they should be appointed to the right positions otherwise they are being set up for failure.
I was very glad when Secretary Mattis was nominated to become Secretary of Defense given the possibilities that Trump could have come up with for nominees. I think he did as good a job as he possibly could have under the circumstances. But it is very clear, as reported by multiple sources in long form news reporting and books, that he was unable to transcend what he always was – a Marine and a Marine general officer – during times when the Nation needed more from him and for him to be more. That isn’t his fault. Asking and expecting him or anyone else to be other than who they are is an unfair expectation. But his tenure as Secretary of Defense, as well as his relationship and interaction with Trump, should stand as a stark warning about making sure that the right person is designated for nomination as the next Secretary of Defense. And given the evidence we have from the last four years, the right person may not be a retired general or admiral no matter how exemplary they are as a national security professional and as a person.
Everyone is different. GEN (ret) Austin is not Secretary Mattis. He may be able to overcome his socialization and acculturation to deferring to the president as the commander in chief of the military and if he can, then he’d be an excellent pick. But if he can’t, then someone else – Flournoy, Johnson, Duckworth, Hill, someone who hasn’t been publicly speculated about yet – should be chosen to avoid recreating the situation that Secretary Mattis found himself in. Not doing so would be setting not just GEN (ret) Austin up for failure as the Secretary of Defense, but President-elect Biden up for failure in regards to building the Department of Defense back better. And if GEN (ret) Austin isn’t the best fit for Secretary of Defense, I would hope that President-elect Biden would find an appropriate senior appointment for him and, should he be willing to return to service, that GEN (ret) Austin would accept that appointment and excel at it.
Edited to Add (ETA):
I want to clarify a point or two as there seems to be some confusion in the comments. I am not arguing that GEN (ret) Austin would not be a good Secretary of Defense. Nor am I arguing that one of the other people whose names have been floated as a potential choice are better choices. What I am arguing is that if GEN (ret) Austin is selected by President-elect Biden, he will have to overcome the same career’s worth of conditioning to defer to the President as commander in chief of the military that Secretary Mattis could not overcome. While GEN (ret) Austin is not Secretary Mattis – they are very different senior military leaders – this will be a key challenge. Of course, as a number of you have pointed out in your comments, President-elect Biden is not Trump, so the dynamic between Secretary of Defense and President would be very, very, very different from the start.