After Mattis's Remarks to U.S. Troops, Is a Military Coup In The Cards?

This article first appeared on the Just Security site.

A video clip of Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking with troops deployed in Jordan has been making the rounds on various social media outlets, with varied and strong reactions.

Upon seeing the clip, I noted on Twitter, “Mattis is reflecting a line I have from many (mil esp but also civ): society is gone to hell and mil is only + last bastion of virtue.”

A lively discussion ensued between current and former military personnel, academics and national security professionals about what he said. Some praised him, while others wrung their hands with worry.

These contradictory reactions to his comments perfectly exemplify the civilian-military divide. The debate left me wondering: Should I be picking out my outfit for the impending military coup? Or should we all just chill?

First, what did Mattis say exactly? While his comments were part of lengthier remarks, here are the critical points:

Keep on fighting…You are buying time. You are a great example for our country. …It’s got some problems….problems we don’t have in the military…Hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting and showing it….being friendly to one another.

His message to the troops in short: Don’t allow the passions and divisions back home diminish your morale or affect your ability to do what you need to do while deployed.

GettyImages-103121261 Former US Marine Corps General, now Secretary of Defense, James Mattis testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee on July 27, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty

This seems like a fairly straightforward pep talk from an experienced military commander to those he leads. That was certainly how many military Twitter followers, and some civilians as well, interpreted what Mattis said.

They heard the “ warrior monk ” encouraging fellow warriors and invoking a common theme of his: the lack of “friendliness” and civility in contemporary American society.

However, Mattis makes two points that require deeper reflection.

First, the troops are to stay the course out there/here on the battlefield until things right themselves back at home.

Second, the issues plaguing society at home are not present in the military, in other words, that the military has respect, understanding and friendliness. This view is hardly unique to Mattis.

As I noted in my tweet, the view implied in this part of the statement is one that I have heard in military circles for many years. I have heard it from colleagues, from family members and friends, and I’ve come across it in my research on military ethics and culture. Journalist and author Thomas Ricks notes the issue in his discussion of the civilian/military culture gap in his book Making the Corps .

Plus, numerous studies since Vietnam have demonstrated the public esteem and trust given to the military. The public, if these polls are correct, does view the military as honorable and ethical — and therefore trustworthy — in ways that other public institutions are not.

And here we arrive at the civilian/military cultural divide that was so evident in the reaction of civilian national security professionals and academics on Twitter who expressed concern and even moderate outrage at his comments.  

These folks argued that his comments worked to widen the divide between the military and the civilian society they serve. Some also feared that the growing divide could create favorable conditions for an assertion of even greater military involvement in civilian institutions, if not a military coup.

Those concerns were prompted by the claim of military moral superiority that they thought Mattis expressed in his comments and, for some, this resonates with the experience of Latin American countries where similar sentiments have led to military takeover of democratic institutions.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, who served on the National Security Council and at the Defense Department during the Obama administration, observed, “Mattis is doing well and getting admiration for his Mattisisms. He is also setting enormous precedent – hugely difficult to break at DOD.”

I presume Schulman would not take her point as far as a military takeover even in time of acute crisis, but it is important to ask the question how far toward the insertion of military authority in democratic and civilian life could such sentiments lead.

So is this just another pep talk to the troops or is something else much more concerning afoot? I want to emphasize that this is not about Secretary Mattis.

I am reasonably certain that he is an honorable man dedicated to serving his country as a civilian now, while continuing to live out Marine Corps values and military professionalism. While I would not count myself as a member of the Cult of Mattis, I am not questioning his character.

Instead, I’m much more interested in whether there is a precedent being set. His comments were so striking because they seemed to point to larger attitudes and assumptions held by both civilians and members of the military.

The real questions here are about how the two sides hear what he said, what they might conclude from it, and how they will act? On the military side, how will this be heard?

The concern is that troops will hear an endorsement of military moral exceptionalism and a claim that those in the military are essentially more virtuous than their fellow citizens. They could also hear that civilian society, of which they are not seemingly a part, has these problems and that they have to be sorted out by civilians and are of no concern to the military.

They are on the wall defending; that is their only concern.

On the civilian side, what could be heard is a growing culture divide that has profound importance for our national life. That perception grows up in a time of  the increasing influence of former and current senior military officials in political leadership positions (notably in the current administration, but not exclusively so) and the politicization of the officer corps.

Civilians could also hear the claim of moral superiority (with which some people actually agree) as an assumption that members of the military are generally imbued with some moral character from their service that civilians do not and cannot possess.

This claim can have a powerful political logic to it: eroding the idea of the military as a politically neutral player devoted only to the Constitution and protection of the Nation.

My point here is that language matters, not just in terms of what the speaker meant, but in terms of how these words and attached meanings are perceived and acted upon. Mattis cannot be responsible for that, but his words highlight something that is present and needs to be addressed.

First, we have civilian control of the military as a basic Constitutional principle and a core value of professionalism within the military. These values require a level of engagement and support from the civilian side that seems to be eroding.

The American people and some of their leaders seem more and more content to hand matters over to the military (because they are competent, moral and trustworthy) and essentially say, “We trust you. You handle this.”

This serves several purposes for the public, including: shifting the political and moral risk away from themselves, avoiding difficult decisions and public debate, and refraining from more directly addressing the costs of war.

This was highlighted quite starkly in President Donald Trump’s recent speech on Afghanistan, where he emphasized his desire not to “micromanage” the military as it carried out its mission there.

Second, the military is a part of our society – not a separate fortress. Today’s service members came from society and they will return to it. Sebastian Junger and others have aptly documented the difficulties many in the military have with returning to civilian life and the alienation and separation experienced by veterans.

There is disappointment, frustration, and sometimes, contempt and scorn directed toward civilian society that is often part of this alienation. Thinking of the military as not involved or implicated in the passions and conflicts roiling society today contributes to this, as well as being false and problematic on its own. Indeed, just another slice of this complex puzzle is the involvement of vets in militia groups on American soil.

The military does have a different culture in many ways, but it is one informed by core values that are instilled as part of the training process, then enforced by incentives and in certain cases, coercion to be maintained.

Given this, one would expect military culture to be different! On the other hand, many of the problems and conflicts consuming the American public are present in our contemporary military.

The Fat Leonard and Marines United scandals remind us that strong moral character is not a given in the military. There are discipline problems, racism, sexism, sexual assault, political radicalization, infidelity, drug addiction, lying and theft in the military, just like civilian society.

As an experienced commander, Mattis obviously knows this, even if his remarks do not reflect it in this case. The unified and clear comments of all the service chiefs condemning violence and bigotry following Charlottesville is further evidence of this recognition by commanders that the military is part of society and potentially plagued by the same threats.

In short, Mattis’s remarks and the challenge they pose should be seen as a good opportunity to shift from the civilian/military culture gap to thinking about a civilian/military partnership.

The military does have to hold the line, but they cannot and should not do so alone. Civilians need to reassume much of the moral and political risks of war that they are trying to outsource to the military and be a fully engaged partner – before, during and after conflicts.

What’s more, civilian society is, one might say, a hot mess, but we need the best people of character, commitment and experience to help sort out the myriad issues we face. The military is trained for moral and physical commitment and discipline, so they know what it takes and have practice and training that many in the civilian realm simply lack.

These distinctions could make the difference in facilitating dialog and solutions to our common problems. But it’s short-sighted to fault civilians for not having military training. Better for the military to consider what character, skills and commitment civilians have due to their experiences, education and training that also contributes to the common good.

I think we can all breathe easy that a military coup is not around the corner. I do commend Secretary Mattis for provoking an important discussion, reminding us that there is much work to be done. We need to think seriously about his words: What will the next Marine who hears those words take from them? What will she do?

What will the ROTC cadets who come through my classes hear and take with them when they are commissioned? What will the next president and other future leaders hear and take from them?

How can we as a society, military and civilian, not just learn but train to be better citizens and become, in Mattis’s words, more “friendly to one another”—both across the military-civilian divide not just within one side of it.

Pauline Shanks Kaurin is Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA.

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