My colleague Judi Irvine alerts me to an interview this morning on NPR with Gen. Jim Mattis, former Secretary of Defense, whose book Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead has just been published. Whatever one might think of the Iraq war, or about American policy in the Middle East in general, one should find Mattis’s use of history to be sound.
NPR: The general describes his own detailed planning in bring troops into Iraq. In 2003, he read thousands of years of history, Alexander the Great and others, who invaded that region before him. What could a multi-thousand year old battle teach you that would be relevant in the twenty-first century?
JM: Well there’s enduring aspects of leadership, plus geography doesn’t change. So when you read about the challenges they faced it gets you thinking about your own. I knew we were going to be operating very deep inside the Middle East and I had to decide what was the right manner in which I wanted the troops to go in. So I used words from antiquity, from a Roman general I used, “No better friend, no worse enemy.” We were going in to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam. We were not going in to dominate them, I didn’t want triumphalism. I wanted to go with a sense of “first do no harm.”
NPR: So you read thousands of pages and then try to boil it down to a few phrases or in some cases even a word that you could pass on to thousands of people?
JM: Well that’s a leader’s job, to clearly set the vision…
JM: I think we need to have a more rigorous establishment of strategy, a more clearly enunciated policy, something we can sustain from Republicans to Democrats, like in the Cold War. I think that the biggest challenge we face in all the western democracies, not just America, is that we don’t study history in a way that we can apply it, and we’re not rigorously applying ourselves to strategy. There’s too much of a short-term view.