Tag Archives: Syria

“Holding the Line – Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis” by Guy M. Snodgrass – Covid19 #7

Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary Mattis

This is another of the books I grabbed on my last pre-Corona visit to the public library, and one of the last that I read.

This is the third book I’ve read about the American military in the past six months. I didn’t plan this! See All Hell Breaking Loose (about climate change) and Inside the Five-sided Box (about Secretary of Defense Ashe Carter, immediate predecessor of Mattis).

Secretary of Defense James Mattis was appointed by President Trump on Inauguration Day in 2017. He disliked the nickname “Mad Dog” Mattis, used by Trump and some members of the media.

Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead

After his resignation at the end of 2018, Secretary Mattis (with coauthor Bing West) wrote his memoir Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead. It was published in September of 2019. Snodgrass’s memoir about speechwriting for Mattis Holding the Line was delayed by Pentagon censorship until just AFTER Mattis’s book was released.  Holding the Line contained no classified material, but Snodgrass had to sue to publish his book. (Wikipedia)

All of this I learned AFTER reading Holding the Line. I’m pleased to report that Mattis’s book is also available at my library, which is closed due to the pandemic. It’s worth having (at least) two views of the Trump/Pentagon relationship through difficult times.

Holding the Line doesn’t really explain why Mattis accepted Trump’s offer to be Secretary of Defense. Mattis had retired from the Marine Corps as a four star general in 2013. When he interviewed with Trump in November of 2016, he found that he and the President elect disagreed on most matters of policy, including the use of torture, specifically waterboarding. Equally substantive, Mattis and Trump disagreed profoundly on the role of military allies in maintaining US security. Mattis felt that “America First” shouldn’t mean “America Alone”. Mattis was quoted as saying “The country that fights without allies, loses.”

Snodgrass, a Navy aviator, came to work with Mattis as his speechwriter and eventual Communications Director. In terms of age, they were a full generation apart; by military status they were separated by five ranks. Snodgrass had previous experience as a Pentagon speechwriter for an Admiral. His most notable accomplishment was the 2014 authorship of a study on retention of naval officers, a major concern of the military since around 2008.

Why a speechwriter? The Secretary of Defense oversees the vast American military, enacting the policies of the Commander in Chief, aka POTUS. Every move he makes, every word he speaks, carries weight and is intensely scrutinized not just in the US but around the world. NOTHING goes unscripted.

Mattis intended that his public statements be entirely aligned with Trump’s positions. Would he have accepted the job, if he had known how often important policy issues would be announced by Twitter? Snodgrass worked exhaustively to keep up with White House policies, but the occasional surprise made Mattis’s office a tense and difficult workplace.

During the early Trump administration, Mattis was part of the small group that Washington insiders sometimes called “the adults in the room”. The “adults” expected and intended to prevent some of President Trump’s apparently impulsive schemes from being implemented. Four other men fell into this category. They occupied the positions of

  • Secretary of State,
  • National Security Advisor,
  • Director of the National Economic Council and
  • Director of Homeland Security.

By March of 2018, Trump has dismissed each of these appointees. Mattis was the “last adult standing”.

It’s not clear to me why Mattis held on through 2018. He resigned after Trump announced unilateral withdrawal of the US military from Syria, against Mattis’s advice. Trump tried to claim Mattis had “retired”, but his resignation letter makes his position perfectly clear. He disagreed with the Syria pullout.

One thing this book makes very clear is the incredible mystique that surrounds the Presidency. (I’m pretty sure it is NOT what America’s founding fathers intended.) Even very intelligent and level headed leaders (like Mattis) act awed by the office, even when they are critical of the office holder.

The New Yorker magazine just published (April 27) a 14-page article entitled “Abandoned: America’s Syrian allies suffer after the US withdrawal”. One big problem was communication. In the absence of clear information, American military officers had provided reassurance to their counterparts, not themselves believing that Trump would side with Turkey against the Kurds. The article makes evident the extreme complexity of Syrian civil war and the ambiguousness of American involvement. Trump had promised to disentangle the US from the Middle East, without a plan, other than the intention to eliminate the ISIS caliphate. (The author of the article, Luke Mogelson, writes for the New York Times and won an award from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. Watch for his work.) I recommend this article.

Much to think about, especially now, as we face a crisis of incredible magnitude in a totally different arena, international public health.

“Under the Wire – Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment” by Paul Conroy

Under the Wire: Marie Colvin's Final Assignment

Journalist Marie Colvin (1956-2012) was an American war correspondent who reported on some of the most violent conflicts of our times – in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Libya. By the time she reported on the Syrian Civil War with photographer Paul Conroy, she had achieved iconic status. Blinded in one eye by a grenade in 2001 in Sri Lanka, she wore an eye patch and had a reputation for courage and fierce, incredible persistence. Her story has been told in books and a movie.

Conroy’s account of the Syrian Civil War (from the rebel viewpoint) is hard to read. The statement “war is hell” hardly begins to describe the conditions and suffering Colvin and Conroy saw and ultimately experienced. They escaped from the besieged rebel city of Baba Amr, but returned at Colvin’s insistence. She and a French photographer died there. Conroy escaped a second time, with terrible injuries and severe PTSD.

For another look at this book, see this blog entry. The author highlights important aspects of the narrative that I won’t attempt to cover.

Why do journalists do expose themselves to such nightmarish danger? Their answer is simple. They do it to bear witness, to see and to tell the terrible story of human suffering and in particular the suffering of non-combatants and the innocent – children in particular. Throughout Conroy’s book runs outrage and the frantic hope that someone is listening, that someone will intervene on behalf of 28,000 civilians trapped in Baba Amr.

Less idealistically, war zone journalists are adrenaline freaks, hooked on the chemistry of fear and often on other chemicals as well – alcohol, nicotine, etc. But where would we be without adrenaline freaks? Who would rush into burning buildings or fly into space? I don’t “understand” this behavior, but I respect it.

In this blog, dated October 9, 2013, you will find my review of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why does Baker choose that date as the end of civilization? Because it marked the end of a distinction between soldiers and civilians during war. He blames the change on the emergence of aerial bombardment as a primary military tactic.

  • Aerial bombardment was rarely accurate.
  • Each side killed civilians.
  • Accusing the foe of breaking the old “rules of war”, both sides proceeded to bomb cities indiscriminately.

The climax was the American destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This action was NOT unanimously approved by American citizens.

The Syrian Civil War may be (almost) over, but peace is not assured and any form of “reconciliation” seems remote. The magnitude of human suffering is staggering.

If civilization ended in 1945, what has been going on since then? Civil wars seem more and more common. “Guerrilla” war is a new norm. Wars are no longer declared, and are not fought by countries, but often by “non-state entities”. There’s a great deal of “proxy” behavior. Superpowers are competing for influence and access to resources. The invention, production and distribution of weaponry has become a large and permanent feature of the global economy. What else? I’m not educated enough to take this analysis further.

Penn Museum and Penn Cultural Heritage Center

My son invited me to celebrate Mother’s Day in “the city”, which in our case means Philadelphia. This is where we went:

Penn Museum

Hello India

I highly recommend both the Penn Museum and this special exhibit! First, the Museum. What a beautiful place! If you need peace and quiet and beauty, here it is. I think you can dine in the cafe without even entering the exhibit area.

Our first stop was the special exhibit “Cultures in the Crossfire”. One of the heartbreaking aspects of war is the destruction of artifacts, buildings and neighborhoods – all the things that make up a way of life. People are displaced. Language and identify become blurred. This is what the Cultural Heritage Center has to say about itself: “…(our) mission is to activate conversations about why the past is important…” The stories from Iraq and Syria conveyed in this exhibition are very sad.

We moved on to one of the classic permanent exhibits. Who can resist mummies?

Finally, we visited an additional special exhibit, “Native American Voices: The People – Here and Now”. I especially admired the contemporary silver jewelry.

We decided to continue the multicultural theme of our day by dining at an Indian restaurant with a great buffet, the “New Delhi” at 4004 Chestnut Street. Highly recommended! Let’s not forget that culture includes food.

“Counter Jihad – America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” by Brian Glen Williams

319 pages, plus preface, notes and index. Three good maps of Afghanistan, but none of Iraq and Syria. University of Pennsylvania Press.

I have so much to say about this book! First of all, the copyright date is 2017. What’s with that? For the record, I got the book from the library’s new arrival shelf. Amazon reports it as being published in October of 2016. Citations include information as recent as April, 2016. This book is about as up to date as a hardcover publication can be.

The first and last chapters of this book are the most important. Chapter 1 (Planting the Seeds for a Global Conflict) covers crucial history of the Middle East, much of which is unfamiliar to me. There’s so much detail, I had to take an occasional break from reading. Williams obviously intends to be fair and even-handed. Can anyone achieve this? Language poses so many pitfalls. Consider the ways one can announce multiple deaths:

  • Murder
  • Killing
  • Massacre
  • Cold blooded massacre
  • Slaughter
  • Execution

How does an author decide? “Cold blooded” was the term that made me pause, since it describes a state of mind. The whole point of this book is to let us know how little we understand the “state of mind”, the history, culture, languages, customs, etc., of the Middle East.

Enough quibbling. Williams works hard to be fair, and is well worth reading.

The events of Chapter 2 (the invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11) were mostly news to me. Where WAS I while all this was going on? How did I miss so much?! Two youngsters at home, one getting ready for college… I caught a bit of news here and there. So Chapter 2 was an eye opener. What stood out?

  • That we fought the kind of high tech, “precision” war that (I think) the military has been hoping for.
  • That we had some unusual allies, including a tribal warlord with troops on horseback.
  • That women (for the first time?) adopted the mostly male military model to defend themselves and their land against Taliban religious oppression. One such woman, Niloorfar Ramani, a highly trained Afghan fighter pilot, is currently seeking asylum in the US because of cultural biases in her country of birth.

I skimmed over Chapter 3 (Hype: Selling the War on Iraq to the American People) because I knew the bad news. We were conned.

Chapter 4 (The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq) was also basically familiar. The unexpected wrinkle for me was to learn that General David Petraeus, who led some of the Iraq War’s most successful counterinsurgency fighting, to some extent ignored the orders of Coalition Provisional Authority governor Paul Bremer to fire all members of the Baathist Party from their jobs. This destroyed Iraq’s civil government. Bremer also mandated the disbanding of the Iraqi army. This left about half a million men “armed and unemployed”. Petraeus evidently managed some level of compromise, and he engaged (with considerable success) in the type of “nation building” that Bush and his closest advisors scorned. Petraeus also codified the “take, hold, build” model for counterinsurgency. We may eventually look back on him as much more than a general who made a mistake and was forced into retirement. Bremer’s occupation policies already look like a total disaster with consequences that could last generations. And I believe he was warned at the time, most particularly by the military.

The last two chapters of Williams’ book bring us to the present and distinguish ISIS from its predecessors. The extremist call to generalized violence against “non-believers” has borne bitter fruit. Most recent was the bombing of a “Christmas Mart” in Berlin, in which 12 people died and 56 were injured.

ISIS now controls territory and aspires to the status of a state. Potential jihadis, some radicalized by the social media, travel to areas of ISIS control. Their return to their homelands with plans for independent violence is a very serious concern. By late 2015, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 “volunteers” from 90 countries may be in this pipeline. The FBI describes some of the attacks in the USA as “homegrown terrorism”, and calls for a “new approach” to Homeland Security, but there is no clarity about what preventive measures can be taken.

This is a sobering book, but if you, like me, want to know what’s going on and how your tax dollars are being used in the implementation of foreign policy, I suggest you read it.