The word “unprecedented” is being used a lot by retired generals, political pundits, and national security experts discussing the resignation of General James Mattis as secretary of defense yesterday. No one could remember a member of any president’s cabinet resigning without lobbing a few words of praise at the president who appointed him, but Mattis did just that on Thursday. His letter of resignation, it was noted, did not even feature a citation such as “sincerely” in closing. Mattis simply signed his name across the middle of the bottom of the page and left it at that.
This article first appeared in Salon.
The word “anxiety” is also flying around. The nation’s capital awoke this morning to a headline in its hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, which read, “’A morning of alarm’: Mattis departure sends shock waves abroad.”
“In China and Russia — U.S. adversaries that were cited in Mattis’s resignation letter as deserving of tough treatment — there was open anxiety that the world had just become more vulnerable to conflict,” the Post reported. The post quoted Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel saying, “With him [Mattis] gone, this really marks a juncture in the Trump presidency. Now we have an unrestrained Trump, which is a dangerous signal for the year ahead.”
Even Trump allies like Senator Mitch McConnell couldn’t find a silver lining in the cloud forming after Mattis’ sudden and unexpected resignation. In an unusual break with a president he has followed down every rabbit hole Trump has dug, McConnell said he was “distressed that he [Mattis] is resigning due to sharp differences with the president.” Wow, that was brave, Mitch. We’ll be sure to put “He was distressed” on your gravestone.
So how did we get here, to this place where in a single week, one cabinet secretary resigned in disgrace, another cabinet secretary resigned in disgust, the stock market continued to tank, the government faced a shutdown that will further cripple the economy and leave tens of thousands of government workers without paychecks, a former national security adviser to the president faced a judge threatening to send him to jail, and a president announced a unilateral pull-out of American forces from Syria with a tweet?
In less than two years, Trump has gone through three chiefs of staff, two secretaries of state, two CIA directors, three national security advisers, and two secretaries of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and the Veterans Administration. In all, there have been more than 35 firings or resignations from Trump’s administration.
All of Trump’s generals are out, all of those “adults in the room” who were supposed to save us from an erratic and unpredictable man in the White House. Out. Done for. Gone.
General Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser: gone, amid shouts of “lock him up.”
General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, touted as a “military intellectual” who would put the operation of our foreign affairs on an even keel: gone, keel-hauled in favor of Loon of the Month John Bolton.
General John Kelly, Trump’s first Secretary of Homeland Security and his second chief of staff, a retired Marine who was supposed to bring order to a chaotic White House: gone, chaos reigning, tweets flying, shut-down looming.
General James Mattis, the man Trump loved as “Mad Dog” and came to distrust as a “Democrat,” another national security professional who was supposed to keep Trump from acting on his his worst instincts, who went along behind him at G-7 and G-20 summits with a shovel and bucket like he was following a horse in a barn: gone, called a “Democrat” and kicked to the curb.
Why did Trump’s Last General take a cab? Because the president woke up on Wednesday and decided to pull 2,000 American troops out of Syria without talking to him. Trump was said to have talked to Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he didn’t pick up the phone and ask his own secretary of defense what he thought. This apparently made General Mattis mad, so he stamped his little foot and resigned.
The arm-waving and hand-flapping and pearl-clutching in the foreign affairs and national security “communities,” not to mention in the Congress and among prominent Democrats, is something to behold. Significant portions of all those communities have long thought we didn’t have any business being in Syria in the first place. Not to mention fighting our 17th year of the so-called “war” in Afghanistan, from which Trump intends to remove some 7,000 American troops, another decision he apparently reached without consulting the Last Adult in the Room.
More than 2,400 American soldiers dead in Afghanistan so far. More than 30,000 Afghan civilians killed. Sixty percent of Afghan districts under control of the Taliban. Opium production at an “all-time high.” Dozens, sometimes hundreds of Afghan soldiers killed every single week. You thought Vietnam was a misbegotten military misadventure? How about 17 years in Afghanistan with no end in sight? Hell, opium production was said to be at an “all-time high” when I was in the Kunar River Valley in Afghanistan in 2004. That’s 14 years ago, 14 years of record-setting opium crops!
And what are the pundits saying about our military foray into the morass called Syria? Listen to what I heard from one “expert” on MSNBC yesterday.
“Syria is a very winnable proposition,” this numbskull said, looking gravely at the other “experts” at the table. “The U.S. presence is actually very small numbers.” Two thousand is the “very small number” this blazer-and-tie wearing “expert” was talking about as he reached for his “I’m a Pundit on the Katy Tur Show” cup and went on to blather about how “winnable” Syria is.
Let me tell you what 2,000 soldiers is. It’s about the size of a brigade, commanded by a full colonel. A brigade is typically three to five battalions of 500 to 1,000 soldiers, commanded by lieutenant colonels. Battalions are made up of three to five companies with around 200 soldiers, commanded by captains. Companies comprise three to four platoons of 40 to 100 soldiers, commanded by second lieutenants. So 2,000 soldiers is about 30 to 40 platoons of soldiers. I used to command a platoon. I was 22 years old. There were about 40 soldiers in my platoon. Let me tell you, taking care of 40 soldiers was a big fucking job, and we weren’t even in combat.
Taking care of 2,000 soldiers in a place like Syria with bullets flying and IEDs going off is a huge fucking job. Taking care of 14,000 soldiers, like we currently have in Afghanistan, or 7,000 which we’ll have when Trump gets finished with his draw-down, is a massive fucking job.
Meanwhile, Trump has 6,000 soldiers down on the border with Mexico, defending us against a phantom caravan that never was, and that’s a massive fucking job, even with nobody shooting at them. Secretary of Defense Mattis sent those 6,000 soldiers and all their trucks and Humvees and tents and razor wire and rifles down there — on that phony, politically motivated “mission” just before the midterm elections. He let Trump get away with that naked boondoggle without so much as a whimper.
And now Trump’s Last General’s feelings are all hurt, because he wasn’t consulted about pulling 2,000 troops out of Syria or 7,000 troops out of Afghanistan. What were those troops doing in Syria? We don’t know, and I don’t think Mattis had much of an idea what they were doing, either.
We can get some idea what they’re doing by the number of casualties American forces have suffered in both places. An American soldier was killed in Manbij, Syria, by a roadside bomb in March of this year. He was the fourth American killed in Syria since our forces entered the country in 2014. There have been 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan this year. Eleven were killed there last year. About half of those killed in Afghanistan have been so-called “green-on-green” killings, incidents where “friendly” Afghans killed American soldiers, usually on American bases.
You want to know what those casualty numbers tell us? American forces in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq aren’t going outside the wire – off American bases – very often. That’s how you stay alive in places like Syria and Afghanistan. You stay away from places where things like IEDs can kill you. And even then, in the comparative safety of American bases, you’re not safe, because there are enemy soldiers posing as “friendly” Afghan soldiers who will kill you.
This is the nature of the conflicts we’re engaged in. You take thousands of American soldiers and send them thousands of miles away from home into combat zones in foreign lands, and you have them do as little as possible so not too many of them get killed.
It pains me to say this, but Trump pulling 2,000 soldiers out of Syria and 7,000 soldiers out of Afghanistan is the right thing to do. It might be getting done by a certifiable loon with an orange muskrat on his head, but it’s the right thing to do and it should have been done a long time ago.
All the talk you’re hearing about how we’ve got to have American forces in this desert or that mountainous no-man’s land as a “counterbalance” to countries like Russia and Iran is lip-flapping twaddle from the kind of “experts” who got us involved in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in the first place. They are the same “experts” you didn’t hear a peep from when Mattis stood loyally by Trump as he virtually capitulated to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, trashed NATO every chance he got, and sat down for Nuclear Kimchi with Kim Jong Un. Now Mattis is all “maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies” in his resignation letter. Talk about a day late and a dollar short, he should call Angela Merkel and ask her how much “respect” she’s felt from the United States lately.
You want to know who can stop the resident of the adult day care center in the White House? It wasn’t Adult in the Room General McMaster. It wasn’t Adult in the Room General Kelly. It wasn’t Adult in the Room General Mattis. And it’s sure as hell not going to be somebody like Secretary of Defense Kushner, or whoever the hell Trump decides he’s going to sentence to a padded cell on the E-Ring in the Pentagon next.
Trump can be stopped by Congress. The Congress can cut the funding for our misbegotten misadventures in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. It can refuse to fund the laughable wall along our 1,900 mile border with Mexico that Trump apparently thinks 6,000 soldiers can guard in the meantime. And Congress can impeach and convict Trump’s insane clown ass for conspiring with a foreign nation to defraud the United States of America. Congress can do all of this if Republicans will stop bowing down before the Orange Hair Helmet and start looking out for the United States of America.
I told you before that Trump’s generals wouldn’t save us, and they sure as hell haven’t, not even Mad Dog Mattis, who’s now being lauded as the only thing standing between us and the total collapse of the Western World.
Just between you and me, we’ll wake up tomorrow morning, and even with The Last Adult in the Room on his way out the door, the Western World will still be here, and so will Trump. Trust me.