Secretary of Defense James Mattis will increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 8,400 to 12,400, a move likely to be unopposed by President Trump, who has delegated military decision-making to The Pentagon. The Washington Post, usually no friend to Trump, has praised his delegation of authority, contrasting it to Obama’s supposedly meddlesome micromanagement of the war. Leave war to the warriors, not the out-of-touch philosophers and wonks, and the tactical outcome will be better, so the argument goes.
Yet such an argument is probably not broad-minded enough for Secretary Mattis himself, who has a reputation as something of a philosopher. His nickname in the Pentagon is “Warrior Monk.” He reportedly has a personal library of several thousand volumes, and was known to bring a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into the field. Mattis has referred to Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, both of whose writings answer big philosophical and political questions that underpin the tactical problems of warfare. Both Clausewitz and Sun Tzu debated one key question that is apparently too difficult for the press to talk about, despite16 years of war in Afghanistan: where does the buck stop in a war, with the civilian or military commander? To answer that question is also to sketch out a view of how a civilization should be run.
Clausewitz, in typically mystical style, answered with a trinity. War, he said, was three things in one: human hatred, chance, and the subordination of both to the policy of the state.
Sun Tzu gave a cleaner answer: the goal of the state is profit; war is the highest affair of state, and decisions in war belong to the military commander.
Mattis has stated that he is "much more comfortable with Sun-tzu and his approach to warfare,” in contrast to Clausewitz and other thinkers. Mattis has not said in detail why, but he surely understands the worldview of both thinkers, at least as much as crudely summarized here.
The U.S. Constitution, written when Clausewitz was nine, makes the President the army's Commander-In-Chief. Sun Tzu, writing in blood-soaked, feudal ancient China, did not live in a period of nation states, human rights, or nuclear weapons. His world was one where autocratic rulers commanded private empires.
We know which of the two worlds Trump would prefer to live in. Isn't it worth asking which one Mattis lives in, too?