6 Big Takeaways From Mattis’ Testimony On The DoD’s 2018 Budget Request

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with German, Lithuanian, Dutch, Belgian and American military members at Pabrade Training Area, Lithuania, May 10, 2017.
Photo via DoD

James Mattis is here for his money.

Appearing before the House Armed Service Committee on June 12 at 7 p.m. EST alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, the secretary of defense will lay out his case for the Pentagon’s $639.1 billion fiscal year 2018 budget request before lawmakers.  

“We in the Department of Defense are keenly aware of the sacrifices made by the

American people to fund our military,” reads Mattis’ opening remarks, distributed to the press by the American Legion. “Many times in the past we have looked reality in the eye, met challenges with Congressional leadership, and built the most capable warfighting force in the world. There is no room for complacency and we have no God-given right to victory on the battlefield.”

While lawmakers will have their turn to question Mattis themselves, here are some quick, key takeaways on Mattis in his own words:

1. Screw your politics

Mattis opened his remarks with a broadside against the political squabbling that’s hobbled legislative decisiveness in recent years, cautioning lawmakers to leave their politics at the door when they debate the merits of the Pentagon’s budget rather than rely on the continuing resolutions that “[inhibit] our readiness and adaptation to new challenges.”

“I need bipartisan support for this budget request,” demanded Mattis in the remarks. “In the past, by failing to pass a budget on time or eliminate the threat of sequestration, Congress sidelined itself from its active Constitutional oversight role. It has blocked new programs, prevented service growth, stalled industry initiative, and placed troops at greater risk. Despite the tremendous efforts of this committee, Congress as a whole has met the present challenge with lassitude, not leadership.”

2. The sequestration has screwed the military over for years.

The real target of Mattis’ testimony is sequestration, the automatic defense spending cuts that came out of the petty debt-ceiling debate of 2011. The only reason U.S. military hasn’t completely collapsed abroad despite an expanding theater of operations and high-operational tempo are the troops who actually have to deal with the consequences of political bitchiness downrange.

“For all the heartache caused by the loss of our troops during these wars, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of our military than sequestration,” according to Mattis. “We have only sustained our ability to meet America’s commitments abroad because our troops have stoically shouldered a much greater burden.”

3. We need new stuff, and lots of it

It’s no secret that Mattis personally moved to jam as many bombs as possible into the DoD’s budget, and every branch has a wish list of essential advanced technology designed to help troops adapt to the changing face of modern warfare. But that’s not because Pentagon agencies are simply churning out shinier toys each year like an iPod: The aging U.S. arsenal just won’t cut it anymore.

Sixteen years of constant war “has exhausted our equipment faster than planned,” according to Mattis. “Congress and the Department could not anticipate the accumulated wear and tear of years of continuous combat use. We have had to procure replacement gear and spend more money to keep gear serviceable and extend its service life. Due to this extensive use of our equipment across the force, operations and maintenance costs have also increased, rising faster than the rate of inflation during the past 16 years.”

4. We’re going to stay in Afghanistan for awhile

In a surprise visit to Kabul, Mattis touched off weeks of rumors regarding the U.S. military’s long-term presence in Afghanistan amid growing ISIS and Taliban insurgencies. But in his statement, Mattis affirmed that the United States will need to maintain a substantial force for years to come not just to stabilize the country, but the entire region.

“This need to preserve our security also requires us to sustain the international presence in Afghanistan to help stabilize the South Asia region and deny terrorists a safe haven,” according to Mattis. “Instability in the Middle East spills over into other regions. Extremists and extremist ideologies have spread to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Numerous countries are dealing with forced migration of people seeking to escape violence and despair, reminding us that problems originating in ungoverned or combat torn areas don’t remain there.”

5. We’re going back to space!

The traditionally neutral battlefield of outer space “is now contested,” according to Mattis. “This creates the need to develop capabilities and capacities for more resilient satellites designed to withstand persistent kinetic and non-kinetic attack.” Did somebody say Thor’s Hammer?

6. Get ready for more pay raises

Military pay and benefits are the single largest expense category for the DoD, encompassing a third of the Pentagon’s budget, according to Mattis — and that’s a good thing.

“I believe providing competitive pay and benefits is a necessity to attract and retain the highly qualified people needed in today’s military,” said Mattis. “Investment in military compensation, Blended Retirement, the Military Health System, and family programs are essential to fielding the talent we need to sustain our competitive advantage on the battlefield.”

But balancing that priority with “other investments critical to readiness, equipment, and modernization” will prove challenging, especially with Mattis’ dire warning that American air, sea, and ground forces remain threatened by new technologies.


Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

"The conjecture among the Mud Soldiers and Bien Hoa Eagles is that Pitsenbarger was passed over because he was enlisted," Robinson, who wrote and directed The Last Full Measure, told Task & Purpose.

"As for the events in the film, Pitsenbarger's upgrade was clearly ignored for decades and items had been lost — whether that was deliberate is up for discussion but we feel we captured the spirit of the issues at hand either way," he said. "Some of these questions are simply impossible to answer with 100% certainty as no one really knows."

The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

There's no shortage of op-eds by current and former service members who see the military's awards process as slow and cumbersome at best, and biased or broken at worst, and it's refreshing to see that criticism reflected in a major war movie. And sure, like plenty of war movies, The Last Full Measure has some sappy moments, but on the whole, it's a damn good drama.

The Last Full Measure hits theaters on Jan. 24.

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