After shaking the hands of all 984 Air Force Academy graduates under a blazing sun Wednesday, James Mattis looked tired.
His white shirt had lost its starch and his gray hair was mussed. His voice was gravelly from what he admitted was “too much talking.” But as he sat down with The Gazette to talk about the Defense Department he runs, Mattis' passion and fire remained obvious.
He's 18 months into the job of running the most powerful military on the planet and he still carries his own luggage, shocking bellboys at the DoubleTree off South Circle Drive where he took a modest room for his Colorado Springs stay.
He's pushing for rapid modernization, but holds values that date to the days of knights on horseback.
“So long as we recruit from that society, that – we have to recognize that a progressive American society, a classically liberal society in which human dignity and freedom is prioritized – may need a U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps that has rather quaint or old-fashioned values about discipline, self-discipline being primary, unit discipline, chivalry, the controlled use of violence, that sort of thing,” he said.
Mattis, who rose through the Marine Corps ranks after graduating from a small teacher's college in eastern Washington, is also the lone figure in the Trump administration who studiously avoids partisan politics.
He praises Democrats, the Mexican government and global entanglements. In a short talk, he used the word “bipartisan” four times.
“I think there's a bipartisan way forward with this strategy and the budget as long as I can show an audit and have their confidence,” Mattis said while discussing the Pentagon's future plans. “And we'll have to be very careful as we look at past problems or problems that we are dealing with today to make certain we define what was the source of the problem, so we don't take off and start solving problems that don't need to be solved or we solve the wrong problems.”
It's an approach that puts the centrist secretary in a prime position to navigate through some of the major issues facing the Defense Department, including one especially important in Colorado Springs: the future of the Pentagon's space efforts.
For more than a year, Congress, the White House and the Pentagon have debated whether the existing system that puts most military satellites under Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base is adequate in an era of increasing competition and increasing threats to U.S. space superiority.
President Donald Trump has floated the idea of a separate “space force” — an idea that Mattis openly opposed in 2017. Now, the secretary is seeking a middle ground. And he has nothing but praise for the Pentagon's critics who have decried the current structure.
“Well I don't think they're moving forward too fast,” Mattis said. “I think they're bringing legitimate issues up.”
His bottom line: “National defense is not a partisan issue.”
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks to President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence July 20, 2017, at the Pentagon.Defense Department / Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.
Mattis won't tip his hand on what he wants done with the Pentagon's space program. But he points to a new path forward for many Defense Department programs that looks beyond current wars in Afghanistan and Syria.
“We need somebody looking at hypersonics, artificial intelligence, directed energy, big data, you know, all these things that will change the character of combat in the future,” he said.
While Mattis pursues new technology, he's leaning heavily on an old tool to make the world safer: Making friends.
Even as Trump has stepped up his immigration rhetoric and maintained a push to build a wall between America and Mexico, Mattis has fostered friendships with the Mexican military. He said that U.S. relations with the Mexican military are the best they have been in more than 70 years.
“We want to make the military more lethal in outer space and cyberspace, at sea, on land, and in the air,” Mattis said. “And we want to do so as much as possible by strengthening our partners and our allies.”
In finding partners, Mattis is even willing to look at some of America's enemies. One example: In Iraqi elections this month, a coalition led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr took power.
Sadr is the man who brought us a fight remembered as the battle of Sadr City in 2008, when his loyalists rose up to attack American and Iraqi forces in a bid to extend his grip on the government.
But Mattis said he's ready to deal with Sadr. He compared it to America making allies in Germany and Japan after World War II.
“Well first, all wars eventually come to an end,” he explained.
“We all know what Germany did during World War II with death camps, with invasions across Europe,” he said. “And yet, by 1948, '49, we were standing up NATO to defend Western Europe and we were working with Germany.”
Mattis went deeper into history to explain why working with old enemies is a good idea, using the treaty that ended World War I and may have led to the war that followed as an example.
“The decisions you take following a war, comparing the United States leadership after World War II versus what came out of Versailles after World War I, can set the conditions for the future,” he said.
The secretary's biggest fight this year, though, may take place inside the Pentagon. He's launched a campaign to figure out how the Pentagon spends its nearly $700 billion annual budget.
It's harder than it appears. The Pentagon has not balanced its books in generations.
“I cannot right now look you in the eye and say that we can tell you that every penny in the past has been spent in a strategically sound and auditable manner,” Mattis said. “And so this year, for the first time in 70 years, the Pentagon will perform an audit.”
Mattis is sure the results of the Pentagon's audit won't be pretty.
“I look forward to every problem we find, because we're going to fix every one of them, so I can look you people in the eye and say I'm getting your money and here's what I'm doing with it,” he said. “Number one, know exactly where it's going, but number two, breed your trust that the money that's coming to us is adapting to the changing character of war.”
While Mattis is balancing the books and chasing the latest weapons, he's also working on bringing his ethics to the 2 million troops he oversees.
“Now I accept that when we send these young volunteers into wars, the matter of war is that there's going to be some of them who are going to be casualties,” Mattis said. “That is the reality, and every one of them who comes in knows what they're getting into. I do not accept a single casualty of sexual assault of one of us on our own — on someone serving alongside us. So part of this is making certain not only that the troops know what I stand for, it's making very clear what I, and the Department of Defense and their leadership, will not stand for.”
He describes a new set of boundaries for troops like the sideline stripes on a football field.
“We're committed to the ethical midfield,” Mattis said. “We want people staying in the ethical midfield. That way, if they make a minor mistake, they're still not out of bounds.”
Keeping troops in that middle ground is something that Mattis will entrust to his senior enlisted members.
“They're still on the playing field. And that's when the first sergeant gets his arm around his shoulder and says, 'Let's have a little talk there, son.'” Mattis said. “The way a first sergeant or a master chief petty officer can do that, which is rather compelling.”
In describing what he expects of troops, Mattis seems to paint a self-portrait.
“We need physically fit, mentally sharp, and morally strong people,” he said. “And if someone doesn't measure up, we either don't let them in or, if they don't measure up while they're in, they're going to be held accountable.”
©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.