Call Sign Chaos
In late November 2016, I was enjoying Thanksgiving break in my hometown on the Columbia River in Washington State when I received an unexpected call from Vice President–elect Pence. Would I meet with President-elect Trump to discuss the job of Secretary of Defense of the United States? I had taken no part in the election campaign and had never met or spoken to Mr. Trump, so to say that I was surprised is an understatement. Further, I knew that, absent a congressional waiver, federal law prohibited a former military officer from serving as Secretary of Defense within seven years of departing military service. Given that no waiver had been authorized since General George Marshall was made secretary in 1950, and I’d been out for only three and a half years, I doubted I was a viable candidate. Nonetheless, I flew to Bedminster, New Jersey, for the interview.
I had time on the cross-country flight to ponder how to encapsulate my view of America’s role in the world. On my flight out of Denver, the flight attendant’s standard safety briefing caught my attention: If cabin pressure is lost, masks will drop.
. . . Put your own mask on first, then help others around you.
. . . We’ve all heard it many times, but in that moment, these familiar words seemed like a metaphor: to preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.
The next day I was driven to the Trump National Golf Club and, entering a side door, waited about twenty minutes before I was ushered into a modest conference room. I was introduced to the President-elect, the Vice President–elect, the chief of staff, and a handful of others. We talked about the state of our military, where our views aligned and where they differed. In our forty-minute conversation, Mr. Trump led the wide-ranging discussion, and the tone was amiable. Afterward, the President-elect escorted me out to the front steps of the colonnaded clubhouse, where the press was gathered. I assumed that I would be on my way back to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where I’d spent the past few years doing research and guest lecturing around the country, and was greatly enjoying my time. I figured that my strong support of NATO and my dismissal of the use of torture on prisoners would have the President-elect looking for another candidate. Standing beside him on the steps as photographers snapped away and shouted questions, I was surprised for the second time that week when he characterized me to the reporters as “the real deal.” Days later, I was formally nominated. That was when I realized that, subject to a congressional waiver and Senate consent, I would not be returning to Stanford’s beautiful, vibrant campus.
During the interview, Mr. Trump had asked me if I could do the job of Secretary of Defense. I said I could. I’d never aspired to the job, and took the opportunity to suggest several other candidates I thought highly capable of leading our defense. Still, having been raised by the Greatest Generation, by two parents who had served in World War II, and subsequently shaped by more than four decades in the Marine Corps, I considered government service to be both honor and duty. In my view, when the President asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American athletic company’s slogan, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes.
When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it. Whether asked to serve by a Democrat or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge.” This ethos has shaped and defined me, and I wasn’t going to betray it no matter how much I was enjoying my life west of the Rockies and spending time with a family I had neglected during my forty-plus years in the Marines.
When I said I could do the job, I meant I felt prepared. By happenstance, I knew the job intimately. In the late 1990s, I had served as the executive secretary to two Secretaries of Defense, William Perry and William Cohen. I had also served as the senior military assistant to Deputy Secretary of Defense Rudy de Leon. In close quarters, I had gained a personal grasp of the immensity and gravity of a “SecDef’s” responsibilities. The job is tough: our first Secretary of Defense committed suicide, and few have emerged from the job unscathed, either legally or politically.
We were at war, amid the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our nation’s history. I’d signed enough letters to next of kin about the death of a loved one to understand the consequential aspects of leading a department on a war footing when the rest of the country was not. Its millions of devoted troops and civilians spread around the world carried out their mission with a budget larger than the gross domestic products of all but two dozen nations. On a personal level, I had no great desire to return to Washington, D.C. I drew no energy from the turmoil and politics that animate our capital. Yet I didn’t feel inundated by the job’s immensities. I also felt confident that I could gain bipartisan support for Defense despite the political fratricide practiced in Washington.
In late December, I flew into Washington, D.C., to begin the Senate confirmation process.
This book is about how my career in the Marines brought me to this moment and prepared me to say yes to a job of this magnitude. The Marines teach you, above all, how to adapt, improvise, and overcome. But they expect you to have done your homework, to have mastered your profession. Amateur performance is anathema, and the Marines are bluntly critical of falling short, satisfied only with 100 percent effort and commitment. Yet over the course of my career, every time I made a mistake—and I made many—the Marines promoted me. They recognized that those mistakes were part of my tuition and a necessary bridge to learning how to do things right. Year in and year out, the Marines had trained me in skills they knew I needed, while educating me to deal with the unexpected.
Beneath its Prussian exterior of short haircuts, crisp uniforms, and exacting standards, the Corps nurtured some of the strangest mavericks and most original thinkers I would encounter in my journey through multiple commands, dozens of countries, and many college campuses. The Marines’ military excellence does not suffocate intellectual freedom or substitute regimented thinking for imaginative solutions. They know their doctrine, often derived from lessons learned in combat and written in blood, but refuse to let that turn into dogma. Woe to the unimaginative one who, in after-action reviews, takes refuge in doctrine. The critiques in the field, in the classroom, or at happy hour are blunt for good reason. Personal sensitivities are irrelevant. No effort is made to ease you through your midlife crisis when peers, seniors, or subordinates offer more cunning or historically proven options, even when out of step with doctrine.
In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most in selecting others for promotion or critical roles were initiative and aggressiveness. I looked for those hallmarks in those I served alongside. Institutions get the behaviors they reward. Marines have no institutional confusion about their mission: they are a ready naval force designed to fight well in any clime or place, then return to their own society as better citizens. That ethos has created a force feared by foes and embraced by allies the world over, because the Marines reward initiative aggressively implemented.
During my monthlong preparation for the Senate confirmation hearings, I read many excellent intelligence briefings. I was struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage. We would have to focus on regaining the edge. I had been fighting terrorism in the Middle East during my last decade of military service. During that time and in the three years since I had left active duty, haphazard funding had significantly worsened the situation, doing more damage to our current and future military readiness than any enemy in the field.
I could see that the background drummed into me as a Marine would need to be adapted to fit my role as a civilian secretary. The formulation of policy—from defining the main threats to our country to adapting the military’s education, budget, and selection of leaders to address the swiftly changing character of war—would place new demands on me. It now became even more clear to me why the Marines assign an expanded reading list to everyone promoted to a new rank: that reading gives historical depth that lights the path ahead. Slowly but surely, we learned there was nothing new under the sun: properly informed, we weren’t victims—we could always create options.