A Review of “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis”

Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary MattisHolding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy Snodgrass
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I saw this book as an opportunity to learn more about Jim Mattis and how he fared in the Trump Administration. I have become somewhat fascinated with Mattis, his philosophy, and how that philosophy manifested itself during his tenure as Secretary of Defense for Donald Trump. I bought the book on that basis, and it added some insight on Mattis and the so called “adults in the room” that existed for a short period in the Trump Administration. How did Mattis get on with Rex Tillerson, with National Security advisor H.R. McMaster, and others, and especially with Trump? Again the book offers some insight, but mixes that insight with the personal and professional tenure of the author, who worked as a speechwriter for Mattis. We are forced to endure the office politics, which invariably reflect badly on everyone. The author mixes in some office score settling with the book, which drove down my enjoyment of the work, and my rating.

The marriage of Trump and Mattis was unlikely to succeed not because of personality, but because they have fundamentally opposite world views. The differences were evident even before Mattis was offered the job. Mattis himself believed that his “interview” with Trump had not gone well, and that he would not be offered the job. From the book:

“Despite Trump’s words, the interview hadn’t instilled much confidence in Mattis about his chances. His conversation with Trump was friendly enough, but he had “disagreed with the president-elect on every one of the main points that he raised.” Their most memorable exchange occurred when Trump told Mattis that he supported the use of waterboarding on prisoners of war. Mattis disagreed, saying, “I’ve never found it to be useful. Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” Having disagreed so much with the president-elect, Mattis told us that he thought, Well, thanks for the invite, as he pretended to dust his hands off. I certainly won’t be hearing back from those guys. Nonetheless, Trump’s appreciation for Mattis appeared to increase in the weeks following his interview. Having decided to select Mattis as his nominee for secretary of defense, he teased the announcement at a December 1 victory rally in Cincinnati, the first stop on his “Thank You” tour around the country after the election. “We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump announced to raucous cheers, “He’s the closest thing to General George Patton we have.”

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (p. 28). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The differences between them went well beyond using torture. Trump’s attacks on NATO, his attacking of Asian ally South Korea, both on trade and on contributions to U.S. defense efforts on the Korean peninsula, his cozy relationship with Vlad Putin, all brought tension to the relationship. Mattis tried, quietly, to stay under the radar politically, while exercising influence on Trump policy wise. Snodgrass gives us a highlight of an early meeting at the Pentagon, attended by the President and all of the major players, including Tillerson, Pence, Kushner, Bannon, Cohn, and others, with General Mattis as the host. Mattis prepared methodically, creating a slide deck that attempted to show the benefits of U.S. “forward deployment.”

“Good morning, Mr. President,” he began. “Today I’d like to show you our global laydown of forces, a forward presence created by the greatest generation from the ashes of World War II. These men returned home and said, ‘What a crummy world, but we’re a part of it,’ before rolling up their sleeves and getting to work. From World War II, we learned the hard way that we had to be forward deployed . . . that we can’t defend effectively from America’s one-yard line. Our presence abroad also supports millions of American jobs at home by ensuring the free and unfettered flow of global trade, and that our economy is the real engine of our national defense.” President Trump crossed his arms and scowled.”

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (p. 73). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The meeting went downhill from there, with Trump simply rejecting or contradicting, mid-stream, the presentation and the points Mattis was trying to make.

From the book:

“Mattis continued with his briefing, walking through in exacting detail the force ratios in each major geographic location. He sought to convince President Trump that our allies and partners put forward far more troops in support of stability abroad than America does. In short, America gets a good deal from an overseas military presence…

Mattis’s third slide triggered a stronger response from Trump. A visual depiction of our Pacific posture, this slide zoomed in on the US forces located in Japan and South Korea—forces that had kept the peace in both countries for more than six decades. It detailed the numbers of troops in each country, the cost to American taxpayers, and the costs borne by our allies to support forces in their country. Mattis made the point that America had been willing to accept unfair terms following World War II in order to get both countries back on their feet, but that now would be an opportune time to update our trade agreements should Trump desire to do so….

Over time Mattis began to shut down, sitting back in his chair with a distant, defeated look on his face. He had cared so much about this meeting, had poured his heart and soul into it, and had believed firmly in his ability to bring Trump around to his way of thinking. None of his attempts were working. From our vantage point, Mattis was playing a game of chess against a president fixated on “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (pp. 74-75, p. 79). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Mattis and Trump, intrinsically, are just not on the same page policy or disposition wise. Mattis is extremely disciplined and careful, sometimes to a fault. He is a voracious reader. Trump is ill-disciplined, does not read, and prefers to operate from instinct. In my view it was not a marriage designed to last.

There were some interesting Mattis quotes, which I am believe add some value to any discussion, as well as some quotes that give an indication of his more hard edged military demeanor. Let’s look at two of the military ones:

“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”

“Always carry a knife with you. Just in case there’s cheesecake, or you need to stab someone in the throat.”

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (p. 18-19). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The non-military quote that I believe to be worthwhile from General Mattis:

“Bus, never forget that we all have an expiration date. Every day that passes brings you one day closer to the end of your tenure.” He paused for a few seconds, reflecting. “Especially in a political job. You never know when the end will come, so make the most of the time you have.”

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (p. 139). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The second is not a quote, but an observation from the author on what kind of leader General Mattis is:

“Mattis believes there are only two types of organizations: one where the leader directs and assigns tasks, or a second variation, where the staff informs the leader of where to go and what to do. A longtime military commander, Mattis was clearly in the first camp. Using his staff, he would direct the Pentagon. The Pentagon would never direct him.

Snodgrass, Guy . Holding the Line (p. 47). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

That observation is so important. Nothing against staff but if you place a person with insufficient ability into a major position of responsibility and they simply “follow staff direction” then you are heading for trouble, or a tenure that accomplishes little. Mattis is, in my opinion, 100% correct on that point. .

I took some good value from the book, but would repeat the criticism that the book had two separate areas of focus, and for me that was a negative. Author Guy Snodgrass is retired military, and he definitely took this opportunity to even the score with a few administrative rivals. He also did not hero worship Mattis, pointing out what he considered to be deficiencies, but at times it appeared that he might have been settling a score or two with the General himself. I will be looking for more on Mattis, a fascinating figure, but this was a good start.

View all my reviews

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