We have just held our eighteenth and final meeting of our new national security class, Technology, Innovation and Modern Warfare. Joe Felter, Raj Shah, and I designed a class to explore the new military systems, concepts of operation, and lessons that will emerge from 21st century technologies – space, cyber, AI, and machine learning and autonomy.
General James Mattis addressed the class today .
Read our summaries of the previous seventeen grades here.
Our speaker for our final final class was former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who gave an inspiring talk on serving the nation. General Mattis joined the Marine Corps in 1969 and led Marines and later Joint Forces at all levels from platoon commander as a lieutenant to the fighting commander of the US Central Command as a four-star general. He recently headed our entire US Department of Defense as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense. We’re fortunate to have him back here in Stanford at the Hoover Institution.
Below you will find selected excerpts from an exciting Q&A session with the teaching team and our students. General Mattis shared a number of compelling experiences and insights that underscored many of the topics covered in the course.
How do we compete as a nation against China?
The reality is that the Republican and Democratic governments have tried to help China for over 20 years. (It was accepted) If we empower them, if we work with them, if they liberalize their economies, political liberalization will follow. It was an untested thesis. And there have been a lot of people who have read history who may have said I’m not so sure. As many of you know, the Chinese Communist Party sits on a shaky throne. You cannot liberalize politically, otherwise you will lose power. It’s that simple. You are not going to liberalize. You made the choice. It’s loud and clear, it goes on for decades.
From Brussels to Washington, DC, certainly from Tokyo via Canberra to New Delhi, there is recognition that China wants to rewrite the rules. And there is no reason to believe that an authoritarian country domestically would write liberal rules abroad. History doesn’t teach you that. Countries do not treat foreigners better than their own people. So you have to realize that the CCP is becoming more authoritarian – for example about Hong Kong, about its Uyghurs, about their own people with social grades, who are now assigned social responsibility, work, grades, and the like.
When the National Defense Strategy came out which stated that China was our main competitor, the idea was that if we can buy peace, we will keep the peace for another year, another month, another week , another day, this gives our diplomats the time to work. And try to keep our values first, to show the world that we want to do this work. We don’t want to let China down.
What do you think is the opportunity for Silicon Valley and the students in our class here at Stanford to play a role in national security?
Well, the first point I want to make is: we need all of your good ideas. This is not a government that rules in Washington and does its own thing like Beijing or Moscow in their country. This is government by the people, by the people for the people. We have no ordained right to victory on the battlefield. If we want to keep these freedoms that we have – the freedoms that so many people from around the world bring to Silicon Valley – those freedoms need to be defended because there are always people who think the way to do things to rule is to hit heads so as not to count the heads.
For those countries that do not operate with it, you cannot wish them away, you cannot make them something you want because you think that the people there are like you. They are like you. For example, a taxi driver in Leningrad is very similar to a taxi driver in San Francisco. The problem is not with the people in these countries, but with a system. So we need to look into this system and make sure we get the best out of our young people.
And you don’t have to stay like me for 40 for a few years, but you should come in and do it for a couple of years. Perhaps you really want to highlight education in your community. And be on the local school board at 26 – do your homework and do it. You may want to be on the city council and help adjust housing policy so that ordinary people with normal paychecks can actually afford to buy a house in this city.
We need others of you to deal with these very technical questions and to help us find our way forward. But the bottom line is that you really need to take into account that just because the draft was gone, that freedom doesn’t mean you can live unscathed here. Some people say a country is like a bank. You can only take out what you are ready to bring in. We have a lot of people these days who think they can take out. But you don’t have to put anything into it. Number one, this is a great way to land on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re around 45 and saying that in my selfish life I haven’t done much good to other people. So I don’t recommend that. But number two, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun rolling up your sleeves and working with others for a good cause. You will never regret it, you will have the best days of your life, you will have the worst days of your life there. You really are alive when you do this. And for those of you who want to go into the military, I recommend it.
Are we right to emphasize that it is less about the technology and more about its use?
Well we’re lucky, I think we’re at the forefront – at the cutting edge of technology. That’s why so many young people who are smart come to Palo Alto and the surrounding area or Boston, Seattle, Texas, all these places where we have this. I don’t think it’s either or, but if I focused on the most important area it would be integration. I study a lot of history, not because it gives me all the answers, but because it tells me how other people have successfully or unsuccessfully dealt with similar situations. Not every situation is unique. And this is how you learn which questions to ask. And I’ll give you an example of a military technology where some people didn’t develop it – didn’t develop the 2.0 version – but used it better than anyone else.
During World War I, the British are fed up with their boys fighting against barbed wire and machine guns. And they say if we could cross this ground in an armored vehicle and then fight or fight from the armored vehicle, we would save many lives. And so they developed the tank in the middle of the war. They didn’t think ahead. You were caught flat-footed. Tanks are big, they didn’t work well and everything else. But they had the tank. British had the tank. They even had some pretty good truth-telling tactics that had evolved over the next few years after the war. Well everyone else said, Oh, I want one of these too. Since humanity is what it is, they are always looking for another way to beat each other. And so everyone starts building tanks. Guess who had the best tank by 1939? People think Germans. Aha, nowhere near. The French had better tanks. Tank for tank, the French had the better tank in 1938/39. But the Germans integrated the tank better. So the British had Panzer 1.0. Let’s just say the French had 2.0. And the Germans were about 1.5. But the Germans put a radio in their tank to talk to a dive bomber over them. And they trained their people – they raised them to take initiative. And now in 1940 they unleash what you and I call Blitzkrieg – Blitzkrieg – across Europe. They didn’t invent the tank – they didn’t design the tank very well. They didn’t even have the most modern tank, but they incorporated that technology better than anyone else. And they unleashed hell across Europe. That just shows how important it is to integrate functions better, more effectively, more comprehensively and in a more targeted manner than others. Here you get your advantage.
What new technological threats do you see?
The new threats that are coming can be seen mainly in cyber and space. These are two new domains. We fought on land and at sea for about 10,000 years on this planet, then in the air for the past hundred years. Over the past 15 years we’ve added cyber and space. I would tell you that we are now integrating them in these areas.
But there are also fundamental changes in dealing with one another as human beings. Let’s talk about artificial intelligence, how we deal with life. And all of these are double-edged swords. I can tell you that each of them has a double edge. So we’d better find out how we’re going to deal with these new technologies. And try to keep the peace for another year, another month, another week.
What do you think the future of warfare looks like?
One day I received a call. I was a marine three star hotel in Afghanistan. The Secretary General of NATO called me. He said your president gave me permission to call you. You will become the Allied Commander in Chief for NATO Transformation. And in the US, you will be in command of the US Joint Forces Command. Your job is to sense future wars. And I thought I’d better start reading about it because I was an infantryman fighting all along. So I read 20 books. And every military book started with Alexander the Great. There’s a reason he called the big one by the way.
Every military that has been successfully transformed and successfully modernized has done one thing in particular, namely what has been successful. They defined the specific problem they were trying to solve. And they defined the problem so well that the solution became more obvious to them. Go to Einstein, if he had 60 minutes to save the world, he was asked how he would put his thoughts together. He said I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, then we would save the world in five minutes. How does that work here? I would tell you that in this case it will be a combination of the legacy systems and the breakthrough technologies that are currently on the market. But remember, I thought when you were teaching all of your strategies earlier for 2022 and through 2030. There’s one boxer who said everyone always has a plan until they’re punched in the face.
I remember when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we told some Russian officers that we met at that time and that we actually got along. Things went badly under Putin, but for a while I remember one of our officers in that window who said you weren’t going to go across Europe with our air forces. He said, Oh, we weren’t worried about that. I was kind of curious, I said, why not? He said because you wouldn’t fly a lot of your air forces in my T-72. were parked on your runway.
In other words, there is the give and take of war. Where you see an advantage we had and we had a great advantage in the air. And they didn’t have the air defenses that would have stopped us in most cases. But they wanted to use an earlier technology. They would refuse us to use ours. How does it look? We’ll see how all of these new weapons are used. And some will work, some won’t work as well, some will be destabilizing, some actually won’t be used at all. Only the threat will be enough.
For example, if you are about to join a geographic combat squad, there are a number of men and women in the executive operations shop watching the information on the board. And there sits a guy who speaks to the aircraft carriers, another who speaks to the air force fighter, the CAOC, the fighters, bombers, and so on. There are the army rocket men in the room. There are your maneuvering brigades in the room, something like that. Well, there are a few different looking boys and girls sitting there, mostly civilians. And they sit there and sit on keyboards and go back and forth to other places very quickly. And they are currently fighting against it in cyber war. And satellites are rotated to look at certain things. And it goes on.
And so you will see the integration from the very top up to an army battalion in which there is an air force officer. As a result, certain target data are fed in via an integrated command and control system. In other words, it’s not like one robot fights everything, but there will be many robots in the field and in the air above us. It won’t all be high tech. In fact, some of the units will message each other and motorcyclists will more than likely use them as they cannot be cut off by cyber. You will see the technology mix up and down. And certain breakthrough technologies will then dominate in certain areas. And now it’s up to you to mix and match this in some way and that. You do that.
Let me tell you what you want to do to the enemy commander. The guy who’s going to make the decision to fall behind, to fight harder, to do this, to do that. You want him to face so many cascading dilemmas that he can’t keep up. As he solves this problem, three more dilemmas arise. And you want him to be in the “horns of a dilemma” all the time. If he moves he’ll be hit. If he stays seated, he will be hit. If he moves here he’ll be hit. But if he hits you he’ll get hit even harder because he had to shoot now and we now have more information on where he’s shooting from. It’s a great, great, tragic game of chess. And it will be shaped by all the things you are studying right now and surprising that the enemy is up your sleeve.
A principle strategy – first
When I walked into the Pentagon – my first day there – it was noon on a Saturday. And there’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a four-star marine general I knew well. A four-star general in the Air Force whom I knew well as Vice Chairman. And a legal holdover from the Obama administration, President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of Defense. And that’s the four of us, for six months we will be the people who make all the decisions there. I said you know folks, I’ve been asking for a strategy for a month, in case the Senate asked me about it in my hearing, they didn’t, but you didn’t give it to me. I know I couldn’t give you an order beforehand because the Senate would offend. I did not have approval yet. But I said I want the strategy. And I need it now because the next thing I will be signing relatives, mothers and fathers. And the chairman looked me straight in the eye and said we don’t have any. We haven’t had one in 10 years.
This is not a partisan slam against the Obama administration. There are two different parties, two different administrations. So that evening I went home and started writing it. I took it with me every time I met in NATO so I could speak to our allies. My first trip was only Tokyo and Seoul. I started writing with them. I spoke to every Democrat and Republican on Capitol Hill who was willing to speak to me about it. We introduced it a year later. And two years in a row, I got record-breaking budgets for the Department of Defense, with 87% of the Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate voting for it.
So the answer is: Do not give up your principles, your values, your way of life, your constitutional form of government. Create a strategy and say this is what we stand for, this is not what we stand for. Put it all in your budget.
Past America First
I would recommend that the new administration take something out of the national security strategy in the White House about “America first”. I don’t care how well it was intended. It didn’t work well. At first I didn’t like it. I like it less now. We didn’t include any of this in our defense strategy. It could pretty much stand that way. They may have to play with it a little and put their fingerprint on it.
But if you can get strategies developed with both party support, Senator Vandenberg, a right wing Republican, was asked in Michigan in 1949 how you could work with that terrible left wing, President Truman. He replied very bluntly: “Politics is standing still on the water. “Right now we have so few people who have seen impartial, bipartisan work. You don’t even realize it when it happens. But that’s the solution. Real strategic thinking based on traditional strategies and traditional views on America’s role in the world with less militarism in its foreign policy.
How can we (students) help improve national security and serve our country?
Number one, you should keep studying. Make this your first step of college-level learning and move on now. With the Marines, every time you get promoted, you must be given a new reading list to read. Even generals get a new reading list to read. You must read all of these books. But never stop learning because this is a very dynamic world. It’s just a flurry of changes and you need to keep learning.
How do you express that in your question? And remember, we have a couple of branches of government that you would likely come across. The House and Senate Armed Forces Committees, Intelligence Committees, and External Relations Committees love to bring you bright young people. Often times you don’t stay longer than four or five years, which seems like a long time to you right now. Don’t trust me But it does give you an understanding of how the government works and gets you involved with the issues of the trip. Another option would be to go to the State Department, the CIA, or the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy, Air Force, and Army.
If, for example, something more technically oriented, it could be worthwhile. If you go to the defense minister’s office and just say you lived in Jordan for a year or in China for a year, we often try to get people like you to act as assistant desk officers. This is how you can actually contribute your knowledge. We think if we can catch you young and show you what we’re doing, we’ll keep you. Years later you come back The point I want to make is that even if you don’t stay there for a career, whether it’s the Peace Corps, the Marine Corps, the military or the State Department, you are trying to find a way that you are and find yourself getting passionate about something. Because I would just tell you that once you get to that point, it never seems like a job anymore. And you’ll really get into it because you have the initiative to go deeper, because you like what you’re doing.
Keep the Faith – America’s Power of Attraction
And now let me close with something. I’m a two-star general and I’m traveling in western Iraq. It’s 2004. It was 120 degrees, 127 degrees every day. At night it cools down to 105. We are outnumbered. We fought and fought and fought and I come to see a lieutenant at midnight, probably no more than eighteen months after his college years and his seamen and marines. And when the sun comes up, I’m in his vicinity in the middle of nowhere in the desert. And he comes over and tells me, okay, this is where I fought General. And here I lost men. Here’s how many enemies we defeated. By the way, General, we picked up a guy last night who was putting an IED on the street you were driving on. I said really? It’s kind of personal. He said: you know what? He lived in London for two years. He speaks perfect english. Do you want to talk to him? I said: sure.
Because it turns out that he is an engineer. He was trained in England. And so he sits down. A marine cuts off a pair of plastic handcuffs, the security guard walking around with him. And obviously it wasn’t a good night for the man. He’s out there digging his hole. He’s got his artillery round, he’s going to put in his car battery. He whistles. He looks up and there are five men with automatic rifles in camouflage uniforms pointing at him. It’s good, I think my retirement program is not in good shape right now. And I said what are you doing this for You are a Sunni, I can say that. We are the marines. We’re the only friend you’ve got in this country. Why are you trying to kill us?
And it starts well: “You are American. You are here to steal the oil” and all that. And I said, no, actually we are not. I said I pull out my wallet every time when I pump gasoline into my doggone car. “But you’re an educated man. You can talk like that. Just go away. I don’t want to waste my time. “And the marines came up to take it away, and I said, can I sit here for a minute? He said, okay. We’re sitting right there next to my vehicle in the dirt. And he said,” I don’t like foreign forces, foreign forces Soldiers in my country. “Okay, I respect that. I wouldn’t want them in my country. I understand. We started talking a little and got a cup of coffee and he spilled it all on his hand, him is so nervous. And I asked him about his family. He has a wife and two daughters. They live about 10 kilometers away by the river. And these marines are in the middle of nowhere. If they don’t stop the Syrian foreign fighters from going to Baghdad They’re going to kill a lot of innocent people so the Marines get nervous about going out on the streets again, back on patrol and everything. At the time I had to get started he said, Can I give you a question? put? I said: sure. He said, “I think I’m going to jail.” You are safe. You will be in Abu Ghraib for a long time wearing orange jumpsuit for this little stunt. You were lucky that you are not dead. And he said, “Do you think in general? You think if I am a model prisoner do you think my family and I could immigrate to America? ”
Think about it, my good young friends. On your worst day I want you to remember this story. Think about it. That he would now give everything to sit where I sit and his daughter where you are right now. Imperfect as we are, as angry as we are in this country right now, it seems angrier than I was with terrorists when I shoot them. Remember how great this country is on its worst day, then roll up your sleeves and improve it. It’s that simple – make it stronger. Keep the faith with one another, help one another. And think of three words: “Put others first.” And when you are 45 you won’t shrink and wonder what you’ve done with your life. Good night, young people. And thank you for having me here.
A transcript of General Mattis’ talk is here and the video is below.
If you can’t see the video, click here.
What a fitting ending for the class
Class summary and lessons from our next and last post
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