It is impossible to know when the next war will come but the U.S. Army must be ready, said U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Mattis made the remarks at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington on Monday, citing the British empire’s burning of Washington and the unprecedented change of warfare that was seen in World War I to exemplify the need for readiness—a point he repeated again when asked about North Korea.
“It is right now a diplomatically led economic sanction buttressed effort to try and turn North Korea off this path,” Mattis answered when asked what the military could do to stave off a war on the Korean Peninsula.
“Now what does the future hold? Neither you nor I could say.”
But after noting that the U.N. Security Council, which includes countries like Russia and China, has twice voted to sanction the North Korean regime, Mattis said the other option must be available.
“The international community has spoken, but that means that the U.S. Army must stand ready. And so if you are ready, that is your duty at this point in time, and I know the army will always do its duty.”
Readiness requires funding, however, and brings up the long-debated question on how to balance security needs versus budget constraints. With the current complexity of security issues facing the United States, Mattis said it was the military’s duty to make sure lawmakers understood the dangers.
“I believe in the U.S. Congress. I believe in them 100 percent, but we’ve got to lay this out in such a way that in a democracy, we bring the American people with us, and that starts with the U.S. Congress,” he said.
Mattis said a similar problem faced Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he attempted to convince Congress of the same need during the economically painful years after WWI. Echoing MacArthur, Mattis said the best way to prevent war, was to be ready for it.
“There are times when those of us who wear the uniform can be rightly condemned for being overly conservative, wanting more insurance and more boats and planes, and guns, and tanks and I understand that,” said Mattis.
But he added that there was a time and cost issue with military preparedness. Currently, the U.S. has the time to prepare for war.
“But should conflict break out, to get money later will not be good enough.”
Mattis also made repeated reference to T. R. Fehrenbach’s definitive book on the Korean War, This Kind of War, which drew on interviews with platoon commanders to tell the story of a U.S. military unprepared to fight a war halfway around the world.
The U.S. struggled during its early engagements in the war, notably being forced into retreat after their first meeting with the enemy at the Battle of Osan.
When the U.S. gained momentum in the Korean War, it pushed the battlefield too far to the north, nearly wiping out the North’s territory, which then prompted the Chinese to intervene.
The book warns of both the political and military aspect of conflict, and how the two must be handled in tandem.
“Because Washington permitted soldiers to make and to act on decisions that were beyond the purview of the military, because it forced them to bring purely military thinking into matters that remained in essence political—in short, because Washington still sometimes acted as if there could be a separation between war and politics, the United States, intoxicated with the heady taste of triumph, was heading for disaster,” reads a passage from the book.
Mattis recommended everyone read the book again.