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Defense Secretary Mattis Recommends Book About Korean War To Army, And Things Are Getting Real

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is a well-known history buff and, unlike the President, a voracious reader. When giving an address to the Association of the United States Army’s Exposition on Building Readiness, he referenced pieces of literature that might help people in the present day to understand the nature of war and our current situation.

Mattis highlighted one book, however, as a must-read: This Kind of War by T. R. Fehrenbach.

Originally published in 1963, This Kind of War is a comprehensive history of the Korean War that's fairly popular among military readers, though historians have criticized it. While offering a compelling look at life in the trenches, and several profound themes that resonate in our modern era, the book also features sweeping generalizations of people Fehrenbach refers to as "Orientals." At one point, the authors states:

Koreans were a disorganized and submissive people, almost without political education … the Irish of the Orient, changeable, mercurial...

He later claims that the ceasefire has left South Korea resigned "to continued existence as a rump state, permanently incapable of supporting itself economically." This, of course, turned out to be completely false — the South Korean democracy is now a significant industrial power with a GDP of 1.41 trillion USD.

So, besides the obvious reference to Korea at a time when tensions with the North are once again rising, what makes this book the Defense Secretary's number one recommendation? The book features two major themes that have clear modern-day parallels Mattis obviously feels strongly about. 

First, the This Kind of War repeatedly stresses the importance of winning wars by having troops on the ground. Almost as if he'd been given a peek into our drone-filled future, Fehrenbach at one point writes:

A ‘modern’ infantry may ride sky vehicles into combat, fire and sense its weapons through instrumentation, employ devices of frightening lethality in the future, but it must also be old-fashioned enough to be iron-hard, poised for instant obedience, and prepared to die in the mud.

To the author, America's hope of a clean, American casualty-free war, fought from thousands of miles away with computers and robotic drones, is a pipe dream that will only lead to further conflict. Mattis obviously agrees.

At one point during his speech, Mattis quoted Fehrenbach, saying:

You may fly over a nation forever, you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life. But if you desire to defend it, if you desire to protect it, if you desire to keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground the way the Roman legions did: by putting your young men in the mud.

Mattis added, "I would only modify it today by saying, ‘by putting your young men and women in the mud.’"

It's important to note that Mattis' fixation on ground troops doesn't mean he's calling for an invasion. It's just as likely Mattis is recommending this book to remind America, at a time when our political leaders are repeatedly threatening "fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen," just what a war might entail. While our military has changed dramatically since the late 1940s, one thing hasn't changed: a successful campaign would mean sending young men and women into "the mud" to fight and die.

With that in mind, perhaps avoiding war may be the best option.

The book's second major theme is one military personnel have long advocated: the importance of peacetime preparedness. Fehrenbach notes with disdain how, following a major conflict like the first and second world wars, the military falls into relative shambles. He notes how this was the case with the new Republic of Korea, who the U.S. left with little support or training before withdrawing. This left the infant country open to attack from almost all sides, even though our generals and policymakers praised the South Korean army as a paragon.

Fehrenbach concluded:

The American people have always coupled a certain belligerence—no American likes being pushed around—with a complete unwillingness to prepare for combat.

In his speech, Mattis traced this pattern back to the revolutionary era, making pit stops at each world war, the Civil War, and the War of 1812. The pattern was clear: Americans are always hesitant to believe war will come to our country, and neglect to make the necessary preparations. Mattis knows how difficult it is to spend more on the military during a time when most congresspeople are trying to shrink the deficit, but he urges them to do so nonetheless.

Mattis agrees that peacetime investments prepare our military for the next conflict:

Even as our competitive edge over our foes and adversaries decreases due to budgetary confusion in this town and the budget caps, I am among the majority in this country that believes our nation can afford survival. And I want the Congress back in the driver’s seat of budget decisions, not in the spectator’s seat of automatic cuts.

Ultimately, Mattis hopes that calmer heads will prevail. He vocally supported the "diplomatically led, economic-sanction-buttressed effort to try to turn North Korea off this path.”

Mattis also thinks the U.S. Army must be prepared for the worst:

What does the future hold? Neither you nor I can say. So there’s one thing the U.S. Army can do, and that is, you have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ, if needed.

How well we prepare will depend largely on political leadership. On that subject, Fehrenbach offered a grim warning:

The great test placed upon the United States was not whether it had the power to devastate [its nuclear adversary, then the Soviet Union]—this it had—but whether the American leadership had the will to continue to fight for an orderly world rather than to succumb to hysterical violence.

H/T - Politico, CNN