MIGHTY HISTORY

Why Mattis was obsessed with a certain day in history

Everyone who is a fan of veteran Marine Corps General and onetime Secretary of Defense James Mattis knows of his affinity for reading, for consuming as much knowledge on a subject as he can before giving his opinion. His lifestyle of eschewing a family in favor of a lifetime of learning and dedication to duty even earned him the moniker "The Warrior Monk." This well-known devotion to knowledge makes it all the more interesting to discover Mattis was "obsessed" with the date August 1914.


From the Iraq War to the Trump Administration, Mattis is always the man for the job.

In journalist Bob Woodward's book, "Fear: Trump in the White House" one Trump Administration official who spoke highly of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Woodward that the former general was "obsessed with August 1914... the idea that you take actions, military actions, that are seen as prudent planning and the unintended consequences are that you can't get off the war train."

Specifically, Mattis was "obsessed" with historian Barbara Tuchman's World War I history book, "The Guns of August," which has a spot on every reading list he ever published for the troops.

In June 1914, as we should all know by now, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by an assassin in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary issues an ultimatum to Serbia as European allies began to muster their troops throughout the continent during July of 1914. At the end of July, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia, shelling Belgrade just days later. As July turns to August, Serbia's ally Russia begins to mobilize for war. That's when Germany demanded Russia stop preparing for war, which Russia ignored.

On Aug. 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Russia's allies began preparing for war in response to their mutual defense treaties. Germany then declared war on France and invaded neutral Belgium, forcing Great Britain and its Empire to declare war on Germany. Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. By Aug. 7, 1914, much of the world was at war. By the end of August, the fighting had spread to Africa and the Chinese mainland. What started as a regional dispute that could have been mediated led to millions of lives lost in a brutal, industrialized war machine.

German defenders of Tsingtao, China, who were fighting against the Japanese invaders because a Serbian shot an Austrian archduke in Bosnia.

In this context, Mattis was trying to keep the United States and NATO out of a war with Russia, which (according to Woodward's book) seemed like a real possibility if the Trump Administration had enacted some of its more sweeping changes to American defense policy. Mattis was also trying to convince Trump that the U.S. needed to be in NATO, and if NATO didn't already exist, it should be created – because Russia could not win a war against NATO, in Mattis' opinion.

Russia had privately warned Mattis that if a war broke out in the Baltics, the Russians would use tactical nuclear weapons against NATO forces. Mattis and Gen. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, began to think Russia as an existential threat to the United States. Even so, Mattis was determined to keep Russia and NATO from sliding into a similar war via a web of alliances.