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'New Yorker' Writer Paints Picture Of James Mattis As Both Soldier And Scholar

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Congress had to pass a special waiver to allow General James Mattis to become the defense secretary. The Pentagon is supposed to be led by a civilian. Mattis had only been out of the Marines for three years. Now that he's been in this job for a few months, we're going to check in on how he has begun steering the Pentagon and U.S. military policy. Dexter Filkins writes about this in the latest issue of The New Yorker and joins us now. Hi there.

DEXTER FILKINS: Hi.

SHAPIRO: Start by painting a picture of who Secretary Mattis is. He's 66 years old. And you write that this is the first time in his professional life that he's worn a suit and tie to work.

FILKINS: (Laughter) Yes. Yes, he - Mattis is an incredibly interesting guy and especially, for a Marine, I should say. He was in the Marine Corps for 40 years. He is, on one hand, incredibly thoughtful and well-read. His library has thousands of books in it.

On the other, he is very, very aggressive and very tough and every bit a Marine. And so you have this kind of yin yang about him, which is - makes him particularly fascinating, I think.

SHAPIRO: And in terms of his leadership at the Pentagon now, you write that under the Obama administration military leaders were frustrated by what they saw as micromanagement and that seems to have changed. What do you see happening today?

FILKINS: It's definitely changing. What's happened under the Trump administration is they're pushing those authorities back down to the Pentagon and then out into the battlefield itself. And so what you've seen since Trump has taken office - in just three months, you've seen an uptick of airstrikes, drone strikes, seal raids all over the place. And that's a direct result of the decision that was made to basically give the local commanders on the ground more authority.

SHAPIRO: So when you look at these complicated wars like - Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria - does Mattis see a military way to end them? Does he see a military solution to them?

FILKINS: I think that's the really big question hanging over all these things, which is, you can whack terrorists all day all week, but at the end of the week, what do you got? You got more terrorists. And you still have these very unstable states and these conflicts. And those questions ultimately have to be answered.

And I think Mattis would say this himself. These questions don't have military answers. They're political questions. Like, ultimately, at the end of the day, it's about politics and about power and the distribution of power and money and resources.

SHAPIRO: One thing that makes Mattis' job even more challenging is that out of the 57 civilian jobs at the Pentagon only a very small handful have been filled. What kind of impact does that extreme level of understaffing have on the work the Defense Department does?

FILKINS: It's amazing. I mean, these are things like, you know, assistant secretary defense - big jobs, you know, jobs that require congressional confirmation. And I think it's fair to say he's having a really hard time filling them.

And I talked to a number of people who all said the same thing, which is, I love General Mattis, but I don't want to work for the Trump administration. And I think that's the problem.

SHAPIRO: People in other parts of the government have told me that this kind of understaffing means you can only focus on one thing at a time. So if North Korea takes your attention, you have to take your eye off of Iran, whereas, when everybody's there, you can be doing multiple things at once.

FILKINS: Yes. I mean, think about - just, you know, scan the horizon for a minute - how chaotic the international environment is. I mean, there really hasn't been anything like it for years. So you have North Korea on one side. You have Iran. You have Somalia. You have Yemen. You have Syria. You have Iraq. It's just the list goes on and on. And you have Russia and Eastern Europe. And that would be a lot for a big team of people to deal with - for anybody. But it is. It's basically Mattis and a handful of his people around him.

SHAPIRO: I was interested to read what you said Mattis describes as his biggest worry.

FILKINS: (Laughter) Yes.

SHAPIRO: Not what you'd expect.

FILKINS: Yeah, I asked him the question. I said, you're secretary of defense. What keeps you awake at night? And I thought he was going to say, you know, Russia, Syria, you know, some act of terrorism. And he said it's America. It's the lack of unity in America. And then he went on in this very kind of thoughtful way. He said there's a kind of spiritual crisis in America. And so he's really troubled about the state of the country. And, you know, frankly, that's impressive.

SHAPIRO: Why should that be a concern for the defense secretary?

FILKINS: Well, you know, war is the continuation of politics by other means. And I think you can only be as strong as your country is internally. And so I think he's worried about the country. I think he's worried about, can I - can we protect this country if the country is so internally riven and divided against itself?

SHAPIRO: Dexter Filkins is a staff writer with The New Yorker Magazine. And his profile of Defense Secretary James Mattis is called "A Warrior In Washington." Thanks a lot.

FILKINS: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.