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James Mattis’s Bizarre Cult of “Lethality”

As he manicures his political reputation, the Pentagon carries on with the buzzword-heavy culture of killing he gave it.

Master Sgt. Jacob Caldwell/DOD

The dawn of industrialized killing in the trenches of World War I birthed a constellation of euphemisms to gloss over the horrors of mortality in modern war, from “clicking it” to “drawing your full issue.” The fallen mudfoots of World War II, or their vanquished foes, “bit the dust” and “checked out” in the course of combat. During Vietnam, an influx of “drug-ridden and dispirited” draftees portended the rise of “fragging,” as detailed by Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl in 1971: deliberate attacks on officers for whom they refused to fight. Through much of the remainder of the twentieth century, American grunts echoed the helicopter gunner in Full Metal Jacket in seeking to “get some,” a none-too-subtly sexual stand-in for the glory of the kill.

In the twenty-first century Department of Defense, however, there’s an official euphemism for American troops’ considerable killing ability. It comes from on high, but—having been repeated ad absurdum—it can be heard throughout the ranks. Welcome to the cult of “lethality,” the lasting legacy of former Defense Secretary James Mattis. Though Mattis is busy using a new memoir, Call Sign Chaos, to burnish his public reputation as a voice of reason in the age of Trump, he almost single-handedly made “lethality” the favorite battle cry of the modern Pentagon. Gunnery Sergeant Hartman may have vowed to transform Marines into “killing machines” in Full Metal Jacket, but Mattis actually sought to do it.

Lethality has been a relatively consistent factor in military doctrines since the Roman Empire swept across the world; it comes, after all, from the Latin lētālis, for “mortal” or “deadly.” But only in the last few years has lethality emerged as the central tenet of U.S. military identity. As the Pentagon reoriented itself away from two decades of counterinsurgency in favor of “great power competition” against Russia and China in early 2018, Mattis made the restoration of “a lethal force” a central focus of the country’s updated National Defense Strategy. With U.S. military recruitment rates relatively stagnant, Mattis established a Close Combat Lethality Task Force to squeeze every ounce of deadliness out of American warfighters.

But for those fighters’ commanders, lethality has doubled as a rhetorical godsend: clinical-sounding, but visceral as well. It connects them to the enduring Mattis brand of bookish military pugnacity. (“Be polite, be professional,” the old Mattisism goes, “but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”) Lethality has become the go-to metric for military efficacy, from the Pentagon’s E-ring to every would-be officer’s pre-commissioning professional interviews. In DVIDS, the military’s database of publicly available stories, images, and videos, a search for “lethality” returns more than 30,000 hits, nearly half of them from the past year. (A similar search for “restraint” comes up with only 3,000 results, and only about 100 of those come from the past year.)

Lethality is a cornerstone of the Army’s modernization roadmap, but non-combat service members are expected to join the cult, too, often with bizarre results out of a Joseph Heller novel. Last spring, overzealous Air Force public affairs officers declared the service’s on-base healthy-eating initiative to be a cold-blooded killing strategy, perfecting the “human weapon system” with “the right nutrition to increase lethality.” The previous summer, Pentagon officials rolled out a weekly “Showcasing Lethality Series” (complete with the hashtag #knowyourmil) of in-depth testimonials by enlisted service members describing “their roles in defending the nation”; the inaugural briefing introduced reporters to a group of Hawaii National Guard members who’d responded to a local volcano eruption. (Humanitarian operations? Sure, file them under lethality, too.)

If operator beards and a penchant for ethical malfeasance mark the jocks of the U.S. armed forces, then lethality is the modern war nerd’s war whoop. But the Pentagon’s current lethality obsession reveals everything wrong with the concept in the first place. If the modern nation-state is a bureaucratic machine that doles out legitimate coercive force, the dogma of “lethality” envisions state-sanctioned killing as a formula for its precise application—and reducing war to the scientific and statistically optimizable ending of life is morally and strategically dubious.

Embracing killing as a rational science that produces certain, predictable outcomes is an inherently flawed proposition. The science of lethality is fundamentally designed “to offer a degree of certainty for military planners [and] help generals predict how to achieve victory in battle,” University of Sussex military researcher Matthew Ford writes in a new peer-reviewed article on the epistemology of lethality. But, as Ford points out, “every single use of a weapon on the battlefield is necessarily unique to the circumstances of its discharge,” which makes the results near-impossible to reproduce in a closed system—and therefore impossible to apply as a fighting force’s raison d’etre. Lethality sounds great as a lofty doctrine, offered up to voters and politicians, but is unsatisfactorily limiting in practical application.

As a result, the Pentagon’s pushing of lethality as an all-encompassing dogma at every level is a messaging strategy serving a goal it can never actually meet. In fact, it puts militaries and their personnel in a weird, existential place: Be a broadsword of bloody vengeance, or be bereft of meaning altogether. “[W]hen it comes to questions of lethality, the methodological challenge of defining a crossover point between being and nothingness is scientifically and technically disobedient,” Ford writes. “On the battlefield the technological expressions of this uncertainty typically manifest themselves in either ‘overkill’ or defeat; where overkill is scientifically determined as the over application of lethal force.” The perfect kill may exist, but it’s impossible to attain: You either get brutal or die trying.

Casting warfighters, volcano-fighters, waistline-fighters, and all other uniformed service members, as lethal “human weapons systems” is also fundamentally dehumanizing—to them, and to the populations they encounter in deploying as a military force. Just as French philosopher Michel Foucault’s “medical gaze” described a mode of institutional examination that reduces subjects to defined clinical categories, “lethality” reduces human life to inputs and outputs in an equation; humans, as Ford writes, “are either ‘alive’ or they ‘are not alive.’”

If this sounds unnervingly cold yet strangely familiar, it should: The focus on iterative, optimizable processes to fabricate a morally questionable but broadly popular end product also reflects the Pentagon’s starry-eyed fixation on Silicon Valley innovation. Perhaps, in forming his lethality doctrine, Mattis was inspired by his work on the board of Theranos and the corporate analytics-speak of then-CEO Elizabeth Holmes. (“Silicon Valley is a great symbol of disruptive technology being able to, one, change the world, and, two, obsolete itself,” she said, before being indicted on federal charges for swindling her company’s investors. Her one-time friend, Mattis went on to make a greater killing in the killing business.)

Worst of all, the cult of lethality attempts to divorce the how of killing from the why, an insane proposition given that military force is deployed in the service of political outcomes. Killing is always a political act, and “investigations into the nature of lethality,” Ford writes, “help to expose the military’s social order and its relationships to science, technology and the wider industrial and social processes that constitute various types of militarism.” Lethality isn’t some neutral deus ex machina for effective warfighting; it’s a dry euphemism that preempts moral questions, an unstoppable bureaucratic vehicle for violence.

Mattis learned this better than anyone in the aftermath of the Haditha massacre, the slaughter of 24 Iraqi civilians by a group of U.S. Marines in November 2005—one of the most notorious war crimes of the Global War on Terrorism. As the commander of the I Marine Expeditionary Force in which the accused killers served, then–Lieutenant General Mattis oversaw the initial phase of the Haditha court-martial proceedings, where charges were dismissed against two Marines and another service member was granted immunity from prosecution, effectively blowing one of the biggest war crimes trials since the My Lai massacre.

Mattis could have quietly discharged his duties in the Haditha case, as he would later do so often in Trump’s cabinet. Instead, he sent an unusually personal letter to one of the acquitted Marines. “You have served as a Marine infantryman in Iraq where our Nation is fighting a shadowy enemy who hides among the innocent people, does not comply with any aspect of the law of war, and routinely targets and intentionally draws fire toward civilians,” Mattis wrote. “With this dismissal of charges, you remain in the eyes of the law—and in my eyes—innocent.” When faced with real battlefield conflicts between unfettered lethality and ethical accountability, Mattis has consistently preferred the former.

The U.S. military’s lethality obsession isn’t just a matter of tactics and strategy. It reflects a change in the way the country thinks about war, from a subtle tool of justice to a blunt instrument of power. Try though the military has, it can’t reconcile lethality as a holy virtue with military recruiting taglines like the Navy’s “A Global Force for Good.” It’s telling that the lethality campaign is as loud as ever, but the Navy abandoned that kinder, gentler marketing push in 2015 “to broaden appeal”; its immediate replacement was an ad that ended with the line: “To get to you, they’d have to get past us. America’s Navy.” If every generation gets the language of death it deserves, the Pentagon’s current lethality-obsessed leaders are talking a lot without saying anything—which, ethically and militarily, may be the most lethal combination of all.