Q & A with CDR Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired)

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Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis.

In the process of writing my review of his excellent book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, I got in touch with Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired), asking if he would agree to respond to a few questions for my readers. Despite a busy schedule and numerous media requests in relation with his book, he kindly accepted. I’m both grateful and impatient to put my hands on his upcoming book.

Commander Snodgrass, what’s your favorite political memoir, apart from Peggy Noonan’s (I assume it’s on the top of your list)?

All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos.

His favorite bios are the ones written about Henry Kissinger and George H. W. Bush

What’s your favorite biography? (My little finger tells me it might be “Kissinger” by Walter Isaacson).

Either Kissinger by Walter Isaacson (for it’s no-holds portrayal of Kissinger) or Power and Destiny by Jon Meacham (the biography of former President George H. W. Bush).

Given your past career, you certainly nourish an interest in military history? What’s your favorite book in that category?

I’ll give you the standard TOPGUN answer to your question: it depends. I have a lot of ‘favorites’ depending on the application or topic at hand. Top three are: Eisenhower At War by David Eisenhower, The Nightingale’s Song by Robert Timberg, and The Encyclopedia of Military History by Ernest and Trevor Dupuy. For fun I’ll throw in Robin Olds’s Fighter Pilot.

NATO Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

During your tenure with Secretary Mattis, which international personality (military or political) left the best impression on you and why?

Jen Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO. He is largely unflappable, calm under pressure, and a gifted politician who never seemed to be a loss for words during a press conference.

The U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations (Russia and China) on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

I’d be very curious to know if you share Henry Kissinger’s vision about Russia and China? (I would have loved to read more about it in your book, but I understand it was not its scope)

No, at least not the way Kissinger views them now. Russia and China actively work to subvert U.S. influence around the world. Kissinger is far too eager to rush into their arms from what I’ve seen from him in recent years. Regardless, the U.S. must find ways to coexist with both nations on the world stage while holding the line with regards to U.S. interests.

Are you working on another book or is it something you are planning?

Yes: TOPGUN’s TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit (just posted on Amazon). An opportunity to share the most powerful lessons I learned during my time as a TOPGUN Instructor.

I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service.

Would you consider a run for political office in the future?

Would I? Possibly. Both U.S. political parties are incredibly unsettled at the moment, so I have a hard time determining if recent shifts in platforms are permanent or merely a reaction to President Trump. I was raised to put service before self, which is why a military career was so satisfying. I’m certainly open to pursuing a pathway that leads to a return to public service. In the meantime, it’s an honor to be able to publish and make a positive impact in the lives of others.

Why Mattis didn’t survive in the Trump administration

HoldingTheLineReading memoirs of important players who worked during presidencies has always fascinated me. I notably cherish the moments spent reading Dick Morris, Ed Rollins, Peggy Noonan, George Stephanopoulos and James Carville’s books during my University years. Classics in my humble opinion.

I was therefore thrilled to dive into Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis by Guy M. Snodgrass, former Chief Speechwriter and Communications Director for Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.

What strikes me upon finishing this book is how difficult it must have been to work for and with the 45th President. Picture this. You’ve prepared a briefing for the leader of the free world and this man is only fixated on organizing a big military parade in Washington, D.C., because he was impressed with the 14th of July celebrations in Paris. You therefore realize that, next time around, you will “[…] only use slides with pictures… no words.” You’re talking here about the individual who makes life-and-death decisions for 1.3 million members of the Armed Forces and can decide to start a war.

I could also mention the particular episode when Lockheed Martin’s executives decided to flatter Trump’s ego by pretending his involvement in the F-35 contributed to lower the cost. “The only problem? Those savings had been already planned for years in advance […].” That’s how insecure and immature the current resident of the White House is.

And then there’s the moment when people at the Pentagon – the Secretary of Defense at the top of the list – learnt, probably live on TV or over the Internet, during a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un that “war games” historically planned and organized between the US and South Korean armies would be suspended. Talk about respecting your allies. Much the same happened with the creation of the Space Force. Not to mention the NATO summit when POTUS went off message. In brief, “the administration wasn’t operating strategically, but rather looking for issues to provide immediate satisfaction.” The type of instant gratification you can expect from children.

To a certain extent, this portrait of the man was to be expected. Donald Trump has never been renowned for being a serious person, an avid reader or an intellectually curious politician. Chances are slim he will fall in love with a tome about General George Marshall or the minutiae of military affairs. I doubt we will see a pile of books set aside for him at the Barnes & Noble downtown D.C. (I once saw such a pile set aside for President George W. Bush during one of my visits in the US Capital).

I don’t know why, but what flabbergasted me the most was to read how Mattis reacted to Trump and the way he accepted to be treated. On one hand, he could have a phone conversation with the President, using a very ingratiating tone of voice and, on the other, he would lose control of a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and State Secretary Mike Pompeo, allowing them to interrupt him with impunity. Not the type of behavior you expect from a man who is compared to General George Patton and whose nickname is “Mad Dog”.

According to the author, James Mattis “[…] is actually conflict-adverse in dealing with people he sees on a regular basis.” Which could explain how a retired US Marines Corps General got trampled over by a real estate mogul and his minions. In other words, Mattis became a legend with men who served under him, but he was not necessarily cut to serve alongside a president who doesn’t believe in the tenets of diplomacy which are so important to Mattis and to Rex Tillerson who served as Secretary of State at the beginning of the current administration and was also fired by the Tweeter-in-Chief.

It goes without saying that Donald Trump could have benefited so much more from the talent, expertise and knowledge of a bookish military figure “[…] who at one point owned more than seven thousand books in his library […]” and who takes inspiration from the legendary Henry Kissinger, but these type of men need more than 180 characters to reflect and take action. In a sense, one wonders how is it that such a great man could stick around so long in an administration that doesn’t know the meaning of grace, diplomacy and vision.

Many books will be published in the future about the inside story of the Trump administration. But I’m certain Guy Snodgrass will be among the most interesting, because of his inspired style, but also his profound decency (between the lines, you can understand that this guy was way too kind for the treacherous world of politics). Like his former boss, he’s a warrior-scholar. And Lord knows we need such men more than trigger-happy provocateurs.

Riding with Napoleon

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In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.

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Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.

The Brave of the First Wave

TheFirstWave“The bigger the challenge, the better we play.” – Lord Lovat

Late in the summer of 2014, life blessed me with the opportunity to visit Juno Beach, the hallowed ground where Canadian troops landed on June 6th, 1944.

While I visited the German bunker, carrying my son in a sling, I kept meditating about the kind of men that landed on that fateful day.

Men who could cope with gigantic – and potentially lethal – problems such as a landing craft drifting away from the planned landing side, German guns that were supposed to have been silenced through bombings, lack of ammunition or food, the psychological tool of being sleep-deprived and surrounded by enemies who only waited for the right moment to assault and kill you.

These were not the type of men we encounter every day, I told myself. But maybe they were, in the sense that they were all different and they were all human, made of flesh and blood. Just like you and me.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the magnificent book The First Wave by military historian Alex Kershaw by the fantastic people at Penguin Random House Canada.

What a treat it was for the military history enthusiast in me.

The key to responding to the question I kept asking myself on the beach lies on page 312, when the author writes that a Veteran US Ranger “[…] stressed that during the most critical combat of modern times it was the “heart and mind” that had mattered most.”

Witness to that, “[…] an advance party had cut through a barbed-wire perimeter [protecting a gun battery] and crawled across the hundred-yard-wide minefield, disarming mines with their bare fingers in the dark.” (page 87). Talk about heart and mind!

But the men who fought their way on and through the beaches were also led by exceptionally inspiring figures.

Let me just quote two, among all those evoked by Alex Kershaw. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt (son of the 26th President of the United States) and Lord Lovat (Simon J. Fraser), 24th chieftain of Clan Fraser.

General Roosevelt insisted on landing with his troops walking with his cane (he was suffering from arthritis) “[…] wearing a knit watch cap, not the regulation helmet […]”, insisting to board his landing craft unaided.

As for Lord Lovat, the inspiring Scottish commando leader certainly must have looked like an eccentric for his German enemies, for he “[…] was armed with a hunting rifle, dressed for a good day’s walk on the moors: a white turtleneck sweater, suede vest, khaki corduroy pants, and a duffle coat, which he would leave behind when he went ashore.”

The ordinary men from Canada, Great Britain and the United States who successfully assaulted the Nazi fortress on that historic day became extraordinary through their endurance, sacrifice and determination. And they were inspired by men who rejected the blandness of conformity by showing themselves for what they were, whether it was being afflicted by illness or expressing pride in their ancestry.

Alex Kershaw is probably the best book I have read so far about D-Day and the importance of supreme courage when the going gets tough (I’m referring here to Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder’s men who were besieged in a cramped command post without food, water, ammunition and sleep (page 243)).

Beautifully written (I love Kershaw’s style) and engaging, The First Wave should be the first companion you think of bringing on the roads of summer vacations or on a beach where you will be able to enjoy what these guys fought for – freedom.