It’s hard, if not impossible to remember such a brass-heavy Cabinet. Ulysses S. Grant, a former general, once had four former generals serving in his Cabinet in the same year—but that was in an era just after a disproportionate share of politically involved white men had served in high-ranking positions in the Civil War.
The predominance of generals is already raising some conflicts. Mattis’s appointment specifically contravenes a law, intended to help preserve “civilian control” of the armed forces, that says that no one who has served on active duty within the last 10 years can lead the Pentagon. A candidate can, however, obtain a waiver from Congress to circumvent that, and it appears Mattis will get one without too much trouble. Democrats (like Leon Panetta) seem to either think he should receive the waiver, or not to care enough to put up a huge fight.
There’s a debate between policy experts about the wisdom of appointing so many generals, and whether it poses a risk to the nation. Too many military leaders, critics say, warp national priorities at best and slouch toward a junta at worse.
“Appointing too many generals would throw off the balance of a system that for good reason favors civilian leadership,” writes The New York Times’ Carol Giacomo. “The concern is not so much that military leaders might drag the country into more wars. It is that the Pentagon, with its nearly $600 billion budget, already exercises vast sway in national security policymaking and dwarfs the State Department in resources.” In The Washington Post, Phillip Carter and Loren DeJonge Schulman warn that “great generals don’t always make great Cabinet officials” and add that “relying on the brass, however individually talented, to run so much of the government could also jeopardize civil-military relations.” Rosa Brooks, meanwhile, suggests this isn’t much to worry about, saying that the old, formalized notions of civilian control are obsolete.
There’s some concern within the military, too. During the presidential campaign, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff criticized Flynn and retired Marine General John Allen, who backed Hillary Clinton, for intervening in politics, worrying about what effect their campaigning might have on civilian-military relations. One can imagine that leaders in the Navy and Air Force, thinking of the longstanding rivalries between branches, might be getting nervous seeing former Army and Marine generals gaining so much influence at the White House.
But setting aside the good or bad of the appointments, what might account for Trump’s disproportionate reliance on brass? It’s tempting to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. Trump seems somewhat star-struck by generals; this is a man who attended military school, but repeatedly obtained draft deferrals on somewhat questionable bases, and may glamorize generals in a vicarious way. Trump, the consummate entertainer, also seems enthralled by dramatic figures like Patton and MacArthur, as my colleague James Fallows has noted, either in real life or through on-screen depictions.