Just before the 1st Marine Division advanced on the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003, then-Maj. Gen. James Mattis pinned a single star onto each collar of his assistant division commander, Col. John F. Kelly. He was now a brigadier general, and the first to be promoted on the battlefield since the Korean War.
Not far from there, another colonel in the unit named Joe Dunford was leading his regimental combat team.
By the end of the campaign, they had fought together in places like Nasiriyah, Al Kut, and eventually Baghdad. The division they were in — along with the US Army and UK armoured elements — carried out one of the most aggressive, high-speed attacks in history, while 1st Marine Division’s ground march was the longest in the history of the Marine Corps, for which it earned the Presidential Unit Citation.
Those three officers all went on to become four-star generals: Mattis retired in 2013 as the commander of Central Command, while Kelly retired as commander of US Southern Command in 2016. Dunford went on to become Commandant of the Marine Corps, and eventually Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he remains to this day.
All three remain good friends. And if President-elect Donald Trump’s picks for his Cabinet are all confirmed, they will once again be serving together. Only this time, it will be in the White House.
Secretary of Defence James Mattis
Mattis has often been praised by senior leaders at the Pentagon as both a strategic thinker with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, and an incredible leader. His legendary status among Marines mainly originated from his command of 1st Marine Division, where he popularised its motto, “No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy.”
The 66-year-old retired general is the only pick that has a legal roadblock in front of him: A 1947 law (updated in 2008) that requires military officers to be out of uniform for at least seven years before leading the Pentagon. Mattis would need a waiver, which Republicans have already signalled support for.
When recently asked if he was concerned by the pick of Mattis, Gen. Joe Dunford just said: “No.”
If confirmed, Mattis would replace Defence Secretary Ash Carter, who supports and calls him “extremely capable.”
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly
John Kelly just accepted Trump’s request for him to serve as the head of the Department of Homeland Security, according to CBS News.
Like Mattis, he is a blunt, to-the-point speaker who opposes the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. “What tends to bother them is the fact that we’re holding them there indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo,” he told Defence One earlier this year. “If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.”
Kelly is also the most senior-ranking military official to lose a child in combat since 9/11. He lost his son, Lt. Robert Kelly, to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2010.
If confirmed, he would replace Jeh Johnson.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joe Dunford
Joe Dunford is the last of the three generals who is still in uniform. He served briefly as Commandant of the Marine Corps before President Obama nominated him as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs in May 2015. He earned the nickname “Fighting Joe” during his time with 1st Marine Division.
Dunford has been in the Marine Corps for 39 years, less time than Mattis’ 44 years and Kelly’s 45. Right now, his chairmanship term is scheduled to run through 2017. Though the Joint Chiefs are not part of the president’s Cabinet, they are appointed by, and serve as the top military advisors to, the president.
Trump is likely to replace many of Obama’s appointees, but Dunford may not be one of them.
Typically, JCS chairmen serve two terms, and having comrades like Mattis and Kelly in his corner will make it much harder for Trump to replace him.
Trump has floated other generals and admirals for his Cabinet, to include Gen. David Petraeus for secretary of state and Adm. Michael Rogers for director of national intelligence. Michael Flynn, his controversial choice for national security advisor, is a retired lieutenant general who headed the Defence Intelligence Agency.
These choices don’t come without pushback. Some, like Phillip Carter, a former Army officer with the Center for a New American Security, have argued that Trump’s reliance on retired military brass for traditionally-civilian led organisations could jeopardize civil-military relations.
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