Editor’s note: Stanford University is hosting a brand-new class this fall—Technology, Innovation, and Modern War. Steve Blank, who teaches the course along with Joe Felter and Raj Shah, is writing about each class session—offering Modern War Institute readers an incredible opportunity to learn about the intersection of technology and war and hear from remarkable guest speakers. Read about previous sessions here.

Class Eighteen

Our speaker for our final class was former Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis, who gave an inspiring talk about service to the nation. Gen. Mattis joined the Marine Corps back in 1969, and he has led Marines, and later Joint forces, from every level from platoon commander as a lieutenant all the way up to combatant commander as the four-star commanding general of US Central Command. He recently led our entire US Defense Department as the twenty-sixth secretary of defense. We’re fortunate to have him back here at Stanford at the Hoover Institution.

Below are select excerpts from a riveting Q&A session with the teaching team and our students. Gen. Mattis shared a range of compelling experiences and insights that underscored many of the themes of the course.

How do we as a nation compete against China?

The reality is that administrations have tried over twenty some years to help China. It was assumed that if we enable them, if we work with them, if they liberalize their economy, political liberalization will follow. It was an untested thesis. And there were a lot of people that, if they’d read history, might have said, “I’m not so sure about that.” Because as many of you are aware, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sits on a shaky throne. They cannot liberalize politically, or they will lose power. It’s that simple. They’re not going to liberalize. They’ve made the choice. It’s loud and clear, and it goes on over decades.

From Brussels to Washington, DC, certainly in Tokyo, and from Canberra to New Delhi, there’s an appreciation that China wants to rewrite the rules. And there’s no reason to think an authoritarian country at home would somehow write liberal rules abroad. That’s not what history teaches you. Countries don’t treat foreigners better than their own people. So you have to recognize the CCP is becoming more authoritarian—for example over Hong Kong, over their Uighurs, over their own people with social grades now being assigned based on fulfillment of social responsibility, job performance, grades, and that sort of thing.

When the National Defense Strategy came out, stating that China is our number one competitor, it was done with the idea that if we can buy the peace, keep the peace, one more year, one more month, one more week, one more day, this gives our diplomats the time to work. And the goal was to try keeping our values foremost, to show the world we mean to make this work. We are not out to keep China down.

What do you think is the opportunity for Silicon Valley and the students in our class here at Stanford, to play a role in national security?

Well, the first point I would make is, we need every one of your good ideas. This is not a government that’s run in Washington and does its own thing like Beijing or Moscow do in their countries. This is a government of the people, by the people, for the people. We have no ordained right to victory on the battlefield. If we want to keep these freedoms we have—the freedoms that bring so many people from around the world to Silicon Valley—those freedoms are going to have to be defended, because there are always people who think the way to run things is to beat heads, not to count heads.

For those countries that don’t operate like that, you cannot wish them away, you cannot make them into something you want them to be just because you think the people there are like you. They are like you—a taxi driver in Leningrad, for example is much like a taxi driver in San Francisco. The problem is not with the people in those countries, it’s with a system. So we’re going to have to deal with that system, and make sure that we draw the very best of our young people.

And you don’t have to stay for forty some years like me, but you should come in and do it for a few years. Maybe what you want to do is really emphasize education in your local community. And be on the local school board when you’re twenty-six years old—do your homework and go for it. Maybe you want to be on the city council and help adjust housing policies so that normal people with normal paychecks can actually afford to buy a house in this town.

We need others of you to move into these very technical issues and help us find our way forward. But the bottom line is you really need to consider that although we have this freedom, just because the draft went away doesn’t mean you get to live here scot-free. Some people say that a country’s like a bank—you can only take out of it what you’re willing to put in. We’ve got a lot of people nowadays who think they can take out. But they don’t have to put anything in. Number one, that’s a good way to end up on a psychiatrist’s couch when you’re about forty-five saying, “In my selfish life, I didn’t do a whole lot of good to other human beings.” So I don’t recommend that. But number two, it’s just a heck of a lot of fun to roll up your sleeves and work alongside others in a great cause. You’ll never regret it. You’ll have the best days of your life, and you’ll have the worst days of your life there, but by golly, you’re really living when you’re doing this. And for those of you who want to go into military, I recommend it.

Are we correct to emphasize that it’s less about the technology and more about how we use it?

Well, we’re fortunate, I think, that we are at the leading edge—at the cutting edge—on technology. It’s why so many young people who are bright come to Palo Alto and the area, or to Boston, to Seattle, to Texas, all these places where we have this going on. I don’t think it’s either-or, but If I was to concentrate on the area most important, it would be on the integration. I study a lot of history, not because it gives me all the answers, but it tells me how other people dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar situations. Not every situation is unique. And so it teaches you what questions to ask. And I’ll give you an example of a military technology where some people didn’t develop it—didn’t develop the 2.0 version—but instead just used it better than anyone else.

During World War I, the British were sick and tired of their boys going against barbed wire and machine guns. And they said that if they could cross that ground in an armored vehicle and then fight, or fight from the armored vehicle, they’d save a lot of lives. And so they developed the tank, right in the middle of the war. They weren’t thinking ahead. They got caught flat-footed. Tanks are big and they didn’t work well. But the British had the tank. They even had some pretty good tactics, to tell the truth, developed over the next few years after the war. Well, everybody else said, “Oh, I want one of those too.” Mankind being what they are, they’re always looking for a different way to whack each other. And so everybody starts making tanks. Guess who had the best tank by 1939? People think the Germans. Not by a long shot. The French had better tanks. Tank for tank, France had the better tank by 1938–39. But the Germans integrated the tank better. So the British had “tank 1.0.” Let’s say the French had version 2.0. And the Germans were at about 1.5. But the Germans put a radio in their tank to talk to a dive bomber overhead. And they trained their people, educated them to use initiative. And now they unleash what you and I call lightning war—blitzkrieg—across Europe in 1940. They didn’t invent the tank, and they didn’t develop the tank very well. They didn’t even have the most modern tank. But they integrated that technology better than anyone else did. And they unleashed hell across Europe. So that just shows the priority of integrating capabilities better, more effectively, more broadly, in a more focused way than someone else. That’s where you get your advantage.

What new technology threats do you see?

The new threats that are coming, we can see them mostly in the cyber and space domains. Those are two new domains. We fought on this planet for about ten thousand years on the land and sea, and then in the last hundred years in the air. In the last fifteen years, we’ve added cyber and space. I would tell you that in these areas, we are integrating them now.

But there’s also fundamental changes coming in the way we deal with one another as human beings. I’m talking about artificial intelligence here, how we deal with life. And all of these are double-edged swords. Every one of them, I can tell you, has a double edge. So we better figure out how we’re going to deal with these emerging technologies—hypersonics, this sort of thing. And try to keep the peace for one more year, one more month, one more week.

What do you think the future of warfare looks like?

I got a phone call one day. I was a Marine three-star in Afghanistan. The secretary-general of NATO called me. He said, “I’ve been approved by your president to call you. You’re going to be put in charge as the Supreme Allied Commander, Transformation at NATO. And in the United States, you’re going to command US Joint Forces Command. Your job is to feel out future warfare.” And I thought, I better start reading about this, because I’ve been an infantry guy fighting all this time. So I read twenty some books. And every military book started with Alexander the Great. There’s a reason he’s called the great by the way.

Every military that successfully transformed, successfully modernized, did one thing in particular. They defined the specific problem they were trying to solve. And they defined the problem so well that the solution became more apparent to them. Go to Einstein—if he had sixty minutes to save the world, he was asked how he would compose his thoughts. He said that he’d spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, then we’d save the world in five minutes. So how does that impact here? I would tell you that in this case, it is going to be a combination of the legacy systems and the breakthrough technologies that are coming right now. But remember this—it’s what I was thinking as you all were briefing your strategies earlier for 2022 and up to 2030. There’s a boxer who said everyone’s always got a plan until they get slugged in the face.

I remember when we were meeting with some Russian officers after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we were actually getting along with each other in those days. It went bad under Putin, but for a little while, in this window, I remember one of our officers saying, “You know, with our air forces, you weren’t going to move across Europe.” The Russian officer said, “Oh, we weren’t worried about that.” I was kind of curious so I asked why not. He said, “Because you weren’t going to be flying many of your air forces when my T-72s were parked on your runway.”

In other words, there’s the give and take of war. We saw an advantage that we held—and we did hold a great advantage in the air, and they didn’t have the air defenses that would have been sufficient to stop us in all most cases. But what they were going to do was use a past technology. They were going to deny us the use of ours. So what does this look like? We’ll see all these new weapons being fielded. And some will work, some will not work as well, some will be destabilizing, and some will actually not be used at all—just the threat will be sufficient.

For example, right now, if you walk into a geographic combatant command, there’s a whole bunch of men and women sitting there in the senior operations shop, and they’re watching the intel on the board. And there’s a guy sitting there talking to the aircraft carriers, another one talking to the Air Force fighter, the chaos, the fighter guys, bombers, that sort of thing. There’s the Army missile people in the room. There’s your maneuver brigades in the room, this sort of thing. Well, there are also some different-looking guys and gals, mostly civilians. And they’re sitting there and they’re on keyboards, and they’re going very quickly back and forth to some other places. And they are fighting it out in cyber warfare right then and there. And satellites are being turned to look at certain things.

And so you’re going to see the integration from the very top, all the way down to an Army battalion that’s got an Air Force officer in it bringing in certain targeting data through an integrated command and control system. In other words, it’s not like it’s all going to be fought by robot, but there’ll be a lot of robots on the field and in the air overhead. It’s not all going to be high tech. In fact, some of the units will be messaging to one another, using motorcycle riders more than likely, because they can’t be cut off by cyber. You’re going to see this mix up and down the scale of technology. And certain breaking technologies are going to then dominate in certain areas. And now it’s up to you to mix and integrate that together in a way. That’s what you do.

Let me tell you what you want to do to the enemy commander. That guy who’s going to make the decision to fall back or to fight harder, to do this or do that. You want him facing so many cascading dilemmas that he cannot keep up with them. As he solves this one, three more dilemmas pop up. And you want him on the “horns of a dilemma” constantly. If he moves, he’s going to get hit. If he stays put, he’s going to get hit. If he moves over here, he’s going to get hit. If he hits you, he’s going to get hit even harder, because he’s now had to fire and now we have more intel on where he’s firing from. It’s a great, great, tragic chess game. And it will be characterized by all the things you’re studying now and surprises the enemy has up their sleeve.

A Principled Strategy First

When I walked into the Pentagon on my first day there—it was noon on a Saturday—there is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a four-star Marine general I knew well and a four-star Air Force general I knew well as the vice chairman. And one holdover from the Obama administration, required by law, who was the deputy secretary of defense under President Obama. And the four of us, we’re going to be, for six months, the people that make all the decisions there. I said, “You know, guys, I’ve been asking for a strategy for a month in case the Senate asked me about it in my hearing. They didn’t, but you didn’t give it to me. I know I couldn’t give you an order beforehand, because the Senate would take umbrage. I didn’t have their consent yet. But I want the strategy. And I need it right now, because I’m going to be signing next-of-kin letters to moms and dads.” And the chairman looked me right in the eye and said, “We don’t have one.” We hadn’t had one for ten years.

This is not a partisan slam on the Obama administration or one party. But I went home that night and I started writing it. I carried it with me in every meeting in NATO so I could talk to our allies. My first trip was just Tokyo and Seoul. I took what I was writing with me. I talked to every Democrat and Republican on Capitol Hill that was willing to talk with me about it. A year later, we rolled it out. And for two years in a row, I was getting record-breaking budgets for the Department of Defense, with 87 percent of the House and Senate Democrats and Republicans voting for it.

So the answer is, do not give up on your principles, your values, your way of life, your constitutional form of government. Create a strategy and say that this is what we stand for and this is what we will not stand for. Put everything in your budget into it.

Move Past America First

I’d recommend the new administration take out of the National Security Strategy at the White House anything about “America First.” I don’t care how well it was intended. It did not work well. I didn’t like it in the beginning. I like it less now. We didn’t put any of that into the National Defense Strategy. So it could probably pretty much stand. They may need to play with it a little bit and put their thumbprint on it.

Strategies must be built with bipartisan support. When Senator Arthur Vandenberg, a conservative Republican was asked in 1949 how he could work with that terrible left-wing president, Harry S. Truman, he answered very bluntly: politics stops at the water’s edge. Right now we have so few people who’ve seen nonpartisanship and bipartisanship work. They don’t even recognize that when it happens. But that’s the solution. Real strategic thinking based on traditional strategies and traditional views of America’s role in the world, with less militarism in its foreign policy.

How can we (students) help advance national security and serving our country?

You should, number one, keep learning. Make this your first step of graduate-level learning, and keep it going now. In the Marines, every time you get promoted, you get a new reading list. You have to read. Even generals get a new reading list to read. You have to read all these books. But never stop learning because this is a very dynamic world. It’s just awash in change and you have to keep learning.

How do you bring that to bear in your question? And remember, we’ve got a couple of branches of the government that would probably appeal to you. The House and the Senate Armed Services committees, intelligence committees, and foreign relations committees love to get you bright young folks in there. Oftentimes you don’t stay but four or five years, which seems like a long time to you right now. It’s not, trust me. But it gives you an understanding of how the government works and steeps you in the issues du jour. Another way to do it would be to go into State Department, the CIA, the Department of Defense, or the Departments of Navy, Air Force, or Army.

If a little more technically oriented, for example, that might be worth it. If you go to the secretary of defense’s office and just say you’ve lived for a year in Jordan, or you lived for a year in China, we often try to bring people like you in to be the deputy desk officer. So you can actually bring your knowledge right in. We think if we can snag you young, and show you what we’re doing, we’ll keep you. Years later, you’ll come back. The point I would make is that even if you don’t stay there for a career, whether it be the Peace Corps, the Marine Corps, whether it be the military or State Department, try to find a way that you can go in and find that you get passionate about something. Because I would just tell you that once you get to that point, it never seems like a job. And you’ll really dig into it because you have the initiative to go deeper because you like what you’re doing.

Keep the Faith—America’s Power of Attraction

And now let me close with something. I was a two-star general out in western Iraq. It’s 2004. It’s been 120 degrees, 127 degrees every day. At night, it cools down to 105. We’re outnumbered. We’ve been fighting and fighting and fighting and I pull in at midnight to a lieutenant probably no more than eighteen months out of his undergraduate days in college, and his sailors and Marines. And when the sun comes up, I’m inside his perimeter out in the middle of nowhere in the desert. And he comes over and he’s telling me “Okay, here’s where I’ve been fighting, General. And here’s where I’ve lost men. Here’s how many enemy we’ve taken out. And by the way, General, we picked up a guy last night who was putting an IED on the road you drove in on.” I said, “Really? That’s kind of personal.” He said, “Well, guess what? He lived two years in London. He speaks perfect English. You want to talk to him?” I said, “Sure.”

It turns out he’s an engineer. He’s been trained in England. And so he sits down. A Marine cuts off the little plastic handcuffs, the guard who’s walking around with him. And obviously, it wasn’t a good night for the man. He’s out there digging his hole. He’s got his artillery round, he’s going to put his car battery in. He’s whistling. He looks up and there’s five guys with automatic rifles pointed at him in camouflage uniforms. It is, “Well, I think my retirement program is not in good shape right now.” And I said, “What are you doing this for? You’re a Sunni, I can tell that. We’re the Marines. We’re the only friend you’ve got this country. Why are you trying to kill us?”

And he starts off well. “You’re American. You’re here to steal the oil,” and all this. And I said, “No, actually, we’re not.” I said, “I pull my wallet out every time pump gas in my doggone car.” “But you’re an educated man. You get to talk like that. Just go away. I don’t want to waste my time.” And the Marines stepped forward to take him away and I said, can I sit here for a minute. He said, okay. We’re sitting in the dirt right there by my vehicle. And he said, “I just don’t like foreign forces, foreign soldiers in my country.” Okay, I respect that. I wouldn’t want them in my country. I understand that. We started talking a little bit and getting a cup of coffee and he spilled it all over his hand, he’s so nervous. And I asked him about his family. He’s got a wife and two daughters. They live over on the river about 10 kilometers away. And these Marines are out in the middle of nowhere, where if they don’t stop the Syrian foreign fighters coming in, they’re going to get to Baghdad and they’re going to kill a lot of innocent people. So the Marines are getting antsy to get back on the road, get back on patrol and everything. And so at the time I’ve got to get going, and he said, “Can I ask you a question?” I said, “Sure.” He said, “I guess I’m going to jail.” “You sure are,” I told him. “You’re going to be in Abu Ghraib wearing an orange jumpsuit for a good long time for this little stunt. You’re doggone lucky you’re not dead.” And he said, “Do you think, General—I’m a model prisoner, do you think my family and I could immigrate to America?”

Think about that my fine young friends. On your worst day. I want you to remember that story. Think about that. That he would give anything right now to be sitting where I’m sitting and his daughter sitting where you’re sitting, right now. As imperfect as we are, as angry as we are at each other in this country right now—and it seems angrier than I was even at terrorists when I’m shooting them. Think of how great this country is on its worst day, and then roll your sleeves up and make it better. It’s that simple—make it stronger. Keep faith with each other, help each other. And remember three words: put others first. And you won’t be going to some shrink when you’re forty-five years old wondering what you did with your life. Have a good night, young folks. And thanks for having me here.

A transcript of Gen. Mattis’s talk is here and the video is below.

If you can’t see the video click here.

Steve Blank is the father of modern entrepreneurship, an entrepreneur-turned-educator, and founder of the lean startup movement. He is an adjunct professor at Stanford and a senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence, DoD