Book Review: “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis” by Major R.W. PallasPosted on November 18,2019
Commander Guy M. Snodgrass (USN, Retired) provides a mixed bag with his memoir, “Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis”, capturing his time as a speechwriter during the tenure of Secretary of Defense Mattis. Fred Kaplan categorizes the work as, “a weirdly schizophrenic book–half swooning hagiography, half bitter critique.” I would say this holds true but the manner to which he approaches the work is respectful throughout. Anyone serving in the DoD can glean valuable insight and catch a rare glimpse behind the curtain as to what it means to serve on a senior staff at the heart of the U.S. Government.
The biggest question I had throughout the book was, “Would this book be written should Captain or Admiral Snodgrass still be in uniform?” A common theme throughout the book was his desire to tone back his hallmark career as a fighter pilot, TOPGUN instructor, and speechwriter for greater family time and a less chaotic work schedule. His desire to command a wing was overlooked as he found himself as one of a handful of select officers destined to command the future nuclear fleet. One can’t ignore his career seemed riddled with high profile jobs of someone who has put a tremendous amount of effort into the naval service. What I struggled with was his initial commitment to join OSD as I couldn’t help but imagine this billet would be extremely useful for the development and exposure of someone looking to serve longer than the 20 year mark, or at least had the aspirations to try. I also struggled to understand the warning he received early in the book that working for Secretary Mattis would be at a breakneck pace, and still went along willingly.
I wrestled with this dichotomy throughout the book, his desire to tone back his career, but his acceptance to progress with a high impact billet such as speechwriter for the Secretary of Defense. The retention of high caliber personnel in the military becomes more pronounced when he makes mention of the CNO, Adm. Richardson, who was quoted as saying, “Future leaders are merely the best of what’s left as people make the decision to seek greener pastures in the private sector.” Seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy as he transitioned to a GS-15 position with two highly lucrative job offers when he decided to leave OSD’s front office when things go awry and the job offers dissolve.
My initial thought was Commander Snodgrass did in fact desire to stay in uniform, but as the pages turned I spent more time thinking his plan was to position himself to transition from a high visibility billet within the Pentagon. I can’t fault anyone for planning for the future, but it seemed on one hand he wanted a quieter, slower pace, but when posed with the question to join the SECDEF’s staff, he was all in.
Commander Snodgrass does provide gems of wisdom with his work, and for those interested in the behind the scenes meetings with members of the President’s staff, there’s plenty to digest. One cannot overlook his career, talent, and hard work put towards the success of the Secretary, both in the office and on the road, countlessly traveling the globe working through time zones and jet lag.
The most valuable lesson was one given by Secretary Mattis,
“Bus, never forget that we all have an expiration date. Every day that passes brings you one day closer to the end of your tenure. Especially in a political job. You never know when the end will come, so make the most of the time you have.”
My favorite quote, which I think any person, in or out of uniform can relate to was:
“Always treat people well on your way up the ladder, as they’ll be the same people you see when you inevitably come back down.”
This book was a very quick read, easy to digest, and enjoyable. I understand the embodiment of both the good and the bad as any good chronicler successfully captures. A mentor once told me, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” Commander Snodgrass tells his story, and that’s probably something anyone reading this work should keep at the forefront, this is his story.
I give “Holding the Line” 4/5. Think it’s an honest reflection about his time as a speechwriter and he does his best to accurately portray the people, events, and encounters that occurred around him creating one of the most developmental experiences of his career. If anyone has read the NDS, one can’t argue–the guy has talent, and a book–that’s more than I can say I’ve done.