Letter from former US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis to Embassy of Finland commemorating Winter War
Former US Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis wrote a letter for the Embassy of Finland’s #WinterWar80 seminar on 11th of December 2019, commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the beginning of the Winter War. This letter was read out loud at the event.
The Winter War is ripe with lessons for a student of history and has played a key role in the development of countless junior officers and military tacticians. Even all these years later, it has much to teach us.
First and foremost, the conflict is a rallying cry for patriots. It proves that the resilience and determination of a people fighting to defend their homeland can lend them a strength that offsets deficiencies in arms and personnel. The audacity of the Finnish defense against the Soviet invasion remains deeply impressive.
As someone who studies military tactics, the Winter War offered me a clear template for expeditionary warfare ashore. While Finnish troops fought at home, their use of highly mobile tactics that integrated superior intelligence gathering with a comprehensive knowledge of local weather and terrain set a high bar. What we now call Motti tactics illustrate how otherwise intractable problems can be made manageable by breaking them down into discrete blocks. These principles generalize well to other conflicts, and wise commanders would do well to emulate the approach taken by Finnish soldiers.
The struggles of the Soviet forces remind us that technological dominance and numerical superiority alone do not guarantee victory. It is incumbent on military leaders to instill in their soldiers flexible and creative thinking that allows them to adapt their plans to the environment they encounter. The rigidity of Soviet doctrine, the inadequate training and provisioning of Soviet soldiers, and the stilted response of Soviet officers to the Finnish defense offer a case study in how not to prepare and lead a force.
Finally, the history of the Winter War demands that we acknowledge the growing belligerence of Russia and other revisionist powers. Then, as now, their actions highlight the fraying of the fabric of deterrence. The failure of the League of Nations to deter Soviet aggression a scant 20 years after the end of World War I was a result of the inability of global leaders to conceive of the inadequacy of contemporary institutions to solve emerging security problems. We must not repeat this mistake today.
Today, we celebrate the bravery of a generation of Finns who fought and died in the Winter War. This is a noble cause. I am proud of these many years of U.S.-Finnish cooperation. I hope that our continued cooperation will ensure many more decades of peace in Northern Europe.