On Wednesday Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited soldiers at the border in Texas, sent by Trump to bolster US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents ahead of waves of migrants expected to come as part of the much hyped caravan, in numbers totaling nearly 6,000 active duty troops, according to the Washington Post.
During televised comments Mattis avoided identifying either the short or long term mission of the border deployment, but said "we'll let you know" when one soldier asked whether the Army would be removing the miles of concertina wire troops have been erecting on border choke points considered weak or previously easy to breach. Another soldier bluntly asked Mattis precisely about official goals of the non-conventional mission, to which which he responded:
"Short term, get the obstacles in. Longer term...it is somewhat to be determined."
And another soldier was quoted by Washington Post journalists as scoffing to his friend while working on positioning the wire: “I bet you five bucks we have to take all this down in a few weeks,” the soldier said.
Mattis' talk was focused on keeping the troops motivated for what he admitted is "certainly non-traditional" in terms of a military mission or deployment. "The eyes of the world are on you" he said, and added that the mission is "certainly non-traditional...generally we do homeland security overseas."
Perhaps the most interesting moment came when the defense secretary addressed the explosive media controversy and coverage generated by the Trump-ordered deployment. Mattis urged the troops to ignore the flood of news coverage questioning the mission:
"There’s all sorts of stuff in the news...If you read all that stuff, you’ll go nuts, you know what I mean?"
Ironically one could just as easily apply these words to America's "endless war" in Afghanistan — a quagmire that Pentagon officials have recently dubbed unwinnable.
One US Marine combat veteran of the Afghan war and current New York Times reporter commented:
Yeah man that comes later anyway when you’re waking up in the middle of the night still trying to figure out why your friends are dead. https://t.co/vNu4GzDp3m— Thomas Gibbons-Neff (@Tmgneff) November 14, 2018
In likely the most controversial part of the speech, Mattis touched on legal vs. illegal immigration — the latter which he said the Army was there to help put a stop to:
"My mother was an immigrant, ok? She told me how hard it was to get into America. So believe me, we want legal immigration. That's part of what makes America good, but illegal we're going to carry out the law."
Concerning the reference to his own family history, some among the press pool of reporters were quick to point out subsequently that his mother came to the United States from Canada when she was merely an infant.
Speaking to troops deployed to Texas, Mattis is asked by a soldier whether they will have to take down all that concertina wire they've been putting up along the border since they arrived.— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) November 14, 2018
The livestream catches him saying "We'll let you know" pic.twitter.com/fwLQJBTgB6
The scope of what the active duty Army force can do and not do at the border has been subject to controversy from the start; however Pentagon policy as well as federal law places significant limits on their role.
Military officials have left open the possibility of manning helicopters to less secure parts of the border should the caravan attempt to cross into the country. The Army's mission has been officially described providing support capabilities to the CPB and other federal agents already in place.