Photo: Eric Gay (AP)

Right now, there are more than 5,000 U.S. troops stationed at the border between the U.S. and Mexico, ostensibly to provide some deterrent to migrants attempting to cross the border unlawfully. What are they actually doing there? A good question, and one the troops themselves would very much like to know the answer to.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who is down at the border visiting said troops right now, has really not wanted to answer that question for several weeks as the president blatantly has used his department for a perverse political stunt right that revved up before the election. Mattis has been largely able to dodge questions from the press, but it seems he didn’t reckon with the prosecutorial tendencies of a bunch of bored enlisted dudes who are going to miss Thanksgiving with their families because Donald Trump decided they should live in a tent city for weeks and eat nothing but MREs even though they’re just a stone’s throw of a Whataburger.

During his visit, Mattis fielded some questions from his men, which ABC News reporters on the ground livestreamed.

“What are the short-term and long-term plans for this operation, sir?” one soldier asked. (This comes about 12 minutes into the stream, embedded below.)

“The short term right now is to get these obstacles in so that the border patrolmen can do what they’ve gotta do,” Mattis answered. “OK? You don’t want them being injured something like that if a piece of wire could have kept someone far enough back that they couldn’t chuck a rock at them or something.”

Advertisement

The other part of his answer was a little less specific.

“Longer term? It’s somewhat to be determined,” Mattis said. “Because if we were in war right now you’d be asking the same questions, wouldn’t you?”

Advertisement

Yes, they would! It’s a good question! Many of the soldiers at the border have spent time laying miles of concertina wire, a directive one engineer was also curious about.

“These wire obstacles that we’ve emplaced along the border as engineers, are we going to be taking these out as well?” he asked.

Mattis’ answer, again, wasn’t exactly specific.

“We’ll see what the secretary says, OK, but right now the mission is, put them in to help the troops,” Mattis said. “One thing about the U.S. Army, we give you a mission you’ll do it,” he concluded, which got a reasonably enthusiastic response from the crowd.

Advertisement

Later in his appearance, Mattis indirectly compared the migrant caravan to Pancho Villa’s invasion of New Mexico in 1916, which, uh... seems like not the best historical context.

Advertisement

The Pentagon press corps has been doing a pretty great job covering the continuing developments at the border, but Mattis’s comments here show that there’s definitely something to be said for periodically replacing reporters with a bunch of surly E-4s who want to know when they get to go home.