To understand the damning impact of Gen. James Mattis’s criticism of President Trump this week as “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people,” but rather “tries to divide us,” it is necessary to appreciate the revered four-star general’s place in the pantheon of legendary American combat commanders and why what he had to say matters.
I first met Gen. Mattis on the eve of the Second Gulf War. I was among a handful of journalists and several thousand Marines who gathered under a huge canvas tent in the Kuwaiti desert to hear the 1 Marine Division commander talk about the looming invasion of Iraq.
I had already heard tales of the Warrior Monk’s selfless leadership, his prodigious intellect, and his soaring oratory. Over the course of an hour in the stifling heat, the then-two-star general held the audience spellbound with an eloquent, off-the-cuff tour de force.
The speech began with a quick history of the Marine Corps from, literally, the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the savage fighting against Imperial Japan in the western Pacific and more recent wars.
It concluded with Mattis using very salty language to tell his Marines that they were to be the tip of the spear that would oust Saddam Hussein from power.
My favourite anecdote about Mattis may be apocryphal, though a few Marines I know insist that it isn’t.
The story goes like this. The general visited a Marine base one Christmas Day. Chatting with a young Marine manning the gate, he discovered that the lance corporal’s family was awaiting his return before celebrating.
Mattis said on the spot that he’d take the young Marine’s shift and ordered him to go home to be with his wife and kids.
Someone asked me this week if I could ever imagine Donald Trump doing something like that. Even if Trump had done so, which is highly unlikely, he would have loudly boasted about it.
Mattis spoke out as protests appear across the U.S. to condemn the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Given Mattis’ almost mythical stature in contemporary American military and political culture, could what the general said about Trump represent a turning point in the president’s quest for another four-year term in November? Would Mattis’s remarks help deny Trump another chance to tear the fabric of America apart and further undermine U.S. credibility at a time when the planet is reeling from the medical and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Few Canadians may be aware that America’s most beloved living general is half-Canadian. Mattis’s mother, Lucille Proulx, a franco-Manitoban from St. Boniface, worked for U.S. military intelligence in Africa during WWII before marrying an American merchant seaman she met there and settling in the Pacific Northwest.
Like almost everyone in Canada, I’ve been shocked again and again by Trump’s unpredictable fascistic tendencies, his cretinous delusions of his brilliance, and his contempt for anyone who does not praise him like some kind of 21st century Caesar.
What Mattis demanded in the Atlantic magazine was for Americans to reject and hold accountable those “who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
A Canadian school friend who is a retired senior public servant wrote me to condemn Mattis for not “shouldering some of the responsibility” for Trump’s many blunders because he did not publicly criticize the president during the 21 months that he served as the president’s Secretary of Defence or in the book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead that he published after he left that office in January of last year.
I understand the sentiment. But I do not agree with the conclusion that he has drawn from it.
I prefer the explanation offered by a former war correspondent: “There is no doubt about their motivation: to provide competent foreign policy and national security leadership for a president who had no background in either,” he wrote to me.
“It was an act of patriotism, for which some of them sacrificed quite a bit.”
I would add that I reckon that Mattis has been mostly quiet in retirement because of his respect for the chain of command and his belief that soldiers should not criticize the political echelon.
For those reasons, I have been doubly moved by what Mattis finally said. His remarks were similar to, but perhaps not as scathing as, an article another influential retired Marine general, John Allen, had published in Foreign Policy on Wednesday.
Under the headline, “A moment of national shame and peril — and hope,” Allen wrote about Trump’s recent actions, and in particular, events on Monday, when “fully equipped riot police and troops violently, and without provocation, set upon the peaceful demonstrators there, manhandling and beating many of them, employing flash-bangs, riot-control agents, and pepper spray throughout.”
This had been “awful for the United States and democracy,” said Allen, who commanded the NATO force in Afghanistan. But Allen found a silver lining.
“This could be the beginning of the change of American democracy not to illiberalism, but to enlightenment?” he asked. “But it will have to come from the bottom up. For at the White House, there is no one home.”
Mattis and Allen have thrown down a gauntlet. They are such highly respected leaders that for once Trump has not dared to denounce them as traitors and liars as he usually does when cornered by his many critics.
And they’re not alone.
More than 60 per cent of U.S. troops supported Trump, according to a poll conducted last July by Pew Research. Those numbers slipped into the low 40s after the president sent some of them to guard the border with Mexico. Those polling numbers are unlikely to improve anytime soon, given the army’s new assignment patrolling American inner cities.
The troops’ dilemma about how to vote has been further complicated by this week’s scathing condemnation of their commander-in-chief by the most respected and popular flag officers, though the four stars’ messages were not meant for them but for the greater U.S. public.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen, and former defence secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, have issued their own blistering condemnations of Trump. Even Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, seems very uncomfortable with what Trump has been doing and saying about using combat forces to break up protests in U.S. cities.
The generals and these leaders have provided Americans with a political road map. It is now up to them to follow their generals’ counsel at the ballot box.
Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas