The Corner

National Security & Defense

Mattis Moments

Secretary James Mattis at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in September 2017 (Photo: Technical Sergeant Brigitte N. Brantley)

We all have our favorite Mattis moments, I’m sure. I’ll give you a few of mine, plus some other remarks.

In the first few weeks of the new administration, Mattis flew to Iraq — where he was asked by reporters about the idea of seizing Iraq’s oil. He said, calmly, matter-of-factly, “I think all of us here in this room, all of us in America, have generally paid for our gas and oil, and I’m sure that we will continue to do that in the future.”

Then, the next month, he was asked in the Senate how NATO funding works. And he simply answered — straightforwardly, knowledgeably, unflinchingly. This was exceptional and refreshing, in the atmosphere of that time (and continuing). To read a news story about this, go here.

They call him “Mad Dog,” which he doesn’t like very much. In truth, he has always struck me as just about the least mad dog in the entire Washington kennel. (Of course, some nicknames are meant ironically: as when bald people are called “Curly” and huge people are called “Tiny.”)

A year ago, Mattis spoke to troops at Fort Bragg. He said that “storm clouds are gathering” over the Korean Peninsula. He then stated a timeless truth: Diplomacy has the best chance of preventing war when it is backed by arms — a strong, capable military. “My fine young soldiers,” said Mattis, “the only way our diplomats can speak with authority and be believed is if you’re ready to go.”

Do you remember Frederick the Great? (I first heard this quotation from John O’Sullivan.) He was not only a Prussian king, famous for military leadership, he was also a musician: a composer and flutist. (If you write to tell me “it’s flautist,” I will block you for life.) Frederick said, “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”

Speaking to those same troops at Fort Bragg, Mattis made a book recommendation. He recommended T. R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness (1963). It concerns the Korean Peninsula.

And how about that impromptu speech Mattis gave to troops abroad in August 2017? See it in a video embedded here. I’ll give you a taste:

“For those of you I haven’t met, my name’s Mattis, and I work at the Department of Defense … Thanks for being out here, okay? … The only way this great big experiment you and I call America is gonna survive is, we got tough hombres like you. … We’ll fight alongside our friends and allies, and we’re gonna keep right on fightin’ until they’re sick of us and leave us alone. …

“You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems — you know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other … We’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.

“And we got two powers: the power of inspiration — and we’ll get the power of inspiration back — and we got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families and our country or our allies, okay?”

The secretary’s letter of resignation, viewed in isolation, is nothing remarkable. It’s full of obvious truths and platitudes. Boilerplate. Yet in the present environment, it is startling and (to me) gratifying. It’s like a light turned on.

Clearly, Mattis was horrified by our abandonment of the Kurds. And he was sick of seeing our allies bashed, while Putin, Kim, Erdogan, Xi, Duterte, and others were treated much more tenderly.

The present Democratic hawkishness won’t last — it’s just anti-Trump. What about an America First stance in the GOP? At any rate, partisanship is a powerful drug. You remember George McGovern, accepting his party’s nomination in Miami: “Come home, America!”

When I was growing up, I often heard that military men should not be allowed anywhere near civilian control. There is something to that idea, of course. But in 2017, the president was surrounded by three generals: Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly. A lot of people were reassured by this, even lefties. (I never thought I would see the day!) Now all three of those men have left or are leaving.

Yesterday, Stephen Miller, the president’s aide, was on television, talking about national security. He referred to ISIS et al. as “the enemies of other countries.” Do Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly see it that way? No, they know better.

Things will likely get bumpier. I think that James Mattis did his best, and — pardon the cliché, which I know is wearisome — I thank him for his service.

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