No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy

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General James Mattis has been selected by President-elect Trump to succeed our country’s current Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter. The response to this choice has been almost universally praised as Mattis’ reputation for intelligence, innovation, and honor have preceded him since he first began his climb to prominence during the Persian Gulf War.

He is not without his critics. There are those who believe in preserving a strict status of civilian control over the military, a policy and sentiment that are not without worth. Because of this tradition, there is a law in place which requires former military officers to have been retired from service for seven years before being eligible for the job.  For his nomination to be successful, Mattis would need congress to pass a special waiver allowing him to take the post. This is not without precedent; General Marshall was granted just such a waiver in 1950 before taking on the role of head of the Department of Defense.

A solid red congress will more than likely grant Mattis this waiver and the Senate Republican majority will more than likely confirm his nomination.

To get a window into the future and appraise how Mattis might approach his duty in the Trump administration, one need only look to the recent past at how the man and Marine has comported himself throughout his career. In 2003, prior to the first push across the Line of Departure to do battle with the forces Saddam Hussein, General Mattis sent a personal letter to each of his Marines. It’s been some years since I last read the letter and as I read it now I’m struck by how his words go beyond the confines of martial imperatives and echo the greater virtues that at one point defined not only our military, but also the character of our country.

In that letter, he explained to his Marines the nature of their mission, the nature of their enemy, and what he expected from his fighters in the way of battlefield conduct, both among themselves and toward the soldiers and citizens of Iraq.

Mattis commanded his Marines to not only “swiftly and aggressively” destroy the enemy but to show mercy to those who surrendered, as well as to demonstrate American decency, chivalry, and compassion to the oppressed citizens of Hussein’s brutal regime. Mattis, notoriously known as “Mad Dog”, was not singularly focused on merely crushing his adversaries. Of utmost importance to him was acknowledging the torment of the Iraqi people and relieving them of their anguish through both force of arms and by way of American grace and generosity.

Mattis warned his Marines to expect the enemy to engage in “unethical tactics”. He warned of “chemical attack, treachery, and use of the innocent as human shields.” He followed these dire predictions with simple but powerful words of encouragement befitting a general in the mold of Patton and MacArthur: Take it all in stride. Shouldn’t we all, civilian and serviceman alike, heed this exhortation? This call to remain stoic must not only be for those who have chosen to protect our liberty on the battlefield, it must be embraced by us all.

The Warrior Monk urged his Marines to be the hunter and not the hunted and to not be caught with their guard down. In our current culture of intolerant hyper-sensitivity and self-absorbed entitlement, what lesson can we all learn from this directive? Do not be victims. Be strong. Be vigilant.

This call to vigilance was followed by a decree to “use good judgment and act in the best interest of our nation.” We live in a country where the individual ego frequently exceeds the capacity and will to look outside of ourselves to a bigger picture. Too often judgment is impaired by emotion and awareness of anything beyond our immediate self-interest is lost.

Mattis went further and insisted his Marines engage their brains before their weapons, to share courage and keep faith with their comrades. Our nation at present is one divided along deep, partisan lines, it is a place in which understanding is secondary (at best) to ideological rigidity. In this climate of division these words may be the most poignant of the letter. As Americans, we must think before we act, and our conduct must be defined by bravery and comradery. Can anyone not agree our country could use more of these ideals in our present political predicament? Can anyone not agree that now more than ever we must rally together with what Mattis referred to as “a happy heart and strong spirit”?

The general concludes the letter by looking back to history, by praising the heroes of the past who never lost their nerve and kept their honor clean. Again, the general’s succinct profundity should be instructive to us all: Do not allow fear to weaken your resolve, do not run from the challenge into dishonor. In a day and age of safe-spaces and microaggressions this is a lesson we cannot afford to miss.

General James Mattis, in this brief but crucial letter, enshrined not only the best attributes of the world’s finest fighting force, but the best aspects of what once made this country great: Decency and compassion, resolute action with a clear mind, courage, honor, strength, a shared purpose, and a happy heart.  In the first paragraph of the letter, Mattis tells his Marines, “On your young shoulders rest the hopes of mankind.” In this one sentence our soon-to-be Secretary of Defense revealed his cognizance of a simple and momentous truth which encapsulates the ultimate promise and idealism of America: If all men are not free, none of us are.

This man is more than a general. He is a standard bearer for the American way. I for one believe the Warrior Monk will be an exemplary Secretary of Defense.

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