Deep in the psychic DNA of American servicemen and women is the bedrock concept of military subordination to civilian elected authority.
This unchallenged principle has served our democracy well in times of war and peace. It has prevented the military coups that wracked Latin America and Africa for so much of their history. This idea, that an elected, civilian commander-in-chief holds the ultimate decision-making authority over our armed forces, is a time-tested and fundamental aspect of what has made American democracy great.
So, it is not surprising that one of this generation’s most celebrated warriors, Marine General and now Secretary of Defense James Mattis, would demonstrate his loyalty to this tenet, subordinating his better military judgement to the President’s wishes, even when he is aware his troops are on a tactical fool’s errand or engaged in patently political theater. Among such taskings are the President’s orders to stage a “big beautiful military parade,” or the more pathetic border deployment to stop an invasion of desperate asylum seekers from Central America.
Mattis has retained his military discipline, although anecdotal reporting, such as Bob Woodward’s book Fear, alleges that the man known as the Warrior Monk has very little personal respect for Donald Trump the man.
And why would he? Trump the man is a bully and a braggart. Mattis is a soft- spoken scholar who venerates the Lance Corporals he commanded. Trump has no ideology beyond his own narcissism. Mattis is a genuine patriot, veteran of war and a Marine’s Marine whose warrior ethos is matched only by his sense of justice and compassion in military victory. He told his Marines to comport themselves to be recognized as “no better friend, no worse enemy.” Mattis exudes character and leadership. President Trump exudes…well, you get the idea.
But Donald Trump the President can count on Mattis’ faithful service. That is, until Mattis decides to leave or Trump fires him.
As a Marine and former U.S. ambassador who lived by the same code of discipline and a sworn oath to be the President’s personal representative until I could no longer do it in good conscience, I am left wondering - how does Jim Mattis do it?
In the wake of last week’s embarrassing Border Apology tour, one has to ask how much Mattis truly fears his own departure as the last strategic adult left in the room. By invoking the ghost of Pancho Villa from a century ago, telling his troops that the border deployment was a “great training opportunity,” and urging them not to pay attention to the news surrounding their non-mission because “they’d go nuts,” Mattis telegraphed his own disdain and rejection of Trump’s trumped up electoral use of our men and women in uniform. But he shrewdly remained on the right side of the public support line for the Administration’s action.
Mattis’ reward for this steadfast subordination to his commander-in-chief? The President told 60 Minutes he believes his Secretary of Defense is “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth.” Well, of course, Mr. President, we’d like to know the truth. In the same interview you labeled Democrats “an angry left-wing mob” that seeks to destroy our homeland. Is the Secretary of Defense part of that?
The President’s disparagement of our country’s top military commanders is not confined to Jim Mattis. He has routinely belittled John Kelly, his retired Marine four-star chief of staff, by ignoring him at White House events and alleging he does not have sound political instincts.
The President resorted to his dog-whistle, base code-talk again yesterday, when Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked him about retired Admiral James McRaven’s criticism of his Presidential performance. Trump interrupted Wallace abruptly and simply said: “Hillary Clinton fan,” as if that were enough to undercut the 37-year career of intrepid service by one of our nation’s most successful U.S. Navy Seals. Trump then went on to ask snidely if McRaven and his Special Operations Command couldn’t have found Osama Bin Laden sooner. A vile slap in the face to all of our blood and treasure who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are other retired military and diplomatic leaders who have also criticized the President’s relentless attacks on our traditional allies, like NATO and NAFTA partners, and his cozying up to authoritarian, human rights abusers like Russian’s Putin or Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey recently said publicly what virtually every active duty Marine or Army commander must have thought privately: the Border Deployment is a wasteful and fundamentally un-American use of our military.
These retired voices are among the most vital and valuable we have in our national dialogue today. Principled and disciplined military leaders who kept their bond to subordinate personal opinion to the chain of command as long as they wore the uniform have a special legitimacy – and responsibility – to voice their honest opinions once they leave service. This has not been the norm for much of our history. But we are not in normal times during the Trump presidency.
I anxiously await Jim Mattis’ voice in this growing choir. Until then, I salute his continued service, even though I cannot grasp how or why he persists.