Against the James Mattis Personality Cult

Few men who climb the rungs of power in our political establishment escape with their character uncorrupted. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s June 3 letter to President Trump displays the consequences to a man’s soul when he allows the longing for honor and wealth to rot his reason and moral sense.

As a fellow Marine veteran, I cannot let his words to the commander-in-chief go without remark.

Mattis’s reputation carries far too much weight with America’s fighting men. They need to see the truth: that whatever his organizational acumen and swagger, at heart James Mattis is just another establishment D.C. power player. His pious moralizing cannot hide his role in perpetuating and advocating policies ruinous for the country while enriching himself personally.

Mattis’s letter displays his real character. For one, it begins with a lie. He wrote of President Trump’s proposal to send in the military to contain riots: “Never did I dream that troops . . . would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”

This is disingenuous. There is a long-standing precedent for using the military to contain domestic insurrection and disturbances. From the Colorado Coalfield War to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, federal troops have been used throughout our history to keep order when local and state governments lose control.

Mattis said Americans must not “be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers” among the Black Lives Matter protesters. But how could we possibly ignore the wave of violence, looting, and rioting that cost more than a dozen lives, including the life of a federal officer guarding a U.S. courthouse?

There is nothing “unifying” or “wholesome” about this behavior. The federal and state governments must defend the citizens’ right to life and property.

But Mattis’s argument is more slippery than simply insisting the military should never be used to restore domestic order. Instead, he wrote, “At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.”

That claim is not consistent with the actual law. Section 252 of Title 10 clearly states that the president may send in federal troops to restore the rule of law during public disorder without consulting that state’s governor:

Whenever the President considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any State by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into Federal service such of the militia of any State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.

This power has been used before. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower invoked Section 252 when he sent in 1,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne to enforce the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation decision in Little Rock, Arkansas. The governor in that case, Orval Faubus, did not want the federal government to force integration of the public school system. I very much doubt that Mattis’s principled objection to using the military to enforce domestic law extends to this case.

His principles, such as they are, amount to little more than ideological talking points.

Where was his anger when state governors stripped their citizens of the right to assemble, protest, and worship using fiat powers earlier this spring? Riot police arrested 32 people for gathering at the California state capitol while peacefully assembling. Those protesters didn’t throw rocks, burn buildings, or vandalize memorials and yet the state cracked down. A gym owner in Oceanside, California was arrested for reopening his business. A barber in Michigan faces ongoing lawsuits and multiple criminal charges because he continues to cut hair in defiance of illegal and unjustifiable public health orders.

Why didn’t Mattis speak up for these Americans? Why didn’t he call for state governors and unelected bureaucrats who stripped people of fundamental rights to be held accountable? Why is it that his righteous indignation only emerges when his former boss wants to end riots or the wars in Syria and Afghanistan?

This is the heart of the problem. Mattis doesn’t merit the cult following he has among Marines or the reputation he has with the general public. His judgment is fallible. He was not a savior general. Mattis played an acquiescing and then leading role in two decades of disastrous policy in the Middle East. That he assumes the mantle of righteous anger in public now displays either cynicism or a lack of self-awareness.

Mattis is most famous for leading the 1st Marine Division’s drive to Baghdad in the initial invasion of Iraq. Fair enough. But that war never should have been waged. Mattis admitted as much—in private. He called the Iraq war a “strategic mistake” in 2016 during comments at a closed-to-the-media forum at the ASIS International conference. He justified his lack of public opposition to President Bush’s push for war by saying, “I think people were pretty much aware that the U.S. military didn’t think it was a very wise idea. But we give a cheery ‘Aye aye, sir.’ Because when you elect someone commander in chief—we give our advice. We generally give it in private.”

Though Mattis knew that invading Iraq was a bad idea in 2003, he didn’t think it was worth protesting publicly. We spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of American lives, and destabilized a whole region of the world because of that conflict. Mattis claims he knew it was a mistake but did nothing.

He didn’t resign. He didn’t write any open letters. He didn’t go to the media.

He said “aye aye, sir” and charged ahead, often against his self-proclaimed better judgment . . . for more than a decade. When he finally did decide to challenge his political masters it was to push to keep troops in Iraq when the American people wanted out. As he says in his book, it was his sense that “regardless of where one stood on the decision to invade Iraq back in 2003, securing the gains of seven years of war would require keeping troops and diplomatic engagement in Iraq.”

But for how long? Mattis is coy here. In his book, Call Sign Chaos, he prefers to blame civilian leaders for mismanagement and failure without clearly articulating his preferred alternatives. But at one point he writes that if America wanted to see “cultural change” in Iraq and the Middle East we needed to make investments of men and material on a time scale of “generations, not months.”

He says the example of South Korea is instructive for turning a country into a democracy: “Our large troop presence and steady diplomacy safeguarded the transformation of that war-torn country from a dictatorship into a vibrant democracy. But it took forty years.” In other words, Mattis was prepared to occupy Iraq indefinitely, continuing to pour lives and money into a country that was always on the verge of turmoil, to keep the “gains” from an invasion that was a “disaster.”

By his own account, he left his position at the head of CENTCOM with the Middle East in “disarray” but blamed this failure on “the lack of an integrated regional strategy” from civilian leaders that “had left us adrift, and our friends confused.” Mattis’ alternative wasn’t any better, however. He wanted the United States to keep spilling blood and treasure (for generations, if need be!) to try and bring peace and Western-style democracy to a region mired for decades in unrest, dictatorship, and extremism.

That solution was worse for the country than what the Obama Administration actually offered. Instead of continuing a bloody slog thousands of miles away or slowly drawing down in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to launch human rights crusades in Syria and Libya, we should have entirely refocused on protecting our actual homeland with sane border policies that keep Muslim extremists out. How can the terrorists attack us if they can’t get here?

But when Mattis had the opportunity to champion such a policy he instead favored more foreign war, including attacking Iran, even though the people and their elected representatives did not.

He did the same thing when President Trump wanted American forces out of Syria and Afghanistan. Mattis resigned in a huff because his boss wanted to bring the boys home. No, never! With this general, it’s always a demand for more war and destruction. There’s a reason his call sign is “Chaos.”

In 2014, Mattis was asked about the consequences of following unethical orders and stated his policy was to only step down if faced with a situation where the “message could be sent no other way” because it wasn’t fair to “abandon” the lance corporal who didn’t have that power.

How noble! How courageous! He was forced by duty to keep climbing the ladder of military and corporate power as the United States slogged through years of painful, winless war. It was dedication to his country that led him to join the board of America’s fifth-largest defense contractor once he retired. It was self-sacrifice that motivated him to rake in millions of dollars in speaking fees, stock options, and book deals. It was high-minded consideration of the public good that placed Mattis on the board of Theranos, a company whose entire $10 billion valuation was built on a lie—a lie he helped sell with the power of his reputation and while still in uniform. And once it went belly up, Mattis never apologized or even bothered to explain his actions.

In the end, a multi-million dollar net worth, cushy academic posts, and fawning media coverage are the price James Mattis paid for his public service. He never won any wars, but he also never lost an opportunity to cash in.

In his book, he says, “I’m old-fashioned: I don’t write about sitting presidents.” Except when he does. Mattis keeps attacking President Trump, the man who hand-picked him as his secretary of defense. That requires a special kind of nastiness.

Mattis didn’t need to passive-aggressively snipe at the president on the way out the door as secretary of defense. He didn’t need to insult Trump’s character because the president wanted to protect Americans from rioting. He didn’t need to backstab a man who once publicly lauded his abilities and talent. But Mattis did anyway. In 2015, he said that “loyalty only counts . . . when there’s one hundred reasons not to be.”

That’s exactly right.

The letter claims we are now witnessing the consequences of “three years without mature leadership.” Does Mattis forget that he was part of that leadership? If he really believes that Donald Trump only seeks to “divide us” then why did he willingly join the administration in the first place? Was he simply naïve or was this more of the same ladder-climbing cynicism that kept him silent about his initial misgivings regarding Iraq?

One cannot pretend to be a mere apolitical servant of America’s elected leaders and then issue vociferous public criticism of those very men. Whatever Mattis’s motivations for speaking out now, his hypocrisy is on full display. It is well past time he retired from public life entirely. He should enjoy his hard-earned millions and nice pension somewhere out of the spotlight.

Sometimes it is best that old Marines, like old soldiers, simply “fade away.

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About Josiah Lippincott

Josiah Lippincott is a Ph.D. student and a former U.S. Marine Corps officer. You can find him on Telegram at https://t.me/josiah_lippincott or subscribe to his Substack here.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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