What General Mattis Could Have Said

Published: October 21, 2019

By Jim Lichtman
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Much has been said regarding General James Mattis’ speech at a recent event. Here’s my take.

James Mattis, one of America’s foremost generals, served and led in the Gulf War, as well as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, later serving as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense before vacating that position.

In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote to the president saying, “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”

Except for his recent book in which he shares his experience and leadership style, Mattis has been largely reticent, subscribing to the honor code of “duty to silence,” in speaking out against the president.

While that may reflect common sense, we live in uncommon times with a president who has no honor and no code except that which serves himself.

However, at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner honoring his service, Mattis’ speech offered a moment where he could have done more, a lot more.

Borrowing a line from President Trump’s recent critique – calling him “the world’s most overrated general” – Mattis used it as a playful opening to a dinner that traditionally uses humor to soften critical events of the day.

“I’m honored,” Mattis said, “to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals and frankly that sounds pretty good to me…”

And that’s where he should have ended the line. It’s self-deprecating and was greeted with laughter by an audience of both Republicans and Democrats.

However, he added, “…you do have to admit between me and Meryl, at least we’ve had some victories.”

Okay, a little zinger aimed at Trump, unfortunately the rest of the speech quickly turns from humor to mockery.

“… I earned my spurs on the battlefield … Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

It gets worse.

“The only person in the military Mr. Trump does not feel is overrated,” Mattis said, “that’s Colonel Sanders.”

For a distinguished Marine general who has been resolutely quiet, Mattis should have used his time to speak more credibly regarding the obvious crisis the country faces.

If I had been asked to consult with General Mattis on his speech, I would have urged him to use this opportunity to best advantage, not to defend himself, but to speak out against the words and actions from the bully who sits in the White House.

I would ask Mattis to talk about the vital components of leadership, and describe the difficulties he faced in making decisions that were gut-wrenching but had to be made, nonetheless.

I would ask the general to share his opinion about what makes us Americans and the reputation we have garnered around the world throughout many conflicts from staunch allies we have both supported and received support.

I would ask Mattis to search his heart and his memory to tell his audience what it means to be a Marine, and the stories he could share about duty, honor, country and what it implies to live by a code whereby you put the nation’s interests ahead of your own.

I would ask him to share the hard stuff about what led him to support the current president and the harder stuff that led to his decision to resign. We don’t need many details, we just need the truth.

I would ask General Mattis to describe why truth matters in a democracy, the truth that is not always easy to listen to but the truth we need to hear.

I think the Streep comparison is a good opening. However, I would then suggest that he use the laughter to quickly pivot.

“… So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals and frankly that sounds pretty good to me.

“But I cannot make a joke about the abrupt withdrawal of our American forces in Syria, or abandoning our allies at the whim of a man who acts against the principles this country stands for.

“I cannot make light of a man who sits behind a desk where the buck stops and makes decisions with little or no consideration from military leaders who have served in countless conflicts over decades, intelligence officers who offer the best analysis without bias, and foreign diplomats who have faithfully served the best interests of our country only to be pushed aside by the president’s personal attorney to negotiate political deals that favor him and involve hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been appropriated by Congress.

“I cannot stand by and watch the chief executive of this country continue to dismiss and disparage those who honorably serve in our Intelligence communities, Departments of Justice and State, along with those in Congress, as well as those brave souls who, despite protections from the Whistleblower Act, step forward to tell the truth at the risk of real consequences.

“When he name-calls duly elected representatives and senators from both parties, he dishonors our democracy.

“When he calls the press ‘the enemy of the people,’ he maligns the efforts by thousands of honest journalists who are working to obtain the truth of events and report that truth to millions of Americans. And when he calls news that he doesn’t like, “fake,” he debases honesty and integrity — two values he consistently and blatantly disregards.

“I know this is not what you expected to hear, tonight, but it is important that it be said and that others speak out, as well.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing a crisis of character in this country.

“To those of you from both parties, I leave you with two crucial questions, tonight: who will stand up and speak the truth we need to hear? And how will you act on that truth?”

Note: I will return next Monday, October 28.


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