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General Jim Mattis: The Currents, Undercurrents and Crosscurrents of Chaos’ Re-emergence
In a recent article about James Mattis, Jeffrey Goldberg described him as “a gifted storyteller;” during his long service in public life Mattis displayed that gift. Mattis is best known as a retired Marine general and secretary of defense. He’s also an accomplished writer. In fact, it’s Mattis’s authorship that has him back in the news due to the Wall Street Journal’s publication of an excerpt of his new book, Call Sign Chaos, written with Bing West, and because of Goldberg’s article about him in The Atlantic. As Mattis re-enters public life it’s useful to think of him as a writer in an effort to unpack the complicated dynamics around that re-entry. In particular, it’s helpful to look at several pieces of his: his speech at Boeing Field over Memorial Day weekend, the resignation letter, the book Warriors and Citizens, and his letter to All Hands the night before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
What follows here sketches some of the currents, undercurrents and crosscurrents of Mattis’s re-emergence before zeroing in on the themes, issues and concerns that dominate his writing. Hearing from people talking about Mattis is an important prelude to hearing from him on his own terms, and the current runs in the other direction too, hearing from Mattis himself is an important rejoinder to hearing other people talk about him. The Mattis that emerges in his own writing is a different Mattis than the one argued over.
In the interview, Goldberg attempts to coax Mattis into talking directly about his service to Donald Trump. At one point, Goldberg recounts: “Later, during a long walk along the Columbia River, I gave it another go, asking him to describe in broad terms the nature of Trump’s leadership abilities. ‘I’m happy to talk about leadership,’ he said. ‘My model—one of my models—is George Washington. Washington’s idea of leadership was that first you listen, then you learn, then you help, and only then do you lead. It is a somewhat boring progression, but it’s useful. What you try to do in that learning phase is find common ground.’ ‘So on one end of the spectrum is George Washington, and at the other end is Donald Trump?’ Mattis smiled. ‘It’s a beautiful river, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I used to swim it all the time when I was a kid. Strong current.’”
Goldberg had fair warning that Mattis wouldn’t be forthcoming. The news of Call Sign Chaos (Chaos is shorthand for Colonel Has Another Outstanding Solution), began with the Trump administration before quickly going on to say that it wouldn’t be the focus of the book: “Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has a book coming out this summer, but he warns that it will not be a ‘tell-all’ about President Donald Trump.”
Goldberg tries to fold Mattis back into public life, but there is not consensus or even agreement on this issue. In the New York Times Quinta Jurecic described Mattis’s writing as “a mumbled essay.” She is not, of course, alone, as at least one article in the Washington Post makes clear. One particular strand of criticism involves Mattis’s involvement as a board member of the disgraced blood-testing company Theranos. Matthew Yglesias says in Vox that the public should use Mattis’s book tour as an opportunity to get answers about his role in the company while pointing out that even when serving as a high-profile member of the administration that his connection was public knowledge and received some scrutiny when the company was charged “with a massive fraud.”
This divided dynamic was previewed over Memorial Day weekend in one of Mattis’s first public appearances since stepping down. He delivered the keynote address on Saturday, May 25 at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park at The Museum of Flight in Tukwila, Washington. The Seattle Times described the event, “This was mostly not the Seattle often portrayed as blue and progressive that had shown up.”
Mattis kicked off his 12-minute speech nodding to the home crowd with the reminder that he is “Washington-bred and raised.” The former secretary of defense added, “I would just tell you that I stand before you with mixed emotions having left Washington, D.C. and having returned to the better Washington. I’m so happy. I’m so happy, ladies and gentleman, I could cry.” The homestate crowd cheered for both statements. It was easy to see why a Washington state crowd cheered on the first, but the second was more complicated, some people presumably clapping in support of someone who served in and then left the swamp and others clapping because of message sent in his resignation letter.
Goldberg wanted Mattis to talk about Trump, Jurecic thought Mattis mumbled when he did talk, the press wants the press to be talking to Mattis about Theranos, and the Times saw the Memorial Day event through a partisan veil. But none of that quite catches what Mattis himself says. That’s not to say that individual statements of his can’t be parsed in any number of ways, they certainly can, but it is a reminder that taking Mattis’s concerns on their own terms is a different endeavor than seeing his concerns through other people’s concerns about what concerns him.
In his resignation letter includes the indelible line, “Because you have the right to a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.” The man who received a waiver to serve as secretary of defense after only two years after retiring from the military because of the fundamental, foundational practice of civilian control of the military recognizes when his outlook differs from the commander in chief’s. One of the points of departure involves alliances. Mattis’s letter powerfully underscores the central relationship of allies and alliances to US national interests. An issue he also raises during his Memorial Day speech when he calls United States democracy “an experiment left in our hands” and speaks of how World War I shows that democracy requires that “in an imperfect world we cannot ignore overseas threats.”
Mattis’s letter addressed to the Marines of 1st Marine Division as commanding general was delivered the night before Operation Iraqi Freedom began. The letter also contains themes that are central concerns of his. Mattis wrote, “For the mission’s sake, and the sake of the men who carried the Division’s colors in past battles––who fought for life and never lost their nerve––carry out your mission and keep your honor clean.” The connection between today and yesterday, between the past and the future, and what we who share time owe each other because of those connections abides from his 2003 letter to his 2019 keynote. In May he speaks of the impact of Vietnam veterans on his own military career, reflecting on the influences of his older brother and the officers and non-commissioned officers who trained him. He called them “the hard whetstones who sharpened Marines of my generation,” even saying, “I would like to think that many of my troops came back alive because of what they instilled in me.”
After retiring from active duty and while serving as a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Mattis worked with Kori Schake on Warriors and Citizens, an authoritative account of civil-military relations that maps how in a time of high distrust of institutions the American people respect the military far more than most institutions and understand it very little. Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster’s tenure as national security advisor was seen in light of his book Dereliction of Duty, The Washington Post even revisited it during his time in that role, but Mattis’s authorship and editorship were never received this way, though his studies and his studiousness received lots of attention. The book engages important themes that Mattis touches on in the keynote, the relations between veterans and service members, and the civilian American public and its civilian leadership. It’s not just the connection between then and now that endures, but also the connection, in both the book and the speech, between people who are bound together by living in the same time. In talking of the Vietnam War, Mattis spoke of how hard it can be to calibrate civil-military relationships by speaking of the “challenges” of Vietnam veterans at home. Mattis closed his Memorial Day remarks on the theme of respect, how it flows between citizens and service members, how it flows between generations and how it manifests.
Who Mattis is, what he did as secretary of defense and what he means to our country is being re-examined as his new book makes its way into public. In the context of this re-examination what people say about Mattis and what he says for and about himself will necessarily differ. Mattis was a general before he was secretary of defense, but through it all he was a writer. Before Call Sign Chaos there was the resignation letter and before the letter there was the book and before there was the book there was the message to All Hands.