By Ralph Peters
December 2, 2016
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump (L) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence (R) greet retired Marine General James Mattis in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
I'm lucky enough to know Gen. James Mattis slightly. Just well enough to trust him unreservedly with our military and our nation’s security.
The president-elect could not choose a better man to be our next secretary of defense. Not just because Mattis is a battle-hardened Marine with a remarkable combat record. And not just because he has a mind of remarkable clarity and is, without question, the best-read general of his generation.
I trust Mattis because he’s a man of character. His public image is of one rough-and-tough Marine, but the man I’ve encountered is, above all, one of integrity. His code of honor is so out of fashion one has to reach back to a Victorian vocabulary: He has a noble spirit.
And he’s a genuine patriot, not a shouter with his eye on the next chance. He will do what’s right, not what’s expedient. And he will never go along with anything he believes might harm our country.
In addition to plenty of dirty-boots experience in the Middle East and a deep knowledge of history, Mattis has another great qualification: He wasn’t looking for a job. He was happy in retirement, studying, helping his fellow Marines and contributing thoughtfully to our national security behind the scenes.
The last time I heard from him — a bit before the election — he mentioned that he was glad to be west of the Rockies. A Washington, DC, post was not part of the plan.
This matters. In an age of sycophants and clawing ambition, it’s a splendid prospect to have a classic patriot who’s willing to sacrifice to serve (as Mattis already has for four decades in uniform).
Our most underrated president of the last century, Dwight D. Eisenhower, didn’t want anyone in his Cabinet who actively sought the position. He wanted successful men from various walks of life who would have to leave successful careers and contented lives to come to Washington and run a department ethically.
For Gen. Mattis, the position of secretary of defense wouldn’t be just another inside-the-Beltway badge to add to his resume. The greatest danger would be that he would prove too honest for DC.
Yet another quality Mattis would bring to the office — a vital one — is that he’s a superb listener. He’s not quick to speak, but when he finally does have his say, his words show command of the subject under discussion.
And he uses words with the same economy as a rifleman uses bullets: no wasted rounds.
What would the nation get with Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense? Integrity. Deep knowledge. Courage, both moral and physical. Humility. Decency. Vision. A steely sense of duty. Fiscal responsibility. A natural leader of men.
In short, character.
Inevitably, we’ve heard complaints from the left about the “danger” of generals in high government positions, with the suggestion that they’ll take us into wars. But it hasn’t been the generals who’ve gotten us into our recent conflicts or failed to resolve them.
For the last 16 years, we’ve seen civilians with no military experience launch ill-considered wars and impulsive interventions without considering the second- and third-order effects. Generals, by contrast, are reluctant to send our troops to war — they know the complexity and the cost.
Mattis has a long list of military accomplishments, but I suspect one of the experiences that cut deepest came in 2004, in Fallujah. After a week of brutal, successful combat his Marines stood within 48 hours of a clear-cut victory over a terrorist army. And the Bush administration lost its collective nerve, calling a halt just short of the finish line.
I watched the tragedy unfold from northern Iraq, where I was a guest of the Kurds. And we all said the same thing to each other: “We’ll have to go back and finish this.” And we did, in less than a year.
Having seen his Marines die, only to be denied victory at the 11th hour because the global media was howling, must’ve been terribly painful for Mattis. One of the many reasons he’s so widely respected in military circles is that he understands, contrary to academic pronunciamentos, victory is not only possible, but essential.
Mattis not only fights the good fight — he fights to win. With him as our next secretary of defense, the United States of America would win.