Before he gets too far out the door, it’s worth reflecting on the legacy of erstwhile Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the last of the Trump administration’s generals to depart after doing his best to mitigate two years of chaos in the White House.
By resigning the day after President Trump’s rash decision to pull all troops out of Syria, Mattis showed the backbone that helped sustain him as a Marine commander on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He should be recognized not only for his service to president, country and the U.S. military, but for bringing honor to his home state of Washington.
It would be a nice display of bipartisanship for state legislators to adopt a joint resolution commending Mattis’ service when they return to Olympia this month.
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Born in Pullman, raised in Richland and recipient of a history degree at Central Washington University, the retired four-star general holds fast to his Washington roots. Before Trump picked him to run the Pentagon, Mattis served on the board of the Tri-Cities Food Bank and reported for jury duty in Benton County.
This globe-trotting native son doesn’t spurn many invitations to come home and speak to fellow Washingtonians, such as at last year’s Tri-Citian of the Year awards banquet.
Mattis never spoke ill of the commander in chief, of course. He maintained the same professional tone that characterized his Dec. 20 resignation letter, when he told Trump he was entitled to a defense secretary “whose views are better aligned with yours.”
But anyone who heard Mattis speak in these settings would conclude he was at odds with Trump’s narcissistic brand of nationalism. It’s no surprise that Mattis would find the president’s habit of poking his finger in the eyes of allies so offensive, and so beyond remedy, that his conscience left him little choice but to step down.
In October 2016, weeks before Trump was elected and later named his defense secretary, Mattis delivered a speech at the annual Washington Policy Center dinner in Spokane, where he was given the Champion of Freedom award. He praised the Marshall Plan, the United Nations, NATO and other international institutions as bulwarks of America’s success and security dating to World War II.
“The Greatest Generation committed us to engaging in the world, not retreating from it,” he said. “They raised us well and I will tell you that here in Eastern Washington, we stood the test.”
This week, Trump has distanced himself from Mattis, whom he once proudly called one of “my generals,” and has shown decidedly less class than the former Pentagon chief. “What’s he done for me?” Trump said with typical solipsism during his first cabinet meeting of the year Wednesday. “How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good.”
Trump’s problem in choosing Mattis in the first place was that that he thought he’d hold the leash on a “Mad Dog,” a nickname that Mattis reportedly didn’t fancy.
What the Cabinet got instead was a well-read, independent-minded general sometimes referred to as “the Warrior Monk,” known for carrying copies of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Mattis has now exited stage left, at age 68, with a long war against Islamic terrorism left unfinished, a divided U.S. government in his rearview mirror and a federal shutdown with no end in sight. But some of his parting words to that Spokane audience before the 2016 election are as pertinent now as they were then:
“If we can rediscover the fundamental friendliness between ourselves as Americans — who can disagree and argue and still have a beer, or a root beer together afterwards — if we can somehow come back together with unity, there’s nothing that can stop us.”