After 43 years as an infantry Marine spanning the western Pacific to the Middle East, and two years as U.S. Secretary of Defense in one of the most tumultuous presidential administrations in modern history, not much intimidates Jim Mattis.
But at an appearance at Stanford University in January, the retired four-star general was candid when an audience member asked what does scare him. While acknowledging the very real threats posed by violent extremists, cyber-terrorism, and other outside forces, Mattis revealed, “What scares me more than any existential threat is how Americans are treating each other right now in public life. I fought terrorists for a long time. When I hear someone in public life calling a fellow American a terrorist… that scares me more than a Russian army, I can tell you.”
Mattis assumed the role of defense chief under President Donald Trump in January 2017 and served for just under two years. Mattis submitted his letter of resignation to Trump in late December 2018, after the president announced his decision to remove troops from Syria. He offered to stay temporarily to oversee a transition in the post, but amid intense media coverage Trump ordered him to leave in early January 2019, stating that Mattis’ resignation was “essentially” a firing due to poor job performance.
Prior to Mattis’ appointment in Washington, he had served for several years as a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and he returned there last May as the Davies Family Distinguished Fellow. “I have long relied on the work of Hoover to supplement my understanding of the critical challenges facing our country and to help guide tough decisions,” Mattis said at the time of his return. “I believe we have an obligation to pass on the lessons we’ve learned so that future generations can study, learn, and become better.”
On January 14, he appeared as part of a Hoover panel titled, “The Crucible of Citizenship,” discussing what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be an American. Mattis began by characterizing the dawn of this new decade as “a worrisome time when many are questioning the assumptions and values that have held together this [society].”
“America doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth supporting and defending.”
The deepening racial, socio-economic, and political divisions in our country in recent years runs counter to what Mattis learned about America and the world at large during his time in the military. When he enlisted in the Marines in 1969, at age 18, he recalled, he hadn’t intended to stay for long. “I was going to become a teacher of physics and history and coach football,” the Pullman, Washington, native shared. “I had my whole plan.”
So what made him stick around for more than four decades? “It was not the job,” he clarified. “Quite simply, I grew to love the young men [I served with]… I came face to face with citizens and non-citizens I likely would not have met otherwise. I got to know them as my own brothers; sometimes we depended on one another for our lives.”
His experiences in the military—from serving as a lieutenant in the western Pacific in the early 1970s, to leading an assault battalion in Operation Desert Storm, to running U.S. Central Command from 2010 – 2013—were filled with “circumstances that removed the differences between us and revealed the common humanity,” Mattis, who published his memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, this past September, told the crowd of several hundred at Stanford.
In his resignation letter to President Trump, Mattis stressed the importance of international alliances as crucial to our own country’s “security, prosperity, and values,” and he offered a similar assessment at Stanford when discussing our interactions with fellow Americans. “Without trust, you cannot have a functioning democracy,” he asserted. “It is in our best interest to work with one another.”
So how do we begin to repair divisions that have started to appear insurmountable? The revered general offered up a suggestion that placed heart above might. “It starts with a sense of gratitude for all that we’re given,” he said, before adding, “America doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth supporting and defending.”