The story is told of Jim Mattis, when he was the commanding general at Quantico, relieving a young lance corporal on Christmas. The rest of that wintry day, those entering the front gate of the Marine base were startled to see that the sentry was a general, checking passes and waving cars through so that a young man could spend the holiday with his family. It is the kind of behavior animated by sentiments Donald Trump could not understand, and it reflected a kind of code by which he cannot live.
The president misunderstood his secretary of defense. The Jim Mattis one saw on the battlefields of Afghanistan and in the shattered cities of Iraq was not “Mad Dog,” a sobriquet he loathed, but a resolute military leader who was a reader and a thinker. Give him a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, and he would compare it with the other two editions that he already owned.
He was, to be sure, a fierce enemy. In 2005, he got into trouble for saying, “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.” He was also the man who said, “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.” And he meant it. He did not think you had to hate an enemy to kill him, but that just made him a more formidable leader in combat. His menace to America’s battlefield enemies was that of the superbly calm tactician, not the blood-crazed berserker.