Jim Mattis and the Duty of Reserve

The former defense secretary said the greatest threat to national security is domestic disunity.

Jeffrey Goldberg (left) and Jim Mattis
Kristoffer Tripplaar

Before serving and then resigning as secretary of defense in the Trump administration, Jim Mattis was a general in the U.S. Marine Corps. In an appearance Thursday at The Atlantic Festival, he noted security challenges facing the U.S., including China asserting itself in a growing sphere of influence, Russia’s misbehavior under Vladimir Putin, and terrorism. Yet in his estimation, the biggest threat to U.S. national security is domestic, not foreign. The biggest threat to national security, in his telling, is that Americans don’t seem to like one another very much and cannot seem to come together to govern.

Mattis cited Abraham Lincoln, who once said in a speech that the combined armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa could not land on our Atlantic Coast, get over the Blue Ridge Mountains, and drink from the Ohio River. Americans would stop them. “I’m paraphrasing, but he said that if this experiment is going to expire, it’ll expire by suicide,” Mattis recalled. “We’ll do it to ourselves. He already saw the strength of our country but the potential for disaster if we don’t listen to Martin Luther King Jr., who said that you don’t get rid of darkness with more darkness; you use light. You don’t get rid of hate with more hate; you use love.”

If we can’t take that advice, “we’re unleashing hell on our own next generation, and I resent that. I consider it a bigger threat than the terrorists I’ve fought.”

Mattis frets about rising intergenerational debt, which he called but one symptom of that bigger, defining problem––“the lack of fundamental friendliness, fundamental respect, as if we don’t even believe that the person we disagree with might be right once in awhile.” Lamenting the “scorching kind of no-holds-barred fight against each other,” he granted that harsh insults are perhaps inevitable in political campaigns, but said that after Election Day everyone is supposed to come together.

“When governing begins, it’s all about unity,” he said.

Mattis occupies an unusual place in our culture in that he is held in relatively high esteem across party lines. Partly for that reason, there is a hunger, among those who see Trump as a force for disunity, for figures like Mattis to speak out and criticize the president. Some even feel that figures like Mattis have an affirmative duty and responsibility to speak out against aberrant presidential behavior.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, pressed Mattis to weigh in on Trump’s recent behavior, and when Mattis declined to do so, asked him to explain his silence. “What is keeping you from talking in the blunt terms that we’ve come to expect from a blunt general about the current policies and behaviors of this administration?” Goldberg asked him. “What is it that keeps you from doing that?”

Mattis answered bluntly:

If you take the word you just used––current situation––there’s a tradition going back to George Washington that military people and those in the departments do not make political assessments of a sitting commander in chief. This is a long-standing tradition. And there’s a reason for it. We have civilian control of the military.

Granted, he said, he is now a civilian, and he held the civilian position of Cabinet secretary in the Trump administration. However, “when I just got out of the car here and walked into this building, the young man in charge of security who let me through the door said, ‘Welcome, General Mattis,’” he related. “Now I may agree or disagree with how he’s characterizing me, but that’s my reputation, that was my role for 40-odd years.” And he felt an associated duty:

The French have a saying called a devoir de réserve––a duty of reserve. We have tens of thousands of troops deployed right now protecting this experiment in democracy. The last thing they need is for someone to break under the current passions we see in the country and start speaking out.

While some may argue that Trump’s behavior justifies an unusual response, Mattis sees the “duty of reserve” as something that’s especially vital now, “at a time when we’re awash in change and passions.” Taken as a whole, his remarks might be seen as urging all Americans to reflect on whether they are living up to their “duty of reserve,” their duty to refrain not from forthright or even passionate political speech, but from indulgent rhetoric or behavior that needlessly divides.