“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis writes. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”
He goes on to contrast the American ethos of unity with Nazi ideology. “Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that ‘The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was “Divide and Conquer.” Our American answer is “In Union there is Strength.”’ We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”
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Mattis’s dissatisfaction with Trump was no secret inside the Pentagon. But after his resignation, he argued publicly—and to great criticism—that it would be inappropriate and counterproductive for a former general, and a former Cabinet official, to criticize a sitting president. Doing so, he said, would threaten the apolitical nature of the military. When I interviewed him last year on this subject, he said, “When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours.” He did add, however: “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”
That period is now definitively over. Mattis reached the conclusion this past weekend that the American experiment is directly threatened by the actions of the president he once served. In his statement, Mattis makes it clear that the president’s response to the police killing of George Floyd, and the ensuing protests, triggered this public condemnation.
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“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” he writes, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
He goes on to implicitly criticize the current secretary of defense, Mark Esper, and other senior officials as well. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate.’ At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.