To understand the damning impact of Gen. James Mattis’s criticism of President Trump this week as “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people,” but rather “tries to divide us,” it is necessary to appreciate the revered four-star general’s revered place in the pantheon of legendary American combat commanders and why what he had to say matters.
I first met Gen. Mattis on the eve of the Second Gulf War. I was among a handful of journalists and several thousand Marines who gathered under a huge canvas tent in the Kuwaiti desert to hear the 1 Marine Division commander talk about the looming invasion of Iraq.
I had already heard tales of the Warrior Monk’s selfless leadership, his prodigious intellect, and his soaring oratory. Over the course of an hour in the stifling heat, the then-two-star general held the audience spellbound with an eloquent, off-the-cuff tour de force.
The speech began with a quick history of the Marine Corps from, literally, the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the savage fighting against Imperial Japan in the western Pacific and more recent wars.
It concluded with Mattis using very salty language to tell his Marines that they were to be the tip of the spear that would oust Saddam Hussein from power.
My favourite anecdote about Mattis may be apocryphal, though a few Marines I know insist that it isn’t.
The story goes like this. The general visited a Marine base one Christmas Day. Chatting with a young Marine manning the gate, he discovered that the lance corporal’s family was awaiting his return before celebrating.
Mattis said on the spot that he’d take the young Marine’s shift and ordered him to go home to be with his wife and kids.
Someone asked me this week if I could ever imagine Donald Trump doing something like that. Even if Trump had done so, which is highly unlikely, he would have loudly boasted about it.
Mattis spoke out as protests appear across the U.S. to condemn the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
Given Mattis’ almost mythical stature in cotemporary American military and political culture, could what the general said about Trump represent a turning point in the president’s quest for another four-year term in November? Would Mattis’s remarks help deny Trump another chance to tear the fabric of America apart and further undermine U.S. credibility at a time when the planet is reeling from the medical and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Few Canadians may be aware that America’s most beloved living general is half-Canadian. Mattis’s mother, Lucille Proulx, a franco-Manitoban from St. Boniface, worked for U.S. military intelligence in Africa during WWII before marrying an American merchant seaman she met there and settling in the Pacific Northwest.