Former Secretary of Defense Talks about Leadership at GW

Retired Gen. James Mattis discussed his latest book with New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Retired Gen. James Mattis
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis (r) said that many people still view him as a general. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
September 09, 2019

By B.L. Wilson

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis gave one of his lengthiest defenses on Friday of his refusal to discuss President Donald Trump —a subject the media has hounded him about since he resigned from the administration. He said the military should not take a political position on a sitting president.

In conversation with the retired four star general at an event hosted jointly by the George Washington University and Politics and Prose, New York Times columnist David Brooks said in jest that Mr. Mattis has been asked about Mr. Trump  “500 times” since he began making the rounds to discuss his new book, “Call Sign Chaos,” co-written with Bing West.

Mr. Brooks ventured to ask the question again, arguing that the former secretary of defense served as a civilian, not a member of the military.

A general survey of the audience found former generals, other officers and service members, veterans and defense contractors, along with GW students, who still call him General Mattis.

“I may tell you I’m no longer a general,” Mr. Mattis said to Mr. Brooks.  “But in many people’s mind I’m still a general.”

A standing-room-only crowd turned out to hear Mr. Mattis discuss his career of more than four decades—from Marine recruit to a commander of three wars who was in charge of U.S. Central Command in the Middle East.

Mr. Mattis said that when he resigned from the administration he was very open about his differences with the Trump administration over the importance of maintaining strong alliances, respecting allies of the United States and his concerns with Russia and China’s authoritarianism.

“It was over alliances,” he said. “It was who are our adversaries, and I was up front about it.”

For most of the evening, Mr. Brooks focused on the book’s subtitle, “Learning to Lead,” and how the retired general developed his leadership philosophy given that he started out as a 13-year-old hitchhiker who took very little interest in school.

Mr. Mattis said he owed his military career to the Vietnam War.

“I doubt I would have joined the Marines had it not been for the draft,” he said. “You had to go.”

He found out that “the Marines really value excellence,” and that “personal sensitivities were irrelevant.”

“The fact is on the battlefield there is no trophy for second place much less ninth place. So you’ve got to win,” he said. “They’re not really interested in reasons why it cannot happen.”

Being a leader is mainly about coaching, he said, and the willingness of your juniors to follow you, not about rank and title.

He said key lessons came from platoon sergeants who were immigrants from the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada and who taught him not just “what to do… but what not to do, what an officer does not do.”

“I was also learning about the immigrant role in the U.S. military,” he said, a broadening experience for someone who’d grown up in the northwest United States with little exposure to diverse communities. “The military by its very nature will expand you in the way no other organization will in terms of diversity,” he said. “The mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and they come from all parts of the world.”


James Mattis

Retired Gen. Mattis greeted members of the audience after his discussion about his new book, "Call Sign Chaos."


Mr. Brooks said the memoir reads almost like a love letter to the Marine Corps.     Mr. Mattis responded that early on he learned the importance of “trust and respect,” without which a leader probably wouldn’t accomplish much of anything.

“There’s a place called Al Anbar province in the Sunni triangle [in Iraq], very tough fighting, day in and day out,” he said. “But what held the [unit] together was an affection for each other, that no matter what happened, they would keep fighting.”

Throughout the evening he regaled a mesmerized audience with battlefield stories about Fallujah in Iraq, his mistakes and disagreements with previous administrations whose orders he carried out with full commitment.

During the Q & A, Mr. Mattis was asked about the biggest national security threat, and responded that it was “great power competition, a Russia and China that want to give veto authority to themselves over surrounding nations, economic decisions, security decisions [and] diplomatic decisions.”

Even more worrisome, he said, are tribal and political divisions in the United States.

“This is becoming dangerous,” Mr. Mattis said. “We have to understand the experiment of democracy can fail if we don’t think it is valuable and precious and defend it.”

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