President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, said in a remarkable 650-word statement to The Atlantic on Wednesday that the President is actively trying to divide the country and urged Americans to unite without him.
Mattis has avoided directly criticizing Trump since his ouster in December 2018, but that changed after the administration used strong-arm tactics and dispatched authorities in riot gear to clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House this week so Trump could hold a photo op. Mattis, once the loyal general, unloaded on Trump and his threat to use the military to patrol US streets, which Mattis said would create a dangerous tension between the nation’s citizens and the troops who are meant to protect them.
Below is a close look at Mattis’s carefully chosen words along with comments from two other former top generals who have all condemned Trump in recent days.
IN UNION THERE IS STRENGTH
I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court.
This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind.
- Mattis opens his statement acknowledging that equal justice is a key promise of this country, an immediate contrast to Trump, who has sought to portray protesters as villains.
We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.
- While Trump has tried to paint the protesters as criminals, Mattis immediately establishes that most of the protesters are making a valid and peaceful point about the failings of our country.
When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution.
- Every government employee except the President takes this oath, which is in US law. It reads: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
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.
- The First Amendment says Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
- The photo op was bizarre indeed. Trump, alongside his Defense Secretary Mark Esper, walked through Lafayette Square after it was cleared by police of peaceful protesters to hold a massive Bible aloft in front of a church.
We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.”
- This is a direct rebuke of Esper, who used that term - “battlespace” - to refer to cities. He later argued it is part of the military lexicon.
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.
- The military has only been used in US streets very rarely, most recently in Los Angeles in 1992. Trump can deploy the military to Washington, because it is a federal city and not party of a state. During the Civil Rights era, presidents used the Insurrection Act, an 1807 law, and deployed the military over the objections of governors. But Mattis argues here that the divide between civilian law enforcement and the military is part of the bedrock of US society.
James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.”
We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.
- The difference between a posture of unity and Trump’s, which was a demand that governors “dominate” protesters, cannot be overstated.
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.
- Here is Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s speech to troops before D-Day, which carries a similar message.
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. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.
- Note that Mattis invokes the Nazi “divide and conquer” slogan moments before saying Trump is seeking to the divide the US.
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. We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another.
- The structure of US society is stronger than Trump, Mattis suggests. But clearly Trump tests it.
The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country.
We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.
- Mattis accuses his former boss of abusing power, the ultimate transgression for a President, whose power rests with the American electorate.
At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.
Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.
- Lincoln closed his first inaugural address, just before the breakout of the Civil War, with an entreaty to the South not to secede.
- A longer excerpt of the speech is worth reading: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it. I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” But the Civil War did come and the first shots were fired a month after Lincoln delivered this speech. Years later, as the war was closing, after hundreds of thousands of Americans had died, Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, which was focused on healing and forgiveness “with malice toward none and charity for all.”