I met James Mattis once. I was a young Navy JAG officer. He was a one-star Marine general commanding the first invasion force in Afghanistan and had just spent 45 days on the battlefield. It was January 2002, just a few months after 9/11.
He needed a hot meal and a shower, he joked, so he got in a helicopter and flew across Afghanistan and Pakistan and out to the North Arabian Sea, where he landed on my ship, an amphibious assault carrier with 2,000 sailors and marines. He was the commander of a large Naval task force, and my commanding officer reported to him.
Mattis really wanted to meet with his troops, who were itching to get into the fight. He loved his troops, and they loved him. I liked him instantly.
He talked about hunting down the terrorists who had taken down the World Trade Center and those who had enabled them. He joked about being in the home of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar after he had fled and putting his feet up on the table in his living room. He wished Omar drank, he said, so he could have opened up his liquor cabinet and had a drink.
Then he startled me. “Where are the lawyers?” he asked a wardroom full of veteran Navy and Marine officers. I was one of only two on board, and the junior one at that. I raised my hand, as did my Marine counterpart.
“We need better rules of engagement,” he told us. “I want to talk to you about that.”
I was smart enough to know that I, an inexperienced Navy lieutenant, would have zero impact in getting a one-star Marine general better rules of engagement for the battlefield in Afghanistan. But sure enough, Gen. Mattis came over and spoke with us after his talk. I was humbled. This was leadership. He wasn’t trying to get better rules of engagement; he was setting an example for junior officers who might be in a position to make a difference one day and sending the signal that, even in war, one has to do things right.
Mattis went on to command other, larger units in Iraq and Afghanistan, rose to four-star general, and spent two difficult years as secretary of defense under the current administration — trying, as he once said after the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Va., to help our troops hold the line while our country righted itself. He is a man of the utmost integrity and patriotism.
So I was not surprised when he spoke out forcefully against this administration and its divisive tactics and unconstitutional use of force against peaceful protesters. Mattis said the current president is “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.”
Loyalty to the country and the Constitution, not loyalty to any man, let alone an unstable man, drives men like Mattis. The same is true for Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen and other former senior military officials also spoke out strongly against the use of the military to subdue peaceful protesters.
Adm. William McRaven, a retired four-star Navy SEAL admiral who led the mission that got Osama bin Laden in 2011, has also spoken out clearly in the last two years. He reminded people last week that the decisions of any leader must be moral, legal and ethical.
We are not seeing that now. Our country has reached a crossroads, and these retired officers know it.
In February, three white men in Glynn County, Ga., one of whom was a former law enforcement officer, hunted down a young, unarmed black man who was out jogging. According to testimony at a court hearing last week, after one of the men shot the jogger with a shotgun, he said, as the young man lay dying on the road, that he had just shot a ”f---ing n-----.”
How long will it be before the current occupant of the White House seeks to excuse this killing because he thinks it will help him with his base? This is his America, make no mistake about it.
If we want law and order in this country, we must get him out of the White House. Our problems run deeper than him and will not disappear when he leaves office, but they will not be fixed as long as open bigotry, narcissism and hatred roam free in our nation’s highest office — and are enabled by those around him.
America must wake up. Take it from a middle-aged white man who has spent 22 years as a naval officer, nearly every Sunday of his life in a church pew and 17 years representing law enforcement officers in civil lawsuits. Things must change, and you must be part of the solution.
America may be running out of time. Our military leaders recognize that. The rest of us must, too. We have seen the results of the last four years and we know what we have. There are simply no excuses anymore.