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The Generals and the Historian

Trump apologist Victor Davis Hanson’s weak case against James Mattis.
by Jim Swift
June 11, 2020
The Generals and the Historian
Victor Davis Hanson at a May 2005 lecture at Kenyon College (Collage by Hannah Yoest / Photo credit: Chuck Grimmett)

A few days after former defense secretary and retired Marine general James Mattis released his blockbuster public statement critical of President Trump, historian Victor Davis Hanson, writing at National Review in an article titled “Not-So-Retiring Retired Military Leaders,” tells readers how the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) treats active-duty generals who get involved in politics.

That’s all well and good, but active-duty generals aren’t getting involved in politics. A nice history lesson from Professor Hanson. (He also says that “debate continues over” whether the UCMJ limitations apply to retired generals drawing military pensions, which is true only in an academic, theoretical sense—no retired general has ever been court-martialed for anything under the UCMJ, let alone for political activity.)

But this is not the point Hanson is making. It’s just the opening for an invalid and hypocritical criticism wrapped in a history lesson, like a water chestnut is wrapped in bacon.

In the early days of the Trump administration, the president brought three retired generals—Mattis, John Kelly, and Michael Flynn—into his cabinet. Hiring Mattis required a special waiver, since federal law prohibits a general who has retired within the last seven years, as Mattis had, from serving as defense secretary—a policy put in place to protect the important principle of civilian control of the military. Congress, with both chambers then under Republican control, granted the waiver that the Trump administration sought.

So much for keeping the military out of politics.

Hanson is an ardent defender of President Trump, and he spent much of the last four years attempting to give a patina of erudition to Trumpism. No retired general, Hanson says, should violate the four rules that Hanson has just made up regarding “general decorum and common courtesy when our top retired military leaders go on the attack against a sitting president.”

Here are Hanson’s four rules:

One, a retired general need not under any circumstances stoop to invoke Nazi Germany, Hitler, or Fascism to criticize the current commander in chief.

Two, any disparagement should not hint at any active resistance to, much less the removal of, an elected president other than through constitutionally mandated elections.

Three, the condemnation should rest on clear factual evidence, not emotive anger or partisan disagreement.

Four, there should be no semblance of coordination among retired military officers. They should avoid even the inadvertent appearance of a sudden chorus of like-minded retired military officers acting in concert to attack the policies of their current president with whom they disagree, and whom they disparage in personal terms.

Hanson describes his four rules as a set of “modest ethical expectations” that he says Trump’s critics who wore stars on their shoulders aren’t living up to. Of course, Hanson himself has spent the last few years pretending that ethics don’t matter when it comes to this president, so that’s neither here nor there.

It’s worth taking a moment to look at each of these four rules in turn, in the context of what Mattis wrote. (Again, here is a link to Mattis’s statement.)

First, Hanson believes it’s inappropriate for a retired general to “invoke Nazi Germany, Hitler, or Fascism” when criticizing a president. But here’s what Mattis wrote:

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.

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.

And here’s Hanson’s response:

Could not Mattis, at a time of national tensions, have been more careful to choose another, less polarizing simile to reflect his charge that Trump was eroding U.S. unity in the fashion of the genocidal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler that threatened our troops at D-Day? And how exactly is an elected president emulating the divisiveness of the Nazis?

But technically, Mattis didn’t explicitly employ any simile at all, as Hanson, who is a careful reader, well knows. Mattis, quoting a sometimes-silly 1944 set of instructions to U.S. troops and sailors stationed in France, alludes to the Nazis only in quoting this passage, and then only to make the case for unity and against Trump’s divisiveness. And Hanson—who, again, is a careful reader—is disingenuous in accusing Mattis of saying Trump has been “emulating” the Nazis. Mattis says no such thing.

As for Hanson’s second rule, that a retired general shouldn’t “hint at any active resistance” or unconstitutional means of removing a president, Mattis hints at no such thing.

Hanson’s third rule—that a retired general’s critique of a sitting president “should rest on clear factual evidence, not emotive anger or partisan disagreement,” isn’t really applicable in Mattis’s case. It’s true that Mattis didn’t assemble a fact-laden lawyerly brief against the president. But that’s because the facts of the proximate cause for his critique of Trump were already widely known: last week’s incident at Lafayette Square, which just about every national news outlet covered. And no fair reader of Mattis’s statement would detect in it either “anger” or “partisan disagreement.”

Which brings us, finally, to Hanson’s fourth rule, which holds that even an “inadvertent appearance” of “coordination” among retired officers should be avoided when criticizing the president. It’s not hard to understand Hanson’s rationale for suggesting this rule. But how is it supposed to work in practice? Must a retired officer with serious concerns about a sitting president send an email to every other retired officer in his address book to make sure nobody else is thinking of going public with concerns around the same time? Maybe Hanson wants retired generals to fire up Zoom for a group chat to prevent a glut of complaints? Or maybe Slack or a listserv? In fact, the only way in practice to ensure no appearance of coordination—to really ensure it—is to have the reality of coordination behind the scenes. That is the perverse unintended consequence of Hanson’s fourth suggested rule.

To Hanson’s credit, his remarks are not the dumbest or most odious thing that has been said about James Mattis’s recent public statement. That trophy belongs to Hanson’s fellow American Greatness contributor Dr. Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D, who argues “Jim Mattis is no Marine.”

But it’s hard to take Hanson’s concerns seriously when you recall some of his silences over the last few years.

When retired Army general Michael Flynn—before he twice pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI—was one of President Trump’s most ardent defenders, where was Victor Davis Hanson?

When Gen. Flynn spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and led a chant of “LOCK HER UP!”—where was Victor Davis Hanson?

What did he have to say about this retired general getting deeply, crassly, and ultimately ignominiously involved in politics? Where was Hanson’s policing of the borders of politics and the military then?

In my neighborhood—I live in the shadow of Quantico, the Marine base— my neighbors like the old saying “there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine.” I get it. Some say Marines never retire, but that’s not quite true. In the case of historians, though, maybe Hanson should consider it.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.