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The Mattis Effect

The legend comes for Trump.
June 6, 2020
The Mattis Effect
Saint Mattis of Quantico, the patron saint of chaos and ass-kicking. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In 2014, a story appeared: “General Mattis Crosses Potomac With 100,000 Troops; President, Senate Flee City.” It ran in Duffel Blog—which is basically The Onion for people in the military. Here’s some of the good stuff:

“I come in peace, by myself, in order to hand-deliver a Memorandum of Concern to the Commander in Chief and the Senate,” said Mattis in a press conference. “I am moving on foot at a leisurely pace, with no ill will. If these American citizens choose to take a stroll with me, then who am I to turn down their companionship?”

I mention this by way of trying to explain that while Jim Mattis is a figure of some prominence to civilians, in the military he’s a legend. A man whose body of lore is so large that there is even a body of intentionally fictional myths about him.

When Mattis declared Donald Trump the greatest threat to American democracy in over 50 years this week it made a splash. But then the news cycle moved on and sophisticates suggested that even this extraordinary denunciation was fleeting and would only have political impact on the margins. The thinking behind this view is that voters are hardened in their support for or against Trump. One declaration from a retired general isn’t going to move the needle.

This might be true for civilians. Within the military, it might not.

Because in the military world, Jim Mattis’s influence really can’t be overstated.

When I deployed with the Army to Syria in late 2017, I saw that influence firsthand. Secretary Mattis was routinely involved in detailed operations planning—it wasn’t unusual for officers on the ground to get emails or phone calls from the Secretary of Defense. When Trump would attempt to abruptly reverse U.S. policy, Mattis provided a clear voice amidst the chaos. Officers proudly displayed photos they’d taken with him—when he visited a base elsewhere in the Middle East, my friends posted videos on Instagram that looked more like fans chasing The Beatles around in A Hard Day’s Night than soldiers dutifully receiving a VIP.

Junior service members—who polls show largely backed Trump—view Mattis as a legendary figure, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Saint Mattis of Quantico.” He is a soldier’s soldier: a bachelor, fully committed to warfighting. His view on counter-insurgency became the mantra of an entire generation of Marines and soldiers: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

To the enlisted, Mattis is the rare truth-telling superior who also excels in combat. Mattis is just as prevalent in military meme culture as he was in Pentagon policy making, with his Mattis-isms reading like modern-day Sun Tzu.

When I served, posters with his quotes filled unit hallways and soldiers’ barracks rooms. OAF Nation, a clothing company catering to servicemembers and veterans, sells a poster depicting Mattis unironically with a halo, as the Patron Saint of Chaos. (It’s still on sale. You can also get a St. Mattis phone cover, shirt, coffee mug, or tank top.)

The devotion to Mattis began in the Marine Corps, after he led the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. HBO’s Generation Kill depicts Mattis in an iconic scene, walking through gunfire to tell subordinates to increase the pace of their attack. This image—that of a hard-charging grunt—is how he is still viewed by most veterans and servicemembers.

Senior leaders, in turn, see Mattis as wise, weathered, and unbiased. He is well-read in all aspects of military affairs and does not kowtow to politicians. The Obama administration forced him out for advocating for military strikes on Iran, and he resigned from the current administration over Trump’s abandonment of our Kurdish allies. His two years at the helm were a boon for the Pentagon brass—the military operated with autonomy from the White House for the first time in years and had astronomical budgets to play with.

All of which gave greater force to his percussive statement. Mattis defended the Black Lives Matter movement as “people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values.” He criticized President Trump for trying to “divide the American people,” and compared Trump’s efforts to those of Nazis during World War II. He eviscerated Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley and Secretary Mark Esper—without naming them—for standing next to the president during his “bizarre photo op” in front of St. John’s Church.

Mattis offered this blunt summary: “[W]e need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.”

So what will be the impact of Mattis’s powerful words? In ways not entirely visible to civilians, it could be huge.

Because of how Mattis is viewed within the military, the timing and forcefulness of his criticism of Trump are gargantuan. Mattis had dropped hints, but lulled us all into believing that he might never speak out directly against Trump. Among rank-and-file service members who support Trump, Mattis’s silence was seen as an implicit endorsement of this administration’s actions.

So Mattis’s comments came as a shock. For the past two days on social media, veterans (and a few active duty personnel) who are normally die-hard Trump supporters expressed confusion about which leader to follow.

Mattis’s more significant impact, though, will likely never be seen. The officer corps—from company-grade officers to four-star generals—take their cues from Mattis and others like him.

In recent days, several former four-star generals and admirals—previously silent on Trump and the danger he poses—have spoken out against this administration’s actions. The DoD’s decision to withdraw the 82nd Airborne Division from Washington might have been driven in part by the pushback of Mattis, retired Admiral Mike Mullen, retired General Martin Dempsey,retired Marine General John Allen, and others.

Mattis’s words will continue to resonate with the force, leading service members at every echelon to push back against a president who once boasted that the military would do whatever he told them, even if his orders were illegal.

Trump has, predictably, tried to trash Mattis.

But there’s reason to think that within the service, Mattis’s intervention has only burnished his legacy.

On Thursday, Duffel Blog reposted the 2014 folk tale of Mattis crossing the Potomac and saving the republic. This time, the publication added an update: “It’s happening!”

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman was a captain in the U.S. Army and is a J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School.