Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Thank you, General

Let me begin by reposting something I wrote here on November 3, 2019--that is, exactly seven months ago.  

Last week I attended a talk by General James Mattis (ret.), the former Secretary of Defense, at the JFK School in Cambridge.  General Mattis is a history buff, and he talked a great deal about how history can enhance your perspective and help you make better decisions.  His host was Prof. Graham Allison, the head of the school's applied history project, whose roots I helped grow myself about 40 years ago.  He also talked about the crisis in our democracy and the problems of tribalism and partisanship.  He did not specifically discuss his tenure as secretary of defense, although he alluded more than once to the great difficulty of making or executing any coherent policy in this administration.

I decided to participate in question time.

I began by introducing myself as a former member of the Strategy and Policy Department in Newport. "General," I said, "I share you concerns about the crisis in our democracy.  Recently it seems to have entered another phase.  During the next year, both the House and Senate and the American people will have to decide whether our President should continue in office.  One critical question bearing on their decision--and I don't think that it should be a partisan political question--relates to his intellectual and managerial competence and whether he is really capable of doing the job.  It seems to me that men like you, and General McMaster, and General Kelly, and Mr. Tillerson have a lot of information bearing on that point.  Whether or not you want to comment on this now, I hope that some of you will take an opportunity in the next year to make the information you have available to the Congress and the public so that they may make a more informed decision."  (That's a paraphrase but it is certainly very close to what I said.)

The general replied emphatically, making clear that he had already settled this question in his own mind.  The American military, he said, has a non-political tradition going back to the Newburgh conspiracy during the Revolutionary War.  It must not set itself up as some kind of Praetorian guard.  I certainly did not think that I was asking him to do that.  I suspect that if Donald Trump were a serving officer commanding a battalion in General Mattis's division, that he would understand that he had to be relieved, but he still feels that his years of military service debar him from exercising his rights as a citizen to pronounce upon his fitness as commander in chief.

General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States.  Yet the issue of why that question isn't at the forefront of our political discussion generally, and why it seems very unlikely that it will be the specific basis for an article of impeachment, goes well beyond his personal views of the duties of military officers.  It goes to the question of whether the citizens of the United States now have enough understanding of, or belief in, our government, to make it work effectively.  I feel more and more forced to believe--by evidence--that they do not.

The Constitution grew directly out of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the 18th century that held that human reason could, and should, order human affairs.  It also reflected the experience of the unwritten British constitution, which it incorporated in many ways.  Many of the words used in our constitution--including "impeachment"--can only be understood with reference to British precedents.  It also reflected the experience of Greek city states and the Roman empire, which the founders had studied, and which come up in some of the federalist papers.  Today, only lawyers--not students of history--know anything about British legal and constitutional precedents, and almost no one knows anything about the political history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Our fellow countrymen, I would suggest, do not know about this history of legislative inquiry as a check on executive power. They see only a war between a Democratic House of Representatives and a Republican president in which they will take sides.

Our federal government as it evolved during the twentieth century is also a child of the Enlightenment, reflecting the idea that impartial bureaucracies can regulate our economy and provide public services that we all need.  Neither Donald Trump nor the Republican Party, however, still believes in that model of government, and the President does not even believe in the role of the modern foreign policy and defense establishment which has taken on so many responsibilities around the world.  The Republican party has been unraveling the achievement of the Progressive era and the New Deal for the last 40  years, and the Democratic party has joined in this process on crucial occasions.  Bernie Sanders, who must remember Franklin Roosevelt's death, and Elizabeth Warren, who learned about some of the problems the New Deal tried to solve during her legal career, still believe in this model of government, but how many voters do?  How many of them care that the Trump Administration is ignoring much of the bureaucracy and turning some of it--such as the EPA--into obedient servants of the corporate America that they were designed to regulate?  Going further, how many Americans--especially better-off Americans--have a real commitment to the public educational system that Betsy DeVos is trying to dismantle?  And how many of us believe in the interventionist foreign policy that has wasted so much blood and treasure and wreaked so much havoc around the Middle East since 2001?  That last cohort of skeptics includes yours truly.  Those of us who remain devoted to American ideals of politics and government are standing for what was, and what they feel could be again--not for what its.

Last but not least, in the last half century we have lost our belief in the superiority of reason, rather than emotion.  The emotional and moral restraint of the American people struck foreign observers like Tocqueville in the 19th century, and they saw it as critical to our democracy. In the civil war, the passionate, emotional aristocrats of the South lost to the more rational merchants and teachers of the North.  Now the screen has replaced the printed page as the primary medium of the circulation of information, and the educational system--especially at the highest levels--no longer forces young people to learn the experience of spending many hours with books.  Without the right training, few Americans can make sense of our complex government and our complex world. 

Donald Trump would never have won the Republican nomination, much less the general election, if a good majority of Americans still understood and believed in our system of government.  And because we now lack any non-partisan belief in our system of government, the impeachment inquiry will most probably lead to impeachment by the House, followed by trial and acquittal by the Senate.  20 Republican Senators would have to vote to remove him to reach 67 votes, and I do not see how that could happen at this point.  That will leave Donald Trump's fate--and the nation's--in the hands of American voters.  Elizabeth Warren remains my candidate, but I regret that she released a detailed plan for Medicare for all.  I support that policy in principle, but it seems very unlikely, in our current climate, that she can convince more than a small minority of voters, at this point, that she can make this happen and that it will be a good idea.  Some restoration of trust in our system and some sense of common national purpose must come before such a sweeping change, however right and necessary it may be.  The previous great crisis of our national life--the revolutionary and constitutional period, the Civil War, and the era of the Depression and the Second World War--played that role. Our own crisis has completely failed to do so.  We must begin the work of restoration calmly, patiently, and slowly.

Now let me post the statement that General Mattis issued today.

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. 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.
When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to
support and defend the Constitution. 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.

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that
our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” 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.
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.

"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. We are witnessing the consequences of
three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the
consequences of three years without mature leadership. 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 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. 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."

Thank you, General.


Bozon said...

Great post.
I don't know anything about General Mattis really, but his remarks speak for themselves in both instances in this account.

It is not a surprise to me that he refused at the time, 7 months ago, to comment on your remarks, and I doubt that it surprised you at the time, since you suggested later comment or disclosure.

He gave his reasons then, which make perfect sense to me.
Then you said this: "General Mattis, then, refuses for his own reasons to enter into a discussion of whether Donald J. Trump can adequately perform the duties of President of the United States."

What he had stated, quoted in your post, weren't just his own reasons.

Thanks for posting his current remarks.They do seem to raise questions about his prior remarks.

I am disappointed by them in some ways.

The military has often been involved in photo ops with political leaders, and Trump is little different from what has long gone before.

What we have seen in the past week from law enforcement is not the US military.

Good and bad, it is state and local authorities of varying kinds and quality.

When he says we must reject and hold accountable... he is speaking here now fully as a civilian, not as a former military commander. That is how I interpret this wtatement. if I am wrong, that itself is unfortunate.

All the best

Shelterdog said...

I'd like to think that your question helped him think about his responsibilities in this regard.

Bozon said...


This is just a note because this really is history unfolding.

A physician, who has been elected
Governor of Virginia, has ordered Lee's Monument there removed.

Perhaps General Mattis believes that only that kind of governor should be able to request federal troops for his state in an emergency.

I don't know, but rumor is that Lee was the most highly respected military officer in the Civil War on either side. He accepted Lincoln's generous terms of surrender.

All the best

Energyflow said...

I think that modern convenience and automation has robbed us of hard labor, suffering of so much untimely death and sickness, making us into permanent zoo animals or kindergarten children, i.e. that technical progress brings emotional regression. Similar to Rome's bread and circus or Athhen's mob rule, so- called democracy, our culture has weakened us to the point where we cannot control our emotions or rather balance the various emotions and thought processes after a life of hard experience, which most are deprived of through screenitis, automobility, couchpotatoism, etc. A 'pursuit of happiness' can be too successful. Paradise can become hell if the fairy tale leaves us wanting for serious depth of challenges which create strength of charactrr. Trump's life exemplifies this. The first enkightenment doctrine is mind over matter, i.e. science and techno!ogy can improve our lives. Romans were master engineers to help the masses live better and in the pursuit of military goals, similar to us. They also acheived a large empire and became decadent, soft immature. Invasion by barbarian hordes who adapt our technology while avoiding our weakness could be the next stage. Perhaps Trump will be the first in a line of Nero type insane presidents who destroy the country from within while our enemies use this to their advantage. The people elect leaders similar to themselves. Trump is what they want. It only gets worse from here.

Bozon said...

Unfolding events suggest another comment here. Maybe you have a new post on this topic in the works.
The stand off between three NE states and the President re questions of authority and sovereignty suggest a Lincoln like Trump intervention against NY, NJ, and CT under these circumstances.
I am not going to try to delineate a correct constitutional interpretation under this scenario, but iti already set the stage for such a confrontation when these three decided to exclude Red state citizens without self quaranteen.

That seeems to me to have been a political move beyond the requirements of the pandemic, and beyond the ability of experts to anticipate entrants from other states arguably similarly situated to red states, most notably travellers from large cities in Blue states.
All the best