Why the James Mattis Statement Matters

Photo by Specna Arms on Unsplash

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis came out yesterday with a statement that ripped Donald Trump a new exit route from his body. He is not the first, nor will he be the last commentator on the leadership vacuum this country has been left with since Trump was elected. Trump’s presidency has been a vitally important chapter in the growth of this democracy: we all learn more by making mistakes. But it’s time to end this chapter and move forward. Mattis gives us some insight into how we may be able to do that and unite as a people, as a country and as the individuals loving each other that we are. Mattis’ letter is filled with hope. It matters because it comes from the least likely of places during a time that our president has tried to use the military to divide this nation further.

Mattis reminds us that what we are protesting for is Equal Justice Under Law, a wholesome and unifying ideal. Contrast this sentiment to the vitriol coming from the White House by our “Law and Order” president . Our current “leader” feeds us with a continuous and threatening fanning of the flames of division. We have had to endure this poison for the last 3 years. Trump began his presidency with division. Remember the Women’s March the day after he was inaugurated, the protests at the airports, the gaslighting that has become the daily communication from the West Wing? Someone take that man’s phone away so he’ll just shut his mouth. Mattis speaks softly, and he has carried the big stick. Mattis knows that the militarization of policing is not the way to unite us, but will further divide a population already suffering from a lack of leadership.

Mattis tells us to reject the concept of “thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’.” The strength we must draw on is the strength of unity. By suggesting that we “dominate” the protesters and militarize the response our government has to citizens who are exercising their rights is to further erode the trust each must have in the other. We must trust our police and military to protect and serve us, and they must trust us to live civilly in our society. Either side breaking the contract of trust that is intrinsic to living peacefully breaks down society in a way that is difficult if not impossible to recover from. The most powerful line of this letter is a simple sentiment “We need to unite around a common purpose…guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.” This from a man who said he would never speak against a sitting president, but couldn’t remain silent as he watched the current commander in chief abuse his power through the use of unneccessary force to remove peaceful protesters from Lafayette Park. And then to watch that same man stand in front of a church he doesn’t attend, with a bible he doesn’t read, with no words to say.

Mattis is a hero for speaking out. But he is not the only one. Current Defense Secretary Esper has also refused to militarize the police presence in major cities. And the results are striking. Police have joined protesters to unite their cities and strive for the long overdue practice of treating all citizens equally. Militarization of policing ends now. Empathetic policing, service and protection need to take hold in all areas of our country to fully make the changes needed for us all to see each other as individuals. It takes a man like Mattis to get folks in power to listen, but he’s gotten their attention and the needed change appears to be coming. What is so striking to me, is that the call for peaceful protest comes from a military man. Bravo.

Mattis continues his statement by pointing out how a lack of mature leadership has served to divide us further, how our current president has sought to divide us at every turn in the last 3 years. He points out how the pandemic has shown us how much each of us matters, how so many people have put their lives on the line for the greater good: not just military personnel but doctors and nurses and grocery store clerks, our postmen are the true heroes. We are a symbiotic society, it is learning respect for the need of this diverse social structure that will give us strength, and it is only through a shared goal of unity that we can derive that strength.

Mattis is not the first to step into the void in leadership we have had to endure with Trump. All four, living, former presidents have spoken, leaders in the black community, leaders in all major sports, leaders of industry have all taken a stand in recent days to help unite us and strengthen the fragile bonds we have had to create in these times. This is not the first time we have seen this type of revolution. The civil rights era coupled with resistance to the Vietnam War brought us out of the 1960’s with hope for a unified nation. A pandemic and the rejection of police brutality against black people may propel us further down the road to freedom being built in these turbulent times.

In closing Mattis tells us “we know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square.” It is only through protest and the exercise of our rights that change can emerge: fresh and bright, a beacon of hope, a light for each of us to follow. It is hard to be still in such a moment, and none of us should be. The call to action we are currently making is not a call to arms. It is a call to love. It is a call to hope. It is a call to make freedom where we live through empathy, and shared experience. It is a call to unity. Listen to the call, return to a place of peace.

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