There is a wonderful American movie from the 1980’s called “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
It is the tale of a young man who wants to be a Navy pilot… a tough-as-nails Marine trainer… and a young woman who works at a nearby factory.
Yes, it is a love story. But it is also, in a way, a lesson about the makings of a military officer and the seemingly contradictory qualities he — or she — must possess.
They are traits of leadership and gentleness. And here I am talking about the true meaning of a gentle man… not soft, but empathetic and compassionate.
It’s the perfect description for Jim Mattis.
The retired Marine general resigned last December as the nation’s 26th Secretary of Defense. In a letter to President Trump, he cited the privilege of serving along the men and women of the U.S. military. But he also made clear that he had irreconcilable differences with his commander-in-chief.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects. I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
In his message to the White House, Mattis did not go into a lot of policy specifics. He talked about the need for improved military ties with allies, but made no direct mention of his opposition to potential U.S. troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan.
His letter contained no harsh words about the president, but no praise either. The line “it has been a pleasure to serve you” is nowhere to be found.
Mattis left on his own terms as a gentleman with his dignity intact.
He stepped aside and, for a time, kept his thoughts to himself.
And when he finally broke his silence, he did so cautiously —playing the role of an apolitical, respected Marine.
He has been out in public lately promoting his new book “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” — a memoir, of sorts, about his time in the military. Some call it a manual on leadership skills. It is not, however, a chronicle of his time in Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Repeatedly during his book tour, Mattis has been asked to talk about his differences with President Trump and to comment on the administration’s military and foreign policy.
Each time, he has offered somewhat cautious answers — never mentioning Donald Trump by name.
The reason may be found in a long article for The Atlantic magazine by Jeffrey Goldberg with the headline “The Man Who Couldn’t Take it Anymore.”
Goldberg writes about a conversation with Mattis at his home — a townhouse full of books on the military and diplomacy.
When he reminded the retired General that people want to hear his thoughts about Trump, Mattis responded by saying:
“If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country.”
And then there was this:
“I may not like the commander-in-chief one fricking bit, but our system puts the commander-in -chief there, and to further weaken him when we are up against real threats — I mean we could be at war on the Korean Penninsula!”
Still, if you read between the lines of his book, you can sense his deep concern about the policies of the Trump administration.
It is to be found in phrases like “nations with allies thrive, and those without wither..”
Similar sentiments are contained in a follow-up essay Mattis wrote for the Wall Street Journal after his book was published:
“Alone, America can not protect our people and our economy… a leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood by us when troubles loomed.”
Critics say Mattis served as a presidential appointee in a civilian position at the Pentagon and the rules of his long military career do not apply — that he has a responsibility to speak out forcefully when he feels the president is wrong.
But others say they understand the unique position he is in.
Kathleen Hicks, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in D.C., put it this way in an interview with the Washington Post:
“I think at heart, he is that 40-year-veteran Marine, and yet he took a political position. I don’t think he can ever become comfortable with the reality that it is, in fact, a political position.”
But might he change his tune in the future?
Mattis told David Martin — the long-time defense correspondent for CBS News — that he hasn’t talked to Donald Trump since leaving the Defense Department. And while he, again, refused to speak ill of a sitting president, Mattis did add:
“He is an unusual president, our president is. And it think that especially with the, just the rabid nature of politics today, we’ve got to be careful. We could tear the country apart.”
There are those who hope Mattis chooses to speak out — to be more the civilian than the Marine — before the 2020 presidential election.
“Voters need his firsthand perspective to make a judgement about the fitness and character of the commander in chief,” wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Will he or won’t he?
There is a tantalizing tidbit at the end of the article in The Atlantic where Mattis is quoted as saying “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”
There was a time, back when he was commanding U.S. troops in the Middle East, when he was called by the nickname “Mad Dog Mattis.”
Mattis hated it. Despite his toughness on the battlefield, he has always been a man concerned about both those under his command and the civilians that too often become “collateral damage” in times of war. He has supported taking the long view on matters of national security — not succumbing to the temptation of rash, hurried actions without enough forethought and preparation.
He is old-school. A warrior with an appreciation for history and diplomacy.
And he is above all, an officer and a gentleman.