Known by many as “America’s Lord of War,” US Secretary of Defense Jim “Chaos” Mattis is a colorful character who is known for being the perfect juxtaposition of toughness and intellect.
Though one who prefers to stay out of sight from news cameras whenever possible, Mattis actually has quite a gift for public speaking- no matter the topic, when he opens his mouth, people tend to listen.
Earlier this week, Mattis addressed cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, speaking to them for well over an hour and even answering questions fielded by the cadets. However, at the end of his speech, Mattis recounted an incident during the Iraq War that stood out.
“I was out in the middle of nowhere a few years ago with my team,” Mattis recounted. “They’re rolling down the road…Forty to fifty kilometers from the nearest outpost.”
Eventually arriving at the outpost in the middle of the night, Mattis came across forty Marines and Sailors led by a Lieutenant. As the sun came up, the junior officer came to speak with then-General Mattis, informing him of an incident from the night before.
“He came over to see me and check in,” Mattis recalled. “He said ‘By the way, General, we caught a guy trying to lay an IED on the road you were driving on.”
“Well that’s kind of nice, you know?” Mattis joked in retrospect. “A little personal.”
The insurgent turned out to be an engineer who spoke perfect English.
Mattis couldn’t wait to talk to him.
When the Marines brought the insurgent to Mattis, he was “shaking like a leaf.” Asking for a cigarette, Mattis said he decided not to give him an “anti-smoking lecture,” cut his plastic handcuffs off and let him have a smoke.
“What are you doing this for?” Mattis asked him. “What’s wrong with you? You’re Sunni where the Marines were the only friends you’ve got out here.”
According to the retired general, the engineer began ranting about “Jews” and Americans coming to “steal our oil.”
“Okay, you’re obviously an educated man,” Mattis said sarcastically. “I’m not going to waste my time listening to this dribble.”
Eventually, the man calmed down and told Mattis that he couldn’t stand having foreign soldiers in his country.
“I respect that,” Mattis said. “I wouldn’t want foreign soldiers in my town. I understand, but you shouldn’t have done that.”
“I guess I’m going to jail,” the engineer said.
“Oh yeah,” Mattis answered. “You’re gonna be wearing an orange jumpsuit in Abu Ghraib for a good many years for this little stunt. You’re lucky you’re not dead.”
Suddenly, the engineer caught Mattis off guard.
“General,” the engineer said, “Do you think if I’m a model prisoner, I could someday emigrate to America?”
“Think about that,” Mattis said to the cadets. “Think about how the hatred he felt was so much that he would go out and try to put a bomb on the road to kill us, but the example of America was so strong that he could be sitting where you are today, or have his son and daughter in that audience.”
Mattis was then reminded that America has two fundamental powers: intimidation and inspiration.
America’s military -arguably the greatest in the history of the world- is able to project force anywhere in the world and fight with immeasurable ferocity. At the same time, America has the power to inspire people all over the world, including those who are enemies of the United States.
“I want you all to remember that,” Mattis said. “Because when you’re out there, you’re also going to be part of the power of inspiration. You surrender that [ethical and moral] high ground, the historic legacy that we carry with us, at our nation’s peril.”
“You hold that close,” Mattis continued. “You take care of each other.”
Mattis would later go on to answer several deep questions before concluding his speaking event.
The epitome of military leadership, Jim Mattis is not afraid to step back and look at “the big picture,” often well beyond the scope of a combat commander. The model Marine, Mattis represents the very best of what the American military can offer- the tip of a two-pronged spear of intimidation and inspiration.
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