Defense Secretary James Mattis sees the U.S. military as more than just an arm of the country's national security policy, an observation the retired Marine Corps general made when recounting to troops an assassination attempt he survived during the Iraq War.
Mattis was with a small group of Marines in Iraq when a Sunni Arab man was captured planting a bomb on a road nearby. Told the captured insurgent spoke English, Mattis offered him a cigarette and coffee, after which the man told him that he resented the American soldiers in his country.
The man then asked Mattis a surprising question, the Associated Press reports.
"General," he asked, "if I am a model prisoner do you think someday I could emigrate to America?"
For Mattis, the question represented America’s power to inspire.
"I bring this up to you, my fine young sailors, because I want you to remember that on our worst day we’re still the best going, and we’re counting on you to take us to the next level," he said. "We’ve never been satisfied with where America’s at. We’re always prone to looking at the bad things, the things that aren’t working right. That’s good. It’s healthy, so long as we then roll up our sleeves and work together, together, together, to make it better."
He recounted this anecdote and others during a series of pre-Christmas visits with troops.
When he visits with troops, the informal side of Mattis comes out, AP reporter Robert Burns notes. He shares anecdotes from his time in the military, using his own experiences to demonstrate the uncertainty soldiers face on deployment and illustrate how every military member needs to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice.
Another story Mattis recounted at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune conveyed just how rapidly circumstances can change.
Mattis described how, during a June 2001 meeting at the Pentagon, senior members of the Bush administration asked a briefer questions about significant security threats the military was facing. The briefer stated that among the major threats, the one country where America would absolutely not be fighting was Afghanistan. A few months later, Mattis was commanding Task Force 58 in southern Afghanistan.
Mattis’ more casual demeanor with troops suggests a certain comfort level he feels with members of the military away from Washington, D.C.
He indicated his visits remind him of how and why the American military can establish a standard of decorum while abroad.
"Our country needs you," he told service members at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, and not just because of the military’s firepower. "It’s also the example you set for the country at a time it needs good role models; it needs to look at an organization that doesn’t care what gender you are, it doesn’t care what religion you are, it doesn’t care what ethnic group you are. It’s an organization that can work together."