James Mattis Feels Sorry For Those Who Didn’t Serve

Wages rhetorical war on a culture of victimhood

• April 20, 2015 12:32 pm


James Mattis is legendary among Marines. He commanded the first Marines to land in Afghanistan in 2001, the 1st Marine Division in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and ultimately led U.S. Central Command until he was compelled to retire early over tensions with the Obama administration regarding Iran.

One of the reasons for the high regard in which he is held is his ability to inspire the troops not only through actions, but also through words. Sometimes those words have gotten him into trouble with a portion of American society that is uncomfortable with the realities of military service. (It seems that some people were offended by the idea that killing psychopathic terrorists is not, in fact, something about which troops should feel sorry.) To help understand why he's so beloved, consider the speech Mattis gave last week in San Francisco honoring veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a version of which was re-printed in the Wall Street Journal.  In it, he pushed back against the narrative that veterans are, by virtue of their service in war, victims. He also framed service in Iraq or Afghanistan as something for veterans to be proud of, for having made a full personal commitment when, as he put it, "political leadership had difficulty defining our national level of commitment."

This commitment during two "poorly explained and inconclusive wars" put veterans on the record about the sort of world America wants for its children, "The world of violent jihadist terrorists, or one defined by Abraham Lincoln when he advised us to listen to our better angels? … Rest assured that by your service, you sent a necessary message to the world and especially to those maniacs who thought by hurting us that they could scare us."

Since his retirement, Mattis has been waging rhetorical war against the spread of what could be called "PTSD culture," or the notion that being a victim of a disorder is the necessary consequence of serving in a combat zone. While acknowledging the existence of trauma for some, Mattis offered some harsh words for those who promote a general culture of grievance and victimhood:

Veterans know the difference between being in a dangerous combat zone and being in close combat, seeking out and killing the enemy. Close combat is tough. Much of the rest of war is boring if hard work. Yet nothing is mentally crippling about hard work in dangerous circumstances, as shown by generations of American veterans who came thankfully home as better men and women. Close combat, however, is an "incommunicable experience"—again quoting Holmes. Then there was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Union general, who spoke of war’s effects, distinguishing the impact of close combat from military service in general. He said that such combat is "a test of character, it makes bad men worse and good men better." …

We veterans did our patriotic duty, nothing more, certainly nothing less, and we need to "come home" like veterans of all America’s wars. Come home stronger and more compassionate, not characterized as damaged, or with disorders, or with syndromes or other disease labels. Not labeled dependent on the government even as we take the lead in care of our grievously wounded comrades and hold our Gold Star families close. We deserve nothing more than a level playing field in America, for we endured nothing more, and often less, than vets of past wars.

Taking this line of thought to its logical conclusion, Mattis argued that those who did not have the privilege of serving their country in war are, in fact, the ones that have been harmed, or at least denied an opportunity to live life to its fullest:

Looking back over my own service, I realize now how fortunate I was to experience all this and the many riotous excursions I had when I was privileged to march or fight beside you. And a question comes to mind: What can I do to repay our country for the privilege of learning things that only you in this room could have taught me? For today I feel sorry for those who were not there with us when trouble loomed. I sometimes wonder how to embrace those who were not with us, those who were not so fortunate to discover what we were privileged to learn when we were receiving our Masters and Ph.D.s in how to live life, and gaining the understanding and appreciation of small things that we would otherwise have never known.

I am not aware of a professional writer who could say it better. It is an argument that is too infrequently made, and you should read the whole thing.

Published under: Afghanistan, Iraq, James Mattis, Veterans