Column: Mattis’ resignation letter reminds us of who we are and where we come from

Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 9.
(Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

Resignation letters can be rants. Meltdowns. But mostly they’re boilerplate. One job site advises quitters to be brief, not to burn bridges, and — this above all — “Don’t tell the whole truth in your exit interview.”

For once, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis broke a rule. When the former Marine Corps lieutenant general and head of Central Command tendered his resignation to President Trump on Thursday, he told the whole truth.

In his elegant, elegiac and deceptively simple letter, Mattis outlined his core beliefs about global security.


Mattis’ resignation letter is a vitally necessary document.

The letter merits a close look, but not because it’s brilliantly original. Instead, the brief essay takes a steely tone to reiterate with absolute clarity America’s bedrock commitments in the post-World War II international order.

Protect the free world against expansionist authoritarianism.

Was that so hard? Reasonable people can differ on tactics and some preach isolationism. But Mattis’ line covers even those who prefer to pull in the drawbridges; it is an entirely credible and complete statement of postwar American resolution.

And that’s why Mattis’ letter is a vitally necessary document. It evokes the common sense, wisdom and competence that the American people have been starved for over the last two years. Our upside-down nation has almost forgotten what a disciplined and principled approach to national security sounds like.

(If you want more discipline and principles, you might read a paper Mattis cites in his letter: “2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States: Sharpening the Military Edge.” It’s thoughtful and thorough, and there’s nothing in it about mafia rats or smocking guns.)


Daily, Americans who deserve better are subject to the president’s onslaught of vile, tweeted gibberish. But in two long years, we haven’t ever heard the White House authoritatively state the nation’s once-firm position on global security.

In plain view, and flamboyantly, Trump has spited our allies and bowed and scraped before authoritarians, including his favorite, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ever-mindful of Trump’s mounting sycophancy to Putin and other autocrats, Mattis discovered this week that he must distance himself from our compromised president.

Unlike Trump, Mattis makes clear, he is not a lost patsy or puppet. In no uncertain terms, he writes in his defense strategy statement that China and Russia are seeking to control Europe and the Middle East with authoritarian measures and new forms of warfare, including election hacking. These two nations, Mattis writes, pose “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security.”

That’s right. The central challenge to peace and prosperity. Not Canada, Europe, CNN or Amazon. What’s more, undernourished asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America don’t endanger the peace either.

Trump pleased the Kremlin this week by withdrawing troops from Syria and lifting economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s billionaire pal Oleg V. Deripaska. But what makes the Russian president happy terrifies what’s left of the free world. And, unmistakably, it also terrifies Mattis.

Americans can be forgiven if they no longer remember what dignity and rationality sound like in public life; the Mattis letter jogs our collective memory. But it has arrived right at the edge of too late.

Mattis is a famously cerebral Marine, literate and urbane. He carried a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” to his deployments in the Persian Gulf and Iraq, including both battles of Fallujah. There’s considerable irony in his nom de guerre, “Mad Dog,” which may have endeared him to the tacky president but doesn’t remotely capture a man of Mattis’ even temperament and wide learning.

Given all that, his letter is tinged with sadness, a palpable grief for the old American moral and philosophical values, and for his inability, finally, to successfully defend them on his own, the last serious and decent public servant in the White House. It’s heartbreaking — but human — that there’s a note of real resignation in Mattis’ resignation letter.

On Friday, news broke that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 85, had had surgery to remove malignant nodules on her lungs. Her doctors said there was “no evidence of any remaining disease” after the surgery, and others hastened to add that that doesn’t mean it won’t show up again.

Ginsburg’s sudden frailty and Mattis’ departure are reminders that, although we may be a nation of laws and not individuals, there are certain individuals in government who serve as bulwarks against both autocracy and anarchy.

Mattis is certainly one, and Ginsburg is another. And, as Mattis has shown this week, they can’t be expected to sacrifice themselves in Trump’s one-man civil war.

Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

We need more like Mattis and Ginsburg, a general and a jurist who have each sworn an oath to the nation’s laws and ideals. Whatever your politics, you believe they meant it. There are some pacts between the people and the government that even this reckless president can’t break.

Mattis’ mentor Marcus Aurelius wrote instructions that suit our nation and its leadership this dark December: “Do not act as if you were going to live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

To endure the president’s next perfidy, and the next and the next, is going to demand all the idealism, honesty, goodness and patriotism left in the exhausted American people.