Opinion | National Security

We owe a debt of gratitude to General Mattis for resigning in protest

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Lately, President Trump has been attacking former generals, including some who worked in his administration. "My generals" are now "failed generals." So let's take a moment to reflect on the heroism of one general in particular. 

General James Norman Mattis (Ret.) served with distinction in the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. But his greatest service to his country - odd as it sounds - was his resignation as secretary of Defense.

On Dec. 19, Trump abruptly announced that within a month he would pull 2,000 American soldiers out of Syria who had been fighting ISIS. After failing to change Trump's mind, Mattis resigned the next day, explaining that his views on this and other national security issues were not "aligned" with the president's. His resignation set off a firestorm that just forced Trump to extend the withdrawal timetable to about four months.

By resigning Mattis bought time for a healthy public debate and military and diplomatic planning, which should have preceded the momentous decision to withdraw the troops.

American diplomats have more time to head off a Turkish attack on the Kurdish and Arab militias that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces, America's indispensable allies in the fight against ISIS.   

The U.S. military has more time to consider the feasibility, as some have suggested, of redeploying the troops to Iraq where, in combination with Special Forces and airstrikes, they can continue the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Politicians like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are justly concerned that Trump may be allowing ISIS to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, now have time to persuade Trump to wait until ISIS, in fact, is defeated. 

Mattis deserves praise because he did not silently execute a policy that he profoundly disagreed with, registered his disagreement in a way that did not jeopardize civilian control of the military, and succeeded in altering the policy.   

To appreciate his accomplishment, consider how civilian control was challenged in the ill-fated 1949 "Revolt of the Admirals." President Truman's Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, just a few months in office, canceled construction of a Navy super carrier even though the keel had been laid. Johnson had Truman's support but not the Navy's. 

The secretary of the Navy resigned, a staff assistant to the undersecretary of the Navy tried to smear Johnson in Congress, and a parade of active duty and retired admirals publicly opposed the cancellation. Truman backed Johnson over the Navy and fired the chief of Naval Operations. The carrier wasn't built and the episode has since been cited to underscore the importance of civilian control of the military. 

At the opposite extreme is the "silent" military leadership in the Vietnam War. In his book, "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam," H.R. McMaster (Trump's second national security adviser) strongly criticized President Lyndon Johnson's Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to resign over how the war was being fought.

Many years after the war, one of them, General Harold K. Johnson, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army from 1964 to 1968, regretted his failure to resign.  

"I remember the day when I was ready to go over to the Oval Office and give my four stars to the President and tell him, 'You have refused to tell the country they cannot fight a war without mobilization; you have required me to send men into battle with little hope of their ultimate victory; and you have forced us in the military to violate almost every one of the principles of war in Vietnam. Therefore, I resign and will hold a press conference after I walk out your door,'" he said.

He ultimately concluded that his resignation wouldn't change the president's policy and didn't go through with it.    

There are medals for bravery on the battlefield. There are no medals for a former four-star general whose policy differences with the president, conscience and sense of duty to the nation compel him to resign a high office.    

But hopefully, after Trump is finally gone, Mattis' extraordinary service in resigning will be officially recognized. In the meantime, the nation owes him its gratitude.  

Gregory J. Wallance was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author most recently of "The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring." Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.