A 'sacred trust,' from George Marshall to Jim Mattis

A 'sacred trust,' from George Marshall to Jim Mattis
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When Jim Mattis chose to break his moral code of silence last week against President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE, George Marshall, America’s most revered soldier and statesman since George Washington, would have approved. Marshall would have understood that Mattis had to speak out because the bonds of trust between the American people and the military were being frayed by the actions of the president.

In several important respects, Marshall and Mattis are strikingly similar. They are the only two military flag officers who have been allowed by congressional waiver to serve as secretaries of Defense. Both of them were extraordinarily disciplined, having fought to achieve self-mastery at relatively early stages in their respective careers. Each was highly intelligent, thoughtful and deliberate — though Mattis seems a bit more excitable and prone to overstatement, and Marshall harbored an explosive temper. 

They were gifted war leaders, strong believers in the value of alliances. Ingrained in the two of them, moreover, was the sense that they had a duty to tell the truth and, when necessary, a duty to speak truth to power — qualities related to trust and sincerity that penetrate to the core of their integrity.

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Evidence suggests that Mattis has sought to emulate the high moral standards by which Marshall lived. In “Call Sign Chaos,” Mattis’s recently published book co-authored with Bing West, he cites Marshall’s deeds, words and values, indicating that he would like to be remembered as having the ethics, the character and the world view that most closely resembles those aspects of Marshall’s persona.

However, in his rationale for speaking out last week against President Trump’s threatened use of the military to quell protests around the country, Mattis did not capture — as Marshall did 70 years ago — the essence of why the president’s actions and rhetoric were so dangerous.

It wasn’t so much a matter of Trump violating the Constitution (which is questionable), sowing divisiveness or abusing executive authority, as Mattis stressed; it was Marshall’s concept of an erosion of “sacred trust” that was the clear and present danger to the nation. 

During the early 1950s, Marshall told an interviewer that the American people had conferred a “great asset” on the military’s professional officer corps in that they harbor no fear that their generals and admirals will become involved in partisan politics or, God forbid, attempt to overthrow the government. This is a “sacred trust,” he declared, that must be protected and preserved at all costs. “We are a member of a priesthood the sole purpose of which is to defend the republic,” he said.

On Monday evening, June 1, the press and the TV audience could plainly see the assault on peaceful protestors in Lafayette Park by security forces, the president then being followed by his secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the political photo op with the secretary of Defense in front of historic St. John’s Episcopal Church. In those few moments, the military was politicized. Its trust with the American people had to have been undermined.  

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It follows, therefore, that Mattis and his fellow military leaders, sitting or retired, had a duty to speak out. Deploying the military to assault peaceful protesters is antithetical to the defense of the republic; it undermines national security, and imperils democracy.

In his letter to The Atlantic, Mattis, perhaps channeling Marshall, made reference to “a trusted bond,” but it lacked the clarity of Marshall’s idea of the “sacred trust.”

David L. Roll is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, senior counsel at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, and the author of "George Marshall: Defender of the Republic” (Dutton, 2019) and “The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler” (Oxford, 2013).