Aside to Gen. Mattis: It's not the time to withhold your judgment of Donald Trump

By James w. Dolan
Reporter Columnist

Few in the nation are admired as much as James Mattis, former Marine Corps general and US defense secretary. In many respects, he represents the best of us: dedicated, principled, loyal, and smart. He, along with another distinguished Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, Bing West, who is originally from Dorchester, recently wrote a book about leadership titled “Call Sign Chaos.”

In it, Mattis describes the qualities he says a leader must have. While acknowledging that he resigned because he disagreed with some administration defense policies, he does not comment on the character and capabilities of President Trump, his former boss. While he views his silence as a duty, it also serves as a refuge, a way to avoid controversy.

Is this a case of misplaced loyalty? Does he have a higher duty to express either his support for the commander-in-chief or his concern for the nation under Trump’s direction? Particularly when it’s obvious the president demonstrates none of the leadership qualities Mattis describes at great length in the book.

Why define leadership if you are unable or unwilling to apply that definition to a person you worked for? Is leadership an abstraction? Is it somehow disloyal or disrespectful to define leadership and measure someone to whom you reported by those standards? I believe it is important by way of illustration to cite examples of people who have or have not displayed those qualities.

Mattis apparently prefers to do it by indirection. Instead of coming right out and saying it, he criticizes the president by enumerating the qualities necessary for sound leadership, not just in the military but anywhere. He then lets the reader draw what, in the president’s case, is the obvious conclusion. It’s a little like reciting the Beatitudes and then declining to say whether or not the president is or is not in compliance.

The general certainly expected his superiors in the Marine Corps to demonstrate character and competence. He also would have rigorously demanded that officers serving under him comply with those leadership tenets he so earnestly practiced himself. During his book tour, he declines all efforts to have him comment on the president’s leadership despite his unique position to evaluate the commander-in-chief. Now is not the time to withhold judgment.

Mattis has said his silence is not eternal and that there may occur circumstances when he will feel compelled to speak out. I suggest those circumstances already exist and have for a while. Leadership can be uncomfortable. It sometimes requires forthright candor when the nation is at risk and silence can be seen as, if not approval, at least acceptance. When does duty respond to a higher calling?

Some suggest Mattis’s reticence may be related to his recent return to the board of General Dynamics, the nation’s fifth largest defense contractor. It has long been a common practice for former defense officials and retired high ranking military officers to work in the defense industry. Another even more famous general, former president Dwight Eisenhower, warned us over 50 years ago of the “grave implications” of the nation’s military-industrial complex, a formidable union of the arms industry and the military that breeds conflicts of interest and lack of oversight. It also can make those involved reluctant to openly criticize powerful government officials.

James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.