The news of Gen. James Mattis’ pending departure as secretary of defense on Thursday was met with mostly negative reactions by pretty much everyone on Capitol Hill. Mattis (along with chief of staff John Kelly, another military guy) was seen by that set as two of the “last adults in the room” surrounding Donald Trump—a job they have both been terrible at.
Probably owing to Mattis’ clear parting shots at Trump in his resignation letter, even some Democrats were sad about losing him. Rep. Eric Swalwell of California went on CNN to say the country would be “less safe” without a guy named “Mad Dog” running the Pentagon.
Before we give Mattis a medal, however, consider that he resigned on the same day that Trump announced a pullout of 7,000 troops from Afghanistan, a war that is older than some high school seniors and which the commanding officer of U.S. and NATO troops said in September should end. Mattis also argued against the pullout of troops from Syria, which has been mired in a civil war for nearly eight years now with no end in sight. Not exactly some great moral stand. (It’s also worth noting that Mattis actively made a choice to join this shitty administration in the first place, even after Trump ran a campaign rooted in white fear of Muslims and immigrants, and that this was the final straw for him and not all of the other objectively horrific shit Trump has done.)
It’s also worth remembering that Mattis is hardy deserving of the respect stowed upon him simply because he’s a military guy. In fact, Mattis very may well have committed war crimes while commanding Marines in Iraq. Per Aaron Glantz, who wrote a retrospective for Reveal when Mattis was first nominated for defense secretary:
Retired Gen. James Mattis earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for leading U.S. Marines into battle in Fallujah, Iraq, in April 2004. In that assault, members of the Marine Corps, under Mattis’ command, shot at ambulances and aid workers. They cordoned off the city, preventing civilians from escaping. They posed for trophy photos with the people they killed.
Each of these offenses has put other military commanders and members of the rank and file in front of international war crimes tribunals. The doctrine that landed them there dates back to World War II, when an American military tribunal held Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita accountable for war crimes in the Philippines. His execution later was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s also this (emphasis mine):
But before Mattis’ command in Iraq ended, he was involved in another controversial incident. On May 19, less than three weeks after his forces pulled back from Fallujah, Mattis personally authorized an attack on a wedding party near the Syrian border. The Iraqi government said the strike left 42 civilians dead, including at least 13 children.
The killings roiled Iraq, coming so soon after the carnage of Fallujah – but Mattis stood by his action, arguing the dead were insurgents.
“How many people go to the middle of the desert … to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization?” he told The Guardian. “These were more than two dozen military-age males. Let’s not be naive.”
In the years since, Mattis – called a “warrior monk” by his supporters – repeatedly has protected American service members who killed civilians, using his status as a division commander to wipe away criminal charges against Marines accused of massacring 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005 and granting clemency to some of those convicted in connection with the 2006 murder of a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi, who was taken outside his home and shot in the face four times.
“There have been credible reports that U.S. troops under the command of Gen. Mattis did target civilians, conducted indiscriminate attacks and also conducted attacks against military objectives that caused disproportionate casualties to civilians during military operations in Fallujah,” Columbia international law professor Gabor Rona told Glantz. “All of these are war crimes. Applying the doctrine of command responsibility, Gen. Mattis would be responsible for these misdeeds, these war crimes of troops under his command if he...either knew, should’ve known or did nothing to prevent or punish this behavior.”
The whole story is worth a read. Some people who should have read it are in the United States Senate, which voted to confirm Mattis 98-1 nine days after the story came out. Another reminder that the D.C. warbrain is willing to forgive and forget pretty much anything so long as you’re a troop.
Mattis will now most likely be remembered as someone who tried to be a steady hand over a bad president and quit when he couldn’t take it anymore. But even setting aside that weak narrative, and even by the comically low standards set by the Trump administration, Mad Dog wasn’t anything to write home about. In a more just world, he’d have been shunned by those in power; instead, he was covered in glory by them.