In an open letter recently penned by General Jim Mattis, the ex-Secretary of Defense lambasted President Trump’s violent response to civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The letter, titled In Union There is Strength, was published in such liberal bulwarks as The New York Times and The Atlantic. In the following days, a chorus of top military leadership has joined in this denunciation, including retired generals Colin Powell and John Kelly, who said in an interview that “we should be very, very careful before we contemplate sending in active duty” military personnel to civilian protests. In militarizing our response, Mattis wrote, the US government “sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society.” These rebukes are both nonsensical and utterly oblivious to the structural conditions these leaders’ careers helped foment. Indeed, the militant policing of communities of color in the US, and the violent repression of the current pushback, is a funhouse mirror of the last several decades of the nation’s imperialist foreign policy.
It is worth touching on the career of Jim Mattis to fully understand the incompatibility of military leadership disavowing a violent response to the Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement and the current wave of protests across the country. In December of 2016, then president-elect Trump announced his administration would be appointing Mattis their Secretary of Defense. Ostensibly, this was due to his notoriety as an intellectual warrior in the leadership of troops—the same which earned him the nickname “Mad Dog”—during his career in the Marine Corps, including stints with CENTCOM and NATO. Yet it is no stretch to believe that his hawkishness against Middle Eastern nations and peoples weighed heavily in his favor. Mattis’ desire for aggression with Iran was either too extreme or too public even for the Obama administration, which removed him from his post at CENTCOM because of it. His pariah status as a silenced patriot made him a natural draw for the Trump administration.
Preceding all of these events, Mattis’ leadership was forged during the early years of the Global War on Terror [GWOT]. Immediately following the events of 9/11, Mattis led US combat operations in Afghanistan, upon which he reminisced in 2005 “it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot [some Afghani men]. Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight. You know, it’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” In 2003, he led the 1st Marine Division in the US invasion of Iraq. Despite his own prior statement that the war “was not with the Iraqi people”, Mattis nevertheless ordered the bombing of a wedding party in 2004 and oversaw an unknown percentage of the 20,000+ deaths of Iraqi citizens estimated to have occurred during the division’s two consecutive deployments to Iraq.
With his lauded ability to represent a more restrained and thoughtful approach to warfare, Mattis is rarely held up as a particularly egregious example of US-led violence. Yet despite claims that he worked to bring an ethos of discretion and “cultural sensitivity training” to the troops under his command, it takes an enormous leap to see the positive impacts when the end results remain hundreds of thousands of deaths and the ravaging of untold communities. In fact, the pseudo-intellectualism of military leadership does a neat job of masking racist policy for the state. Asking and answering his own question at a 2015 speech for right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation, Mattis said “is political Islam in the best interest of the United States? I suggest the answer is no, but we need to have the discussion.” Nearly twenty years on, it is clearer than ever that “war on terror” remains nationalist shorthand for “war on brown people opposing imperial interests abroad”.
As Johns Hopkins lecturer Stuart Schrader says in his 2019 text Badges Without Borders, “the growth and empowerment of cops and cages…was not independent of [the United States’] imperial background, but has been intimately tied to it.” The state seized on GWOT as an opportunity to bolster its capacity for violence at home, dumping trillions into projects like the Department of Homeland Security, and amping up the 1033 Program, deliberately blurring the lines between the military and law enforcement. The Marshall Project reports that nearly 20 percent of the 800,000 US police officers is ex-military, as departments give hiring priority to veterans and expedite their entry. Special forces tactics and mentality are readily absorbed, such as that of retired Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, whose academy trains departments to meet violence with “superior violence.” As the line between civilian and enemy combatant becomes erased, the playbook for suppressing dissent encompasses broader swathes of the general public.
Yet the dissonance is obvious as Mattis and other military leaders continue to rebuke this playbook, which they have coauthored and refined. Colin Powell’s call for an “embrace” of protestors is seemingly oblivious to the eponymous Powell Doctrine, a set of guiding principles—and cornerstone of GWOT strategy—emphasizing an all-or-nothing use of overwhelming force. Retired general and CIA director David Petraeus attempted to avoid this conundrum by a toothless address of systematic racism published in the Atlantic, specifically calling for the end of Confederate naming of military installations. Yet even here Petraeus bemoans that troops are “not encouraged to think deeply about the cause for which [Confederate generals] fought,” a lesson one presumes he does not apply to the War on Terror. Ultimately, without the ability to address US imperialism, any censure of brutality or endorsement of the BLM movement by military leaders must either weakly skirt their own culpability or result in fundamental discrepancy.
Regardless of the inherent disparity, the Democratic party has been quick to tie themselves to this newest narrative of military condemnation of the Trump administration and its response to protests. Immediately following the publication of Mattis’ letter, the Joe Biden campaign tweeted that the it was a “powerful indictment”. The DNC has issued numerous press releases to capitalize on this particular wave of dissent (Top Military Brass Rebuke Trump, and four days later, Top Military Brass Continue to Rebuke Trump). And while Mattis has left his engagement in electoral politics so far at a denunciation of the incumbent, Powell has explicitly endorsed Biden for president. The incongruous criticism of militant policing of minorities and protesters by those whose careers were forged in GWOT has fast become a cause célèbre for the liberal establishment, political expediency trumping cognitive dissonance.
In his open letter, Mattis posits that in seeking a quick resolution to the current civil unrest “we do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose.” What Mattis seems to miss is that the purpose has become militarized response. The inevitability of the War on Terror coming home is now in full exhibition, and its goals remain the same: the interests of capital upheld and exploited by violence, murder, and ruthless domination.