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Former Defense Secretary James Mattis recounts 9/11, warns of internal divisions as threat to nation

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis waits for the arrival of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence Jan. 18, 2018, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Department of Defense)
September 12, 2019

Appearing in Chicago on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, former Defense Secretary James Mattis recalled how he first heard about the terrorist attacks on his car radio while a brigadier general in the Marines, newly arrived at Camp Pendleton from a senior post in the Pentagon.

“Having just come from being the deputy secretary of defense’s senior military assistant, I knew immediately they’d gotten through. We’d been concerned with it. We knew they were trying. I had no doubt that the enemy had gotten through,” Mattis said in a foreign policy lecture before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“I’ll just tell you, to this day, any of the intelligence officers and military officers on duty that day: We let you down,” he said. “They never should have gotten through and murdered those people. And it was personal.”

Within 50 days, Mattis was leading an expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan. “I was going to make them pay for this. That’s the bottom line. They were going to regret that they’d done it,” he said.

Mattis’ remembrances were part of a wide-ranging hourlong discussion as part of a national tour for his book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.” He warned that the nation faced an internal threat from divisions and lack of civility as well as from a growing debt facing future generations for social services.

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As he has in past interviews, Mattis declined to discuss President Donald Trump or elaborate on his decision to resign as secretary of defense in December over policy disagreements with the president, particularly in the way Trump dealt with allies and the president’s push to withdraw troops from Syria.

“The president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, they are dealing with some very, very difficult issues. They don’t need someone who was in there before coming outside, no longer responsible, and critiquing what’s going on,” Mattis said.

“You have right now over a million troops, and tens of thousands of them are deployed overseas. Now what would they be thinking if the former secretary of defense was coming out making political assessments right now and particularly at a time when the political discussions are so corrosive?”

Asked about the departure earlier this week of national security adviser John Bolton, Mattis advised it was more important to focus on the “process” of developing a coherent national security strategy than on the individuals holding various positions.

Mattis cited North Korea, Russia and China when asked to name the biggest threat to the country. But he also said the nation also faces severe internal threats.

The well-read former four-star general paraphrased a portion of a speech 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln delivered in Springfield in 1838 (though he misstated the year as 1858), in which the future president noted that the country would not face danger from outside armies but that it could “spring up amongst us” and leave a nation “to die by suicide.”

“We’re loading the younger generation with intergenerational theft, with debt that we’re not paying for, and it is going to be such a burden that we are going to shrink the venture capital of the capital available for many things — for defense, for investment, and research and development,” Mattis said.

“That worries me greatly because no nation in history has kept its freedom, its liberty, if it didn’t keep its fiscal house in order. And we’re on an unsustainable fiscal path right now, and you young people ought to be madder than heck about it,” he said.

Mattis also said he was concerned “at the contempt Americans are showing for each other.”

“I don’t mind having a good, hard argument. In an election, I can say, ‘I’m smart. You’re dumb. Vote for me.’ Not really civil, not real polite. Well, welcome to democracy. You know that’s OK,” he said.

But rather than seeing politicians who “rolled up their sleeve” to solve problems to help unite an electorate after winning divisive elections, the divisions have grown perilous, he said.

“I’ve got a real concern about the lack of fundamental friendliness, respect for each other and the amount of contempt I see every day for our fellow Americans,” he said. “That worries me a lot.”

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© 2019 the Chicago Tribune