Johnny 'Joey' Jones: Mattis vs. Trump — here's what I see in these two outspoken leaders

A deadly pandemic. A reactionary lockdown. An ensuing economic collapse. And then a senseless murder caught on video. Can 2020 gut-punch us anymore?

Yes, violent and destructive riots in cities across the country and then a debate about using our military to stop them.

Enter retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the Trump administration’s first defense secretary, breaking his silence and self-imposed ethics of never speaking against a sitting president by writing a vicious op-ed rebuking President Trump’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act if city and state leaders don’t get the unrest under control.

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Ironically, I’ve actually been punched in the gut by Mattis. I was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in 2008 attending the Defense Department’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal school. Mattis, the supreme allied commander of NATO forces and commanding general of Joint Forces, accepted our invitation to speak at our annual memorial where we honor the bomb techs who’d fallen in the line of duty that year.

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I was tasked with helping coordinate his visit. True to form, Mattis arrived precisely at 10 p.m. and debarked his C-130 in his full service A uniform. He walked past the Air Force colonels saluting him — he’d requested they not be there — and went straight to the airman “on guard” at the extended wing of the plane. With the engines running I couldn’t hear him, but from the look of it he checked the rifle the airman was holding and gave him an approving slap on the arm.

Mattis immediately turned and walked straight down the plane to me. He stopped in front of me, quickly looked me over, gut-punched me and shook my hand adding, “Well done, Marine, I was that hard when I was your age, too.”

The general made his reputation on two things: the skill to surprise an enemy and his peers with swift and decisive action, and the audacity to speak his mind in nonconformist soundbites. He’s the general known for saying, “Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

They each play, and have played, a pivotal role in voicing loudly the belief that Americans are proud, capable and special, in the world and on the battlefield. I appreciate each of them for it.  

This outspokenness is what he has most in common with President Trump. Mattis had the tactical skill to win a battle, a region or even a moment in time, but his entire era of leadership in the Middle East conflict didn't win the war. In his world, and in his mind, you do things a certain way, a proven way, even when politics advise against it. He’s also the general who said, “If in order to kill an enemy you have to kill an innocent, don’t take the shot. Don’t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.”

Trump, on the other hand, is less calculated and more reactive to populist sentiment and current events. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but they were certain to clash.

I admire James Mattis in a way I’ll never look at President Trump. In a foxhole, or by my hospital bed, I want the General. But it takes more than principled leadership and proven strategy to win over a country right now. It takes a bombastic personality, over-generalizations and pointed innuendo.

That’s why I voted for Trump. He plays a role. In doing so, he backs up policies and fights political fights a well-balanced tactician wouldn’t dare engage in. For that reason, Trump is an effective disruptor, and for those same reasons, Mattis would never condone his tactics.

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It’ll be easy for Trump loyalists and fed-up Americans to “clap back” at Mattis. Let me be the first to tell you, he’s not listening to insults and he won’t respond in kind. I doubt he’ll respond at all. In his mind, he is no cultural icon, no legend and no hero. He’s simply a Marine, loyal to a nation, not a politician or party.

Mattis has a set of ideals and he’s adhering to them — in my opinion, with this op-ed, to a fault. His words accomplish, with equal injury, the division he’s condemning. Though a stalwart general, he’s failed to see the simplest of truths on the battlefield of rhetoric: any stance you take will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

For those of you struggling to balance your appreciation for a man who, while in uniform was a generation’s plainspoken voice on war, with your adoration for a POTUS seeming to do the same on politics, don’t. They each play, and have played, a pivotal role in voicing loudly the belief that Americans are proud, capable and special, in the world and on the battlefield. I appreciate each of them for it.

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I hate seeing Trump tweet about irrelevant things and spew personal insults. Likewise, I hate seeing Mattis take to politics. So, what’s the lesson for those of us who admire them both? It’s simple:

Know what YOU believe, and WHY you believe it. Don’t let any one person overshadow it or represent it for you. After all, they’re just people.

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