Thanks, General Mattis

In my first Everybody Letter, I mentioned retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, and how he encouraged me to build a Book of Wisdom. But I left out the crux of his outlook on life and his way of expressing it.

This February, General Mattis delivered a speech to members of the Marine Corps University Foundation. Several weeks later, major websites transcribed the speech and called it ‘The Most Motivating Speech of All Time.’

I was interested in the speech, not only because of its content, but also because I once served as a speechwriter for its author (though I didn’t help General Mattis draft that speech, nor have I helped him draft any other remarks since that time; in fact, I’m confident that he prepares his speeches these days without any help at all, just as he did during the vast majority of his military career).

General Mattis is revered by U.S. Marines and respected throughout the military — but he’s not well known by the American public (except perhaps for his blunt talk and a few comments he made about fighting in war.) He’s earned the nicknames ‘Mad Dog,’ ‘Chaos,’ the ‘Warrior Poet,’ and the ‘Warrior Monk’ for his spirit on the battlefield, his Spartan lifestyle, and his disciplined intellectual habits.

When I served as a speechwriter for General Mattis, he often warned me, “Remember, around here we try to hang one speechwriter a day so the others fall in line…” Given those odds, I was fortunate to survive as long as I did, and I was grateful when General Mattis participated in a farewell ceremony for me on my last day in uniform.

During that ceremony I said thanks and offered some personal words to my family and friends. I also said a few words about General Mattis, but for brevity (and because he always preferred attention on others), I decided not to talk about what I learned from his perspective on life.

To me, his outlook and his delivery are inseparable, and the combination of the two is the true source of his influence. I think too many people focus on the words, and too few people focus on the deeper nature of his arguments…

I believe General Mattis carries forward an indispensable philosophical tradition in this country, that of the born optimist, who also takes a grim view of the world and a sober reading of the lessons of history

 … knowing there are no perfect countries and no perfect solutions … but refusing to accept moral equivalence between ourselves and our enemies …

I remember after his confirmation testimony, I helped him draft several next-of-kin letters for the families of the fallen under his command. From that experience and other observations, I absorbed a strain of thought that is clear-eyed, skeptical, historically aware, conscious of life’s brutal realities, and yet despite all this:

  • hopeful for the future, confident in the nobility of our cause …
  • unapologetic about defending a realm of ideas and above all,
  • optimistic that those ideas will survive

, not based on wishful thinking,
  • but only because of the sacrifice of many good people.

I also learned from the way General Mattis writes and communicates. It’s a process of what I might call discovery by deletion:

  • cutting text until all that is left is the core of the matter …
  • drawing language from an earlier era,
  • when folks said what they meant and did what they said …
  • no sugarcoating, parsing, escape clauses, or unavoidable qualifiers

  • no inoffensive terms behind which to hide your true meaning.
  • In the end, speaking truth to power and to the American people

  • this is a mindset that demands integrity and indifference to personal risk …
  • and it’s a writing style that makes for easy reading…

though, as the great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne has said, ‘easy reading is damn hard writing.’

General Mattis, thanks for those lessons, and thanks for reminding me as I left the military that America is the best country in the world for second starts. I’m convinced, if our enemies were given the chance to choose the CENTCOM Commander, you would be last on their list.