I’m going to attempt something dangerous here.
It’s usually not a good idea to follow up a rousing pep talk that stands powerfully on its own with commentary that may seem critical, at least to some people.
But (a) James Mattis doesn’t need polemical mercy from anyone, certainly not me; and (b) it’s really, really important right now to re-tune the ears of Americans to what we ought to be thinking and hearing.
So, to set the stage for danger, here’s the video of Mattis that has gone viral in the last couple of days. He’s visiting troops in the Middle East, and on encountering a group of them during a base walk-around, he gives them an impromptu pep talk.
That’s how to talk to the troops. The man needs no lessons from a pundit, and no editors. Here’s a transcript of a few highlights (portions courtesy of the Daily Caller News Foundation; some by this author):
Thanks for being out here, okay. I know it’s kind of, you wonder if any of us know and you get promoted after a while and you’re so remote that you get out touch with those of you that matter. But believe me, I know you’re far from home, every one of ya. I know you could all be going to college, you young people, or you could be back on the block. …
Just grateful, the only way this great big experiment you and I call America is going to survive is we got tough hombres like you. Some of you are too young, Cpl. Walton, but on 9/11 we were up against an enemy that thought he could hurt, us he could scare us, but we don’t frickin scare.
This was the passage that set my head right:
You’re a great example for our country right now. We’ve got some problems. You know it and I know it. We’ve got problems that we don’t have in the military.
Just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines. Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it. Of being friendly to one another, you know, that Americans owe to one other. We’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.
And it’s worth writing down this part too:
We’ve got two powers: the power of inspiration – and we’ll get the power of inspiration back – and we’ve got the power of intimidation. And that’s you, if someone wants to [screw] with our families, our country, and our allies, okay?
How could it get better? Well, coming from Secretary Mattis, it couldn’t.
But coming from dozens of other people, about Charlottesville, starting with the president, this is how it could have been better.
I’ve had a nagging feeling all along, every day since 12 August, that nobody was getting it right about Charlottesville. Way too many trons have been wasted on criticizing Trump for his comments, and I won’t rehash that whole thing here. But Trump’s not the only one. Everyone who rewrote his script for him has also missed the mark — including all the senators and congressmen who chimed in.
And as great as Mattis’ little talk was over on the forward base, he missed it too.
Because what we should be hearing from our leaders is that Americans do respect each other. We do make an extraordinary effort to understand each other, and live in peace with each other. The fight in Charlottesville was between people who do not represent who we are. They are not a picture of America. They are fringe groups full of plotting, evil intentions, and hatred.
That’s not America. Look around you. Is that who your neighbors are? It sure isn’t mine.
Everyone needs to stop talking about Nazis and Antifa as if they represent a painful but necessary choice for America. The only choice they represent is summary rejection of them — both of them — and their anti-American ideas and methods. You and I, we, are not those people. If they want to rejoin the real America, they can take the masks off, drop the bats and flame-throwers, get a job, and go find someone to love and build a life with.
The real problem with President Trump’s comments after Charlottesville is that he never said that.
The media are never going to say it, because they’re invested in discord. It can’t lead if it doesn’t bleed. Our representatives in Congress didn’t say it, because they’re part of a herd and they take their cues from each other.
But you need to be thinking it. Remember it. Write it on your mind and heart. Yes, it’s important to reject evil ideas and hatred. And in a time when the media are too apt to falsify the picture they present, and try to smear good people with the wrongs done by the bad, it is often important to identify groups by name and creed when publicly repudiating them.
But no one’s mind gets better through brooding over hate, vile ideas, and fear stoked up by manufactured bad news. The way our minds get better is by thinking on the right things. The persistent goodness of the American idea, and the ways our fellow Americans are still largely right — respectful, helpful, willing to stop and think, mindful of the rights we cherish for everyone — these are the things we should always come back to.
The population of Charlottesville and Albermarle County is about 107,000. On 12 August, there were about 2,000 combined protesters, probably a good half of them from out of town. We were not seeing the “people of Charlottesville” on that nasty day — any more than we’d be seeing the people of your town, if the traveling Antifa-and-Nazis farce showed up there.
I promise you, you will not triumph over anyone by scurrying around trying to call him out for every bad thing he does. Human life has never worked that way. It isn’t going to start now. Such police work is necessary; it’s not sufficient. It can never heal us, or give us hope and a future. It’s not what we should be demanding our leaders talk about, in the precious few minutes when they have everyone’s attention.
You won’t heal America by proclaiming endlessly that we are divided. The healing will start when someone has the courage to stop lamenting and criticizing, and instead speak good of our nation and its people. The good news is, when someone does do that, it will be the truth.