By John Newsinger
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When war criminals fall out— Trump vs the generals

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Issue 2709
James Mattis led the US siege of Fallujah, one the USs biggest war crimes in Iraq
James Mattis led the US siege of Fallujah, one the US’s biggest war crimes in Iraq (Pic: Flickr/James Mattis )

For retired US Marine general James Mattis to publicly condemn the US president as a threat to the constitution is unprecedented. 

Mattis complained that Donald Trump’s response to the police murder of George Floyd and to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests left him “angry and appalled”. He said that Trump was intent on dividing the American people, actually comparing him with the Nazis, and urged everyone to “unite without him”. 

For Mattis—Trump’s former defence secretary—there have been “three years without mature leadership”. Other senior retired officers have since rushed to echo his criticism.

So why did Trump appoint Mattis to be his defence secretary and why did he remain in the job for two years?

Trump thought that having generals around made him look tough—and no one more so than Mattis. 

Mattis had served in the US Marines for 43 years.  He was commander at the siege of Fallujah in 2004, the site of one of the US’s worst war crimes during the Iraq war. They bombarded the heavily populated city with white phosphorus chemical weapons, responsible for continuing birth deformations and high cancer rates. 

Mattis had a reputation for single-minded ruthlessness. Then president Barak Obama had removed him as head of US Central Command in 2013 for opposing restrictions on field commanders’ freedom of action in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Fallujah: the truth at last
Fallujah: the truth at last
  Read More

He was well-known for brutal remarks intended to encourage the troops. They included, “It’s fun to shoot some people,” and, “Be polite, be professional, but always have a plan to kill everyone you meet’.” Remarks like these had earned him the nickname “Mad Dog”. 

His attraction for Trump is obvious.

In fact, Mattis was a professional, well-read, well-educated, dedicated servant of US imperialism. 


He agreed with very little of what Trump had to say. For instance, he rejected the use of torture both as a way of extracting intelligence because it did not work and as a punishment because it was illegal. 

Mattis was dedicated to preserving the US network of alliances, especially Nato, and keeping US bases overseas. He regarded Russia as the major threat to the US’s global position. 

One of Mattis’s staff observed that whereas Mattis regarded international relations as a game of chess, Trump regarded it as “Paper, Stone, Scissors”. This is much too generous to Trump.

Mattis and others initially tried to educate Trump into understanding the strategic interests of US Imperialism. And when that failed, they tried instead to minimise the damage he could do. 

His ignorance, stupidity, impulsiveness, inconsistency and dishonesty were monumental, however. 

Mattis had one great success—a massive increase in US military spending from $600 billion under Obama up to $750 billion. Which is more than the next ten biggest military spenders put together. As far as Trump was concerned, this meant that the US no longer needed allies. 

The two men fell out over the Iran nuclear deal—which Mattis thought a success— Trump’s rubbishing of Nato and much more.

The last straw was Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria. By now, Trump’s people were calling Mattis “Moderate Dog” and even “Little Baby Kitten’ behind his back. 

Mattis had had enough and resigned.

Why has he intervened now? Trump’s response to the BLM protests is by and large a pretext. The generals see a second Trump term as a serious danger to the US imperialism’s interests—in particular to its network of international alliances, and most especially to Nato. 

The danger is so great that they have seized the opportunity to try and prevent it happening. 

Uncomfortable as it might be, Democrat Joe Biden is the generals’ candidate for president.

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