Jim Mattis Kept His Country From the ‘Dark Side’

Last spring, at Marine Corps University, I listened to a large group of Marine captains discuss the moral dimensions of war. The My Lai massacre in Vietnam and Haditha in Iraq were two of their case studies — the latter being one of the Marine Corps’ most controversial chapters in the Iraq war. In that 2005 incident, about two dozen Iraqi civilians, including women and children, were killed. Eight Marines were later charged with war crimes, though only one received a formal sentence — 90 days in a military prison that were never served.

The room of about 200 Marine officers, who were grade-schoolers on Sept. 11, 2001, also debated torture. Clicking yes-or-no buttons, 40 percent responded “yes” when asked, “Is it acceptable to torture?” The number increased to 55 percent when the captains were asked if torture was O.K. if an enemy prisoner of war knew the location of a missing fellow service member.

Torture is apparently popular not just among many of the troops, it has a big fan in the White House. During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump pledged to reinstate “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding. That he never did is largely because of one man: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general who will leave the administration in February.

General Mattis commanded troops in some of the bloodiest fronts of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet he remained cleareyed in his opposition to torture, arguing that it was inhumane, illegal and ineffective. I first met him in Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2004, when I was with the State Department overseeing American political engagement with Sunni leaders — and, when necessary, trying to restrain young and overly aggressive Marines. General Mattis’s reputation had preceded him. The “Warrior Monk” was an erudite scholar of warfare who gave famously profane pep talks to Marines. But he was also a natural statesman.

The general stood out to me when he ordered Marines to make a ramshackle wooden operations center “look better than Yosemite’s visitor center,” as one Marine put it. He wanted visiting Iraqi delegations to feel more at ease despite the hard talk that took place in the center on the eve of the biggest battle of the Iraq war.

After Mr. Trump nominated him, Congress had to give Mr. Mattis a special waiver to lead the Pentagon because he was so recently retired. Legitimate concerns were raised about civilian-military relations. Would a four-decade military man known for his war-fighting acumen be an appropriate fit as a civilian official in charge of a $700 billion military budget and millions of service members? That question now appears more settled than not. Mr. Mattis has been a steadying force on the president’s ever-changing team, reportedly working behind the scenes to restrain his bellicose boss and, more publicly, to sustain America’s global alliances.

The great risk today, almost two years after the Senate voted 99 to 1 to confirm Mr. Mattis, is that an overtly political person will take his place. The likelihood of a new Pentagon chief who prioritizes loyalty to a president over loyalty to the ideals and values of the country could signal a renewed willingness to blur lines in the moral conduct of American foreign policy.

Politicians of all stripes should recall that it was President Ronald Reagan, the most iconic of modern Republican leaders, who urged Senate ratification of the United Nations anti-torture treaty. In a letter to senators urging ratification of the Convention Against Torture in 1988, Reagan wrote that torture was “an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.”