Secretary of Defense James Mattis has told US troops stationed abroad their duty is to “hold the line” amid partisan division at home.
In comments contained in a video posted to a Facebook page called “US Army WTF Moments” that appeared to have been taken shot on a smartphone during a visit to Jordan, Turkey and Ukraine this week, most likely in Jordan, Mattis said: “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military.
“You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
He also said, in remarks that were widely interpreted as possible veiled criticism of President Donald Trump, that the US needed to “get the power of inspiration back”.
Mattis spoke before Trump on Friday followed up on his promise of a ban on transgender troops by directing the Pentagon to stop allowing transgender people to enlist and to stop paying for gender reassignment surgery except in cases that are already in progress to “protect the health of an individual”.
Mattis, who was among defense chiefs reportedly surprised by Trump’s initial announcement of the ban via Twitter in July, was given wide discretion on how the directive is implemented regarding transgender people still serving. The former general is expected to consider “deployability” as the legal means to determine whether to separate service members.
The directive from Trump was widely criticised as discriminatory by transgender service members, veterans and civil rights groups.
You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems. You know it and I know it.
In the video clip, Mattis, a figure widely respected in the US military for toughness in the field married to intellectualism away from the front, tells the gathered troops, to laughter: “For those of you I haven’t met, my name’s Mattis, I work at the Department of Defense obviously.”
He adds: “The only way this great big experiment you and I call America is gonna survive is if we’ve got tough hombres like you.
“…You’re a great example for our country right now. It’s got some problems. You know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military.
“You just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, you just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, and being friendly to one another, as Americans owe to one another because we’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.”
“Hold the line” was the theme of Mattis’s speech to graduating officer cadets at the US Military Academy at West Point, in June.
“We’ve got two powers,” he continued in the footage posted to Facebook. “We’ve got the power of inspiration and we’ll get the power of inspiration back. We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies.”
Mattis’s remarks came to light after, on Friday, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn was reported by the Financial Times as saying the Trump administration must “do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning” groups such as the far-right and neo-Nazi activists whose rally in Charlottesville earlier this month turned to deadly violence.
It was later reported that Cohn had considered resigning. In light of Cohn’s reported comments, many observers suggested Mattis’s filmed remarks could be read as not-so veiled criticism of Trump’s actions as president.
In July, the president tweeted his decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military “in any capacity”. The decision reportedly took the Pentagon by surprise and military chiefs made it known they considered a ban unnecessary and detrimental and would take no action until they received more detailed guidance.
Late on Friday, John McCain, chair of the Senate armed services committee and a vocal critic of Trump, said it “would be a step in the wrong direction to force currently serving transgender individuals to leave the military solely on the basis of their gender identity rather than medical and readiness standards that should always be at the heart of Department of Defense personnel policy”.
According to the Military Times, as many as 250 service members are transitioning gender or have been approved to formally change gender within the Pentagon’s personnel system.
The numbers include more than 80 from the army, including the national guard and reserve, about 160 from the navy and a handful of marines. The air force has not released any numbers.
In his pep talk to the troops, Mattis also said he had “flunked” retirement. The reason he became defense secretary, he said, was to “serve alongside young people like you who are so selfless and, frankly, so rambunctious. It’s a pleasure to be around you all.”