Every year, when he was commandant of the between 1995 and 1999, Gen. Charles Krulak and his wife would spend the week before Christmas baking hundreds of cookies, which they wrapped in small packages. At 4 a.m. on Christmas Day, Gen. Krulak would begin driving himself to every Marine guard post in the nearby Washington-Maryland-Virginia area and deliver a package of cookies to each Marine whose turn it was to be pulling guard on Christmas Day.
At Quantico, one of his stops, Krulak went to the command center and gave cookies to the young lance corporal on duty. The general asked the enlisted Marine who the officer of the day was. The lance corporal answered, “Sir, it’s Brig. Gen. Mattis,” to which (as the commandant told Dr. Albert Pierce of the United States Naval Academy), Krulak replied, “No, no, no. I know who Gen. Mattis is. I mean, who’s the officer of the day today, Christmas Day?”
The young Marine was undoubtedly relieved when Gen. Mattis, in a duty uniform and with his sword, appeared. When questioned by Krulak, he simply explained that the young officer who was scheduled to have duty on Christmas Day had a wife and family and so he, Gen. Mattis, took his place, convinced that it was better for a young father and husband to spend Christmas with his family.
Quick quiz: Can any of us name a prominent CEO, university president or U.S. senator about whom a similar story – of decency and thoughtfulness toward those beneath him in rank – can be told? One of the reasons that a lot of people, including many former Marines, are both relieved and pleased with President-elect Donald J. Trump’s selection of this general to be secretary of defense is that James Mattis personifies the rule “Officers eat last.”
The Marine officer does not eat until everyone subordinate to him – all the lance corporals and privates – has first been fed. Marines honor the principle that loyalty goes both down and up the chain of command. Is there anyone who does not agree that ours would be a more humane and more just country and national community if the princes of Wall Street and the royalty of Washington accepted that officers eat last?
I have met Gen. Mattis, though I do not pretend to know him. But those whom I know who have served with him overwhelmingly salute his character, his intellect and his independence. He does not fawn on or flatter the powerful. He has never been an apple polisher or anybody’s sycophant. After candidate Trump, during the campaign, advocated banning all Muslims from even entering the United States, Gen. Mattis was characteristically blunt: “This kind of thing is causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through this international system.”
With the enormously respected Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford continuing as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with Gen. Mattis as secretary of defense, the Marines, the smallest of our military forces, with just 182,000 on active duty, stand to have – to the resentment of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force – greater influence in the making and enforcing of our American foreign and defense policies than at any other time. And given the high quality of Gens. Mattis and Dunford, that should be welcome news for America and for the world.