General Jim Mattis discusses mideast military policy in Maxey lecture

Andy Monserud

General Mattis began his lecture by discussing many of the current issues in the Middle East. Photo by Marra Clay.
General Mattis began his lecture by discussing many of the current issues in the Middle East. Photo by Marra Clay.

Retired four-star general in the U.S. Central Command James Mattis spoke to a large group of Whitman and Walla Walla community members in Maxey Hall Tuesday night.  Mattis, who grew up in Pullman, WA, came to campus at the request of senior Bill Landefeld and with the help of the Whitman Events Board.

During a 40-minute lecture and 75-minute question-and-answer session, Mattis discussed foreign policy across the Middle East, which had been his primary area of operations during his military service.  Rather than focusing on any particular conflict, Mattis discussed various theaters in the Middle East separately, with a few overarching themes.  Perhaps most prominent among these was Mattis’ conception of the military’s role in foreign policy.

“Let me tell you what my real job was at CentComm,” Mattis said near the end of his speech.  “It was to try to keep the peace, or what passed for peace, for one more year, one more week, one more day, one more hour so that Secretary Clinton and the diplomats could try to work their magic and keep another catastrophic war from happening.”

Landefeld had met Mattis at a speaking engagement in Richland he attended with his father during his first year at Whitman.  He spoke with the general for several minutes, but it was not until his father sat with Mattis on a plane ride to Pasco last spring that the possibility of speaking at Whitman came up.  Landefeld and Mattis exchanged e-mails, and Landefeld enlisted the aid of WEB soon after.

“I’d helped run the Syria teach-in [of fall 2013], so I already kind of understood how lectures and stuff worked,” Landefeld said, but because the technical aspects of hosting lectures fell outside his expertise, “I hit up [Senior and WEB co-director] Nate [Higby] and [said] ‘Nate, help me out, I’ve got the general who wants to come, I just don’t know how to do the logistics and stuff.”

The crowd was heavy on Walla Walla community members, including a vocal group of past and present servicemen.  Community member Robert Frank came with his son, a Marine.  He said that he came to the lecture because of “an alignment of interests,” but was not entirely sure what to expect.   Mattis’ attempt to cover several topics meant that some of the details Frank had hoped to hear about were glossed over.

“It would have been interesting to hear, for example, [about] the action in Tikrit, and what can be learned from that, and how it might be applied to Mosul, and whether he thinks that Tikrit actually should be considered a success, but those were maybe just too tactical,” Frank said (Tikrit is a city in Iraq recently retaken from ISIS by Iraqi forces with U.S. air support). “I wasn’t sure what level he was going to talk about when I came in.”

Mattis was received pleasantly, even enthusiastically.  Prior to the lecture, Landefeld expressed that while he didn’t expect the Whitman community to agree with Mattis on all fronts, he hoped they would consider his views seriously and respectfully, a sentiment which Mattis echoed.

“It can be easy to come in with…criticisms, and stuff like that, but until you really listen and hear someone out…I think that taking the time to see the other side of the picture, even if you don’t agree with it, is really beneficial to a learning environment,” Landefeld said.  ” I know it’ll probably cause some friction with some people, but I think it’s good.  Where is education without a little friction?”

General Mattis spoke at Whitman College the night of March 31, 2015. Photo by Marra Clay.
General Mattis spoke at Whitman College the night of March 31, 2015. Photo by Marra Clay.