Defense Secretary James Mattis shared a story recently with troops about how he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt while he was a Marine Corps general during the Iraq War.
The Associated Press reported that Mattis told soldiers and sailors about the incident during a series of pre-Christmas visits to military facilities in order to illustrate an important point about how America is viewed.
The retired four-star general recounted that a Sunni Arab man in western Iraq (Anbar Province) was caught planting a roadside bomb shortly before Mattis and a small group of Marines passed by.
Learning the man spoke English, Mattis decided he wanted to meet with him.
“After Mattis offered a cigarette and coffee, the man said he tried to kill the general and his fellow Marines because he resented the foreigner soldiers in his land,” according to the AP. “Mattis said he understood the sentiment but assured the insurgent he was headed for Abu Ghraib, the infamous U.S.-run prison.”
What the man wondered next surprised Mattis.
“General,” the Arab fighter asked, “if I am a model prisoner do you think someday I could emigrate to America?”
Mattis told the military service members he shared the story to show them “the power of America’s inspiration.”
“I bring this up to you, my fine young sailors, because I want you to remember that on our worst day we’re still the best going, and we’re counting on you to take us to the next level,” he said.
“We’ve never been satisfied with where America’s at,” he continued. “We’re always prone to looking at the bad things, the things that aren’t working right. That’s good. It’s healthy, so long as we then roll up our sleeves and work together, together, together, to make it better.”
The AP reported the style of all of Mattis’ talks to the troops during his tour was low key.
He opened one such meeting with the self-deprecating quip, “My name is Mattis, and I work at the Department of Defense.”
In addition to talking about American exceptionalism, the respected military leader also shared stories about the fundamentally unpredictable nature of serving in the military.
He recalled hiking in the Sierra Nevadas in August 1990 when he received word that he was to report immediately with his men to the nearest civilian airport, because Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. Mattis’ Marines were being deployed to Saudi Arabia to hold the line against further aggression by the Middle East leader.
The secretary of defense also remembered being at a military briefing at the Pentagon in June 2001, when top officials in the George W. Bush administration want to know the most serious security threats facing the U.S.
At one point, the briefer told the officials that one place they would definitely not be fighting in the foreseeable future was Afghanistan.
“Five and a half months later, I was shivering in Afghanistan,” Mattis said, referring to his role as commander of Task Force 58, a special unit sent shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to fight the Taliban.
Mattis made headlines last week during a news briefing at the Pentagon when asked about his top concerns for 2018.
“I don’t have concerns,” he said. “I create them.”
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