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Gen. James Mattis tells students U.S. is the ‘greatest experiment’ in the world

Mattis urges USU crowd to lead by trust, by listening

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Former Defense Secretary and retired four-star Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis speaks on “U.S. Leadership on the World Stage: Getting It Right, and Healing Rifts at Home” at Utah State University in Logan on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LOGAN — Amid a country steeped in raucous and divisive politics and on the first day of his former boss’ impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, retired four-star Gen. James Mattis called the United States the “greatest experiment” in the history of the world — and one worth not giving up on.

“We have a country that is worth keeping faith in, a country worth protecting,” he told a packed crowd of Utah State University students, faculty and fellow military members Tuesday.

“A country doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth fighting for.”

Mattis did not offer comment on the Trump administration’s current woes, only to say he resigned his position as secretary of defense in December 2018, leaving without “rancor” from a post that often put him at political odds with the nation’s commander in chief.

Mattis, a Marine general who led NATO’s Supreme Allied Command Transformation, led troops in the Persian Gulf War and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and is co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.”

Mattis urged the crowd to be ardent students of history, not because it would provide them with the right answers, but because history teaches how to ask the right questions.

Too often, he said, countries forget why they have a military and shirk alliances that need cultivating.

“We need to work hard to keep that edge. Let’s stay so strong that our diplomats are always respected.”

He said it took the observation of an Australian diplomat to remind him that despite being dragged into two world wars, the United States of America turned around and — instead of abandoning Europe and countries it defeated — carved out an international pathway to stave off fascism.

“It took a foreigner to teach me this.”

Mattis answered submitted questions from students, including his favorite position he held while in the military and the most difficult decisions he faced.

Without hesitation, he said he reveled in his days as a second lieutenant in the Marines as an infantryman.

“You learn you’d rather suffer in good company than be in the company of delicate men.”

As secretary of defense, he signed deployment orders and said he had to ask himself each time if he could justify that deployment decision.

“Could I justify the death of these troops by sending them overseas to defend this great, big experiment?”

Mattis said despite the many challenges — and flaws — of the United States, it is a nation that is continually evolving and striving to be better. He urged students to remember that.

“We are the good guys. We are not the perfect guys.”