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Former Secretary of Defense talks democracy, civility

Former Sectary of Defense James Mattis speaking as part of a lecture series on the WSU Pullman campus.
Retired General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis addresses WSU students, faculty and staff on the Pullman campus (Photo by Dean Hare/WSU Photo Services)

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, domestic threats to democracy and the role young people must play in securing the future of the United States were among the topics discussed by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis during his appearance in Pullman.

Mattis spoke to a lively crowd inside Bryan Hall Thursday afternoon as part of The Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service’s distinguished lecture series. The event was also streamed live and is available to watch on Youtube.

“Some things in our lives are work, some things are fun, this one is fun, to come back to the town I was born,” Mattis said in his opening remarks.

During his decades of service to the United States, Mattis served in 70 countries, working cooperatively with diligent leaders despite often not sharing a common language. He retired from the U. S. Marine Corps in 2013 as a four-star general, later serving as Secretary of Defense from 2017 until 2019.

At the heart of his remarks was the importance of cooperation, compromise and the necessity of free speech as a means of ensuring that ideas can be debated in good faith. Talking specifically to the students in the audience, he encouraged them to work together despite the heated rhetoric that currently pits individuals of different ideologies against one-another.

“You can grow up defending the rights of people you disagree with, you can grow up with respect for people that you disagree with, you can have a rousing good argument with all the passion in the world, yet lose none of your compassion for them as human beings,” Mattis said.

He added, “Don’t believe what you’re seeing right now is somehow an example of how a democracy has to be.”

Asked about his reaction to the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, Mattis recalled initially doubting what he was seeing before a sense of disgust set in. In order to continue to have a government of the people, by the people and for the people, Americans need to get out of the gladiatorial mindset and work together once elections are decided and the task of governance becomes foremost.

Cornell Clayton, director of the Foley Institute, introduced Mattis and asked for his assessment on the war in Ukraine as well as threats to democracy elsewhere and at home. The audience was also able to ask Mattis questions, with topics ranging from Russia’s military failings in Ukraine to potential philosophical topics of discussion between the U.S. and China.

The event marked the first major in-person event by the Foley Institute since the start of the pandemic. For more information on upcoming speakers and events, visit the Foley Institute’s website.

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