MOUNT VERNON, Va. — In the eyes of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, there are millions of military veterans who honorably represent those in uniform. And then there are those who participated in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“They don’t define the military,” the retired Marine Corps four-star general said during a Nov. 3 panel discussion on the military’s role in democracy.

“It’s defined by the people … who go off and maintain their honor, actually sharpened in their appreciation of just how great this [democratic] experiment is, and what they saw their fellows do alongside them in terms of sacrifice to keep this experiment alive,” Mattis said at an annual conference hosted by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Of the more than 1,000 people charged in connection with the Capitol attack as of this summer, about 18% have military backgrounds, according to data from the University of Maryland and the Justice Department. In comparison, about 7% of all American adults are veterans, U.S. Census Bureau data from 2018 shows.

“It’s a concern, certainly,” Mattis said.

But Mattis pointed out that, much like the U.S. military, the rioters were primarily men. Some of them had been out of the military for decades.

“When someone gets out of the military — and many get out at age 22, after a full tour and an honorable discharge — if at age 45 they were part of a group that marched on Washington, D.C., maybe a few other things happened between 22 and 45,” Mattis said.

Only a handful of those involved in the attack on the Capitol were still on active duty or reservists, Mattis noted.

“They will be dealt with,” he said. “The military knows how to address people who disappoint ’em.”

Mattis’ sharp words for those who attempted to disrupt the peaceful transition of power from President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden are yet another public signal of an icy relationship between Mattis and Trump.

Mattis served as Trump’s defense secretary but resigned in December 2018 over his disagreement with the president’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. In June 2020, he condemned his former boss, writing, “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us.”

In response, Trump called Mattis “the world’s most overrated general.”

Also on Friday’s panel were retired Marine Gens. Joseph Dunford, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2015 to 2019, and John Kelly, who served as one of Trump’s chiefs of staff.

Dunford said back in 2019 he will never opine on Trump, a commitment he reiterated Friday. But he agreed with Mattis that the veterans who participated in the attack on the Capitol weren’t representative of veterans as a whole.

“There are thousands and thousands and thousands of veterans that are out there every day making contributions to the community and doing exactly what a good citizen ought to do,” Dunford said.

Here at the historic home of the nation’s first president, the three retired generals continually brought up the example George Washington set as a general and as a president caring for a fledgling democracy. In what was perhaps an implicit dig at Trump, Kelly said “the greatest thing” Washington did was “he went home twice,” relinquishing control of the military in 1783 and declining to seek a third presidential term in 1796.

Mattis, who reportedly owned some 7,000 books before he retired from the military, made a reference to another general who looms large in U.S. military history: then-Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman of the Union Army. The retired Marine loosely quoted Sherman’s remarks from May 1865, when he finally sent his men home: “As in war you have been good soldiers, so in peace you will be good citizens.”

“Now, that’s not always the case,” Mattis said. “There’s always someone that disappoints you. I’m reminded that Jesus of Nazareth had one out of 12 disappoint him.”

Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.

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