With Kurdish Genocide a Real Danger, How Ethical Was Mattis’ Resignation?

At least we now know what President Trump thinks about Syria. “Sand and death,” he told his cabinet last week. What then does that make our Syrian Kurdish allies to Trump? Those who live in sand and death can’t really be worth much, so onto the dustbin of history they go. This, from our  “f*ck ‘em and forget ‘em,” POTUS. Can anyone who has watched this president really feign surprise? Trump’s casual desertion of the Kurds fits a personality known for a pattern of exploitation and betrayal. The laborers who sweated over his Atlantic City casino? Stiff ’em. Campaign director Paul Manafort? “Hardly knew him.” Decade-long personal attorney Michael Cohen? “Not my lawyer.” First senator to endorse his candidacy, Jeff Sessions? Just a “dumb southerner.”

But betraying the Syrian Kurds will cost more than a good job with the Trump corporation or the administration, it will likely mean the Syrian Kurds becoming “sand and death” themselves. The prospect of a Syrian Kurd genocide is one of the reasons some felt that, as honorable as James Mattis’ resignation may have been, it didn’t go far enough. Already, like the dimming memory of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the impact of Mattis’ resignation (firing) and coming Kurdish genocide will surely fall into the abyss of 24-hour news cycle forgetting. But does it, did it, have to happen this way? In the case of the Kurds, I’m arguing that Mattis and those like him might have to act differently as models of how to block the Memory Hole from devouring inconvenient truths.

One phrase that told me that Mattis had got off on the wrong foot was his writing that the president had “the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” Yes, the president’s “rights” cover the prerogatives of revered foundational institutions like the 1788 Constitution, the presidency, and the military code of honor. But at what costs do we maintain a revered institution like the military code of honor? Holocaust levels of genocide threaten the Syrian Kurds. Why isn’t the prospect of mass murder enough to make Mattis reconsider the politics of personal honor? If that grim prospect is not enough, what is?

Mattis’ deferral to presidential rights, for instance, should challenge us to reconsider whether a president like FDR had an analogous “right” to have a cabinet secretary who “aligned with” his policy of interning Japanese Americans, and another cabinet secretary who “aligned with” forbidding the SS Exodus to land its refugee human cargo? Would, for example, a traitorous, genocidal president have a corresponding “right” to have a secretary of defense agreeably “aligned” to high criminality?

Someone like Mattis may have imagined that his quiet resignation would save both his honor and conscience. But such conventionally dignified resignation may have put both at risk. Honorable exits from malevolent chains of command often only clear the way for craven careerists eager to “align with” those very malign policies at issue. In extreme cases, if resignations from chains of command aligning with evil are necessary, they might at the very least be noisy and unsettling, rather than fade quietly into the background. Understood this way, settling for the conventional security of being an “honorable man” sometimes means shirking the preferable, but perilous, duty of standing up as “the noblest Roman of them all.”  

Of course, a resignation like Mattis’ caused something of a stir. But, at this writing, has it caused enough of a stir to make a Kurdish genocide unlikely? The historical precedents do not inspire confidence. A high-five from Putin at the G20, and the horror of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder starts slipping away. What chance for the Kurds, when Trump writes off Syria as “sand and death”? One recalls how, before his invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler tried to reassure doubters, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Will the imminent disappearance of our awareness of the fate of the Syrian Kurds in the “dust and dirt” of the Syrian deserts only confirm Hitler as a media-savvy genius? A soldier’s honor is a fine thing, but how much does it weigh in the scales of justice against genocide? How much greater the suffering of the Kurds if Mattis had provoked an aggravated national crisis on their behalf? At the very least, Trump wouldn’t enjoy the undisturbed opportunity of asking at some future date, “Who today speaks of the annihilation of the Syrian Kurds?”