The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A high school journalist called Jim Mattis. The man known as ‘Chaos’ answered.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis awaits the arrival of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed during an honor cordon ceremony at the Pentagon  in Arlington. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the former general who has spoken at the head of Marine formations ready for battle, has found a new audience for his blunt wisdom: budding high school journalists.

Teddy Fischer, a student at Mercer Island High School in Washington state, landed a rare exclusive with Mattis, who has granted few interviews since he was tapped to lead the Pentagon for President Trump’s administration.

Known as a “warrior monk” for his expansive reading lists, Mattis dissected topics from over-politicization of U.S. discourse to navigating combat operations in Syria with Russia and Iran in the fray.

He wasted no time to discuss history after Fischer asked where students should focus their energy.

“History will show you not all the answers, but it’ll tell you a lot of the questions to ask and, furthermore, it will show you how other people have dealt successfully or unsuccessfully with similar type issues,” Mattis told the school paper, the Islander.

Reaping lessons from the past will probably play a part in the Defense Department’s strategy to ramp up U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, where the longtime strategy to shift security responsibility to local Afghan forces while reducing NATO’s footprint appears to have faltered.

“We are not winning in Afghanistan,” Mattis said during testimony on the Pentagon’s budget request  June 13. “We will correct that,” he said to lawmakers frustrated with signs that Mattis’s new way forward could resemble past surges of U.S. troops.

“We can’t keep going like this,” Sen. John McCain  (R-Ariz.) told Mattis at the hearing. “You can’t expect a stable budget if you don’t give us a strategy.”

Mattis isn’t just a popular general anymore. He’s an icon faced with running the entire Pentagon.

Fischer tracked down Mattis after The Washington Post inadvertently published a photo with his private phone number, and to Fischer’s surprise, Mattis returned the call.

Mattis, who speaks frankly in his public appearances, does not often grant interviews to defense journalists looking to better understand his battle-worn approach to the world.

But he did offer to Fischer an optimistic mission for the nation’s youths to affect the world in whatever path they choose.

“Go out of your way. Not everyone has to join the military, it’s not for everyone,” Mattis said.

“For one thing, it’s scary as all get out at times, but whether it be the Peace Corps or the Marine Corps … just try to put others first and it will pay back in so many ways that you’d be a lot happier in life.”

Fischer later keyed on the White House’s sometimes tumultuous balance of military might and diplomacy as the administration, with Mattis on point, takes on issues such as North Korea’s testing of intercontinental ballistic missilesChina’s posturing in the South China Sea and Vladimir Putin’s mission to “break” the NATO alliance.

“What you have to do is make certain that your foreign policy is led by the diplomats, not by the military,” Mattis told him.

“I meet for breakfast once a week with Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson and I’ll advise him on the military factors for his foreign policy, but I do not believe that military issues should lead in foreign policy. I think that’s where diplomats lead and the military then reinforces the diplomats.”

One nexus of diplomacy and military power that Mattis appears to be talking about — Qatar — was the subject of policy contradictions last month, with Trump appearing to override Tillerson’s suggestion to gulf states to end blockades with the country housing a U.S. airfield key to operations against the Islamic State.

Fischer, apparently still in disbelief during the interview that Mattis picked up the phone, asked the former general with the call sign “Chaos” why he decided to speak with a high school student near Seattle while the to-do list for the Pentagon chief grows every day.

Mattis said he also grew up in Washington state, on the other side of the Cascades.

“I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes, not the same ones we made,” Mattis said.