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A General's view - A Marines' Marine

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill in 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) — AP - By Gretel C. Kovach, U-T San Diego.

Mad Dog Mattis. The Warrior Monk. Married to the Marine Corps.

It’s all hype that embarrasses Gen. James Mattis, the chief of U.S. Central Command, who is preparing to retire this spring after one of the most productive four-decade sprints in uniform of his generation.

To Marines, Mattis is Chaos, his call sign and nom de guerre. According to interviews with more than a half-dozen officers who know him well, Mattis is an iconoclast and innovator who strove to outmaneuver the enemy on the battlefield, paralysis in Washington and the “yes, sir!” culture of the military.

Others, particularly civilians, consider the former Camp Pendleton-based commander controversial or brutish, based on statements such as one Mattis made in San Diego in 2005 when he proclaimed he liked brawling and shooting some people — like the Taliban. “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway, so it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them,” he said.


In person Mattis, 62, is unimposing. He is rather short and slight of build. He speaks with a lisp and rarely raises his voice. His blunt tough talk, however, and indisputable aggressiveness in combat endear him to many Marines, especially teenage infantrymen who volunteered during wartime to kill bad guys. Mattis has been rebuked and told to choose his words more carefully, but he never apologized or admitted any regrets — another mark in his favor among the rank and file.

His pugnacious soliloquies are said to be part of his brilliance as a communicator and, some add, a useful contrivance to rally the troops. Whether his audience is lance corporals heading into combat or sultans, kings and presidents who control the passage or resources needed for his mission, Mattis knows how to speak their language and enlist support.

Brig. Gen. Paul Kennedy served under Mattis in Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion, Mattis brought each battalion into the base auditorium to brief them on how he wanted every last Marine to fight. Over and over again, the same speech some 50 times. “Having a vision and beating that thing flat as a cat on a highway, I think that is genius. Nobody has the staying power to do that,” Kennedy said.

Mattis, who led 1st Marine Division personnel into Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War as well as the 2003 invasion, is also respected as a warrior statesman, compassionate commander and skilled tactician who reshaped the way America goes to war during an era of protracted combat.

The general has inspired a stream of fan mail from fellow Marines, supplications from jailed young veterans, imprudent tattoos, passages in history books, satirical online spoofs, even a television character.

The legend is overwrought. Mattis is the first to say so. In a 2004 speech to midshipmen at the Naval Academy that laid out the principles that guided him through the inevitable moral crises of war, he said “I get a lot of credit these days for things I never did.”

In recent years he has given few press interviews or quotable speeches. In his current job he must coax support from Middle Eastern allies who don’t want to read about it in the newspaper. He is also a humble and private guy, some say.

Mattis spoke with U-T San Diego to dispel some myths. But he otherwise declined to comment for this article, saying he would prefer to highlight “the contributions of the Marines you know well in southern California, those who have conducted a significant amount of the fighting and done a lot of bleeding in this long war.

“Generals get an awful lot of attention and there’s not too many generals on the casualty list. The lads deserve the attention,” he added.

Winning warrior

Mattis has never owned a television. As a diligent scholar of his profession, he interviewed active and retired commanders who had grappled with similar missions. He studied everyone from the Spartans to the samurai and Comanche, drawing from his personal library that once included more than 7,000 volumes before he gave many to libraries and comrades. He is a lifelong bachelor with no children, but wouldn’t move into a monastery unless it was stocked with “beer and ladies.”

He was passionate about leading Marines in combat and devoted to winning at every assignment, but merely duty-bound to his succession of staff jobs. He persevered for one reason, according to Marine Lt. Gen. John Toolan: “He understands the threats. He understands history, and he knows we must stay vigilant.

Retired Marine Col. Clarke Lethin, of Fallbrook, served as his chief of staff when Mattis was commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. “My fear is they are going to give him another job instead of letting him retire. He deserves it. He has done more than enough for this country,” Lethin said.

Semper Fidelis

Mattis grew up in southeastern Washington state. He was an acolyte in the Episcopal church who admired Native American Indian culture and liked to run The Oregon Trail. After college he was commissioned as a Marine in 1972.

As a major, Mattis drew a difficult assignment — recruiting duty in liberal Portland, Ore. Mattis quickly turned the station into a top performer by cultivating relationships and winning the loyalty and hard work of junior Marines.

Stories about Mattis’ caring and deference to the lower ranks abound. As a one-star general he dressed for guard duty, sword and all, one Christmas at Quantico, Va., relieving a young lieutenant to spend the holiday with his family.

Brig. Gen. John Broadmeadow accompanied Mattis on a tour of remote checkpoints in northern Kuwait in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Mattis wanted to sound out the Marines on duty, so he had Broadmeadow, then a lieutenant colonel, stand post for a half hour.

“He walked away from that talk with very junior Marines with some direct tasks to his regimental commanders,” and the young Marines got a great story to tell about the general, Broadmeadow said.

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Mattis asked Lethin, whom he first met on recruiting duty, to rejoin his staff and prepare for war. Lethin had intended to retire before the terrorist attacks. Mattis wanted to be sure Lethin’s wife Wendy and their young boys were onboard.

Mattis had a private talk with her describing what was in store, before her husband knew where they were heading. “We are going to go to Afghanistan and we’re going to kill those guys,” he told her, according to Lethin. “This is going to be a long war and a lot of people are going to die. Are you ready?”

Need for Speed

Mattis and then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus oversaw the genesis of the new Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual published in 2006. Mattis espoused a muscular version of the doctrine in line with his philosophy of “no better friend, no worse enemy.”

He also stresses the need to move light and fast in battle. In 2001, Mattis was put in command of a naval task force and had to figure out how to transport two Marine expeditionary units into landlocked southern Afghanistan.

The solution included pushing his helicopter pilots some 400 miles until their gas tanks almost ran dry, recalled Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who served in Task Force 58 as a colonel. “What we were being asked to do in terms of the distances involved is something that had never been done in the Marine Corps,” he said.

After securing Camp Rhino, Mattis was gunning to go after Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora. The Marines passed out cold weather gear but were called off when Mattis couldn’t get permission to bring what he thought was enough troops.

They were stretched already after the amphibious raid into Kandahar, but initiative and tempo is the heart of Mattis’ command philosophy. “He understands how that tears away the enemy’s unit cohesion. That’s part of the reason he’s got to drive his own troops sometimes, to make them think above and beyond what they might think they are capable of,” so they can overwhelm the enemy, Waldhauser said.

As the 1st Marine Division prepared to lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003, Mattis predicted that they would quickly outstrip their logistics support as they raced across the desert. He ordered his Marines to attach racks to their vehicles to hang extra food, water and fuel and pack gasoline test kits.

His need for speed was a factor in his decision to sack the only senior officer removed mid-battle during the invasion of Iraq, a colonel whose regiment stalled in the face of unexpected resistance outside Nasiriyah.


The next year in Al Anbar, Iraq, four contractors were murdered in Fallujah shortly after Mattis and his Marines moved into the area. Their charred bodies were hung from a bridge, prompting the military command to order an attack.

Mattis had planned for a more engaging approach than the soldiers they were replacing. He was forced to lead his Marines into Fallujah prematurely in his eyes, then to retreat because of political pressure.

If it was a mistake to attack in the first place — and we believed it was — then it was an even greater mistake to order the attack stopped so close to victory, as a result of disinformation generated by insurgents inside the city and the Arab press,” recalled retired Gen. James Conway, the former commandant who was Mattis’ boss.

Months later when Mattis was gone and peace negotiations failed, the Marines fought a second battle for Fallujah. Insurgents and hard-core jihadists had flocked to the city and stockpiled weapons. Savage combat practically leveled the city.

“The element of surprise had been lost. The result was over 90 Marines, soldiers, and sailors giving their lives to the effort, and many more wounded,” Conway said.


The rumor around the Pentagon is Mattis may take over the NATO European command if the nomination of Marine Gen. John Allen, outgoing commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is scuttled. Allen is under investigation because of allegedly flirtatious on-the-job emails with a Tampa socialite who is not his wife. He has denied wrongdoing.

The gig would be Mattis’ third as a four-star general, which is virtually unheard of. Mattis said he thinks the rumor is wrong. Mattis expects to relinquish his Central Command job in March and retire soon after from the military, when he is medically cleared. But Mattis has the confidence of some Democratic leaders, as well as Republicans, who may yet tap him amid the reshuffle of defense and intelligence posts.

When he does retire, Mattis plans to settle out West, where he appreciates the free thinking and open landscape. Doing what, he doesn’t know yet. Mattis has some good war stories to share with friends, but no plans to write a book. The fine print may go with him to the grave.



Gen. James Mattis’ Words to Live By
There is lots of press on the early retirement of Gen. James Mattis currently CENTCOM Commander.

For those who have never met Gen Jim Mattis, USMC, Commander Central Command, he is a gentleman, scholar and a warrior. One of our best and brightest.
I first met Lt Col Jim Mattis at an exercise at Joint Task Force- Bravo, in Honduras, in the mid 1980s.

LtCol Mattis and I were supposed to be with a number of other I Marine Expeditionary Force Marines playing the I MEF units during the exercise – an invasion of Honduras by Nicaragua. I represent 1st Force Service Support Group and LtCol Jim was one of the reps for 1st Marine Division. Unfortunately y, the I MEF general staff guys had not showed up and the exercise director came to all of us and asked if we would fill the role as I MEF Hq. The senior Marine present said he had no authority to do that but Jim Mattis and I said we would play the I MEF roles. We did this for the week and enjoyed the exercise.

I got to know this outstanding Marine leader well. After I retired I kept in touch with Jim but once he became the Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, I knew he was going to be busy and stopped our e-mail exchanges. The San Diego, CA, UTSanDiego.com, January 19, 2013, has an article by Gretel C. Kovach: “Just Don’t Call Him Mad Dog: Influential Marine general prepares to retire after four decades in uniform.”

The writer was referring to a number of sobriquets the general has collected over the years. My favorite is “Warrior Monk.” Jim has never been married. The extensive and detailed article is well worth looking up on Google and reading in total.

Gretel Kovach had collected a number of Gen. Mattis’ quotes and below are my favorite:

Be no better friend, no worse enemy.

It’s fun to shoot some people.

The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.

Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.

The first time you blow someone away is not an insignificant event.

Fight with a happy heart.

If in order to kill the enemy you have to kill an innocent, don¹t take the
shot. Don¹t create more enemies than you take out by some immoral act.

It¹s very hard to live with yourself if you dontt stick with your moral

If you have high expectations, if you can win the affection of your young
sailors or Marines, they will win all the battles for you.

Just get on with it, put in the miles and the weight-training and the study.

Some platoons are worth as much as a company, because of the social energy
of their leaders.

There is nothing better than getting shot at and missed. It¹s really great.

I don¹t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot
even spell the word.

I don¹t believe in demonizing the enemy. I don¹t patronize them either.

There are some people who think you have to hate them in order to shoot
them. I don¹t think you do. It's just business.

I spent 30 years getting ready for that decision that took 30 seconds.

I come in peace. I didn¹t bring artillery. But I¹m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f* with me, I'll kill you all.

*He is being asked to retire a year early. No reason has been given. Enjoy your retirement General – you have well earned it.


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May God help our country.


Thank God for MEN like Generals James Mattis, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, Curtis LeMay as well as the millions of MEN who served under them honorably.

We owe much more to them than to the idiot politicians who got us into all these stupid wars: WW1, WW2, Korea, VietNam, the Middle East.

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