On Why General Mattis Should Decline

By: Jill R. Russell

AL ASAD, Iraq – Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command, speaks to Marines with Marine Wing Support Group 27, May 6. Mattis explained how things in Iraq have gotten better since the first time Marines came to Iraq.
AL ASAD, Iraq – Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command (Wikimedia Commons)


I wrote the piece “With Rifle and Bilbliography” referenced yesterday in Tom Ricks’ Foreign Policy article on the merits of a possible selection of General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. Reflecting on what led to that blog piece, my long observation of the man’s career, and thoughts on the current and future prospects of American politics, I cannot measure any merits nearly as weighty as the case against. Although the anecdotes below are of a personal nature, they are of the sort I would find in research of historical generals and against which I would judge their character.


It has been 21 years since I first got to know General Mattis. Like most, my initial impression was the stuff of legend. He was a Colonel then, CO of 7th Marines and its associated Regimental Combat Team (RCT). 3d Battalion, 11th Marines (3/11) was RCT-7’s artillery unit in their hideaway paradise of 29 Palms. As it was told to me, as the commanding officer Mattis had an interesting way of greeting new officers. He would get them ‘oo-rahed’ up and promise to take them to war. Sounds proper Mattis, right? Here is the thing: that man has character, and there was no way he would have chosen to take them to war, knowing it would mean letters to the spouses and parents of those officers or Marines. Not a chance. But I suspect he understood if he said that to the officers, they would be motivated to train hard year round in some pretty challenging conditions.

3/11, to give you a sense of the training tempo at the time, spent over two hundred days in the field per year, between artillery, combined arms, and other supporting exercises. Live fire, though, so they did enjoy that part. In addition to the discipline borne of usual Marine Corps standards, RCT-7 was in those days on the front burner for rapid deployment – I believe they started shrink wrapping the goods a couple of times in his tenure. Mattis needed the Marines to be prepared, and more so the officers to be at their best for the worst. I saw RCT-7 at the time, they were prepared. (I had the honour to meet the famed Raymond G. Davis and the Marines of 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, from the Chosin Campaign, I know what quality looks like). The over enthusiasm he might engender he could control, as necessary, according to the best ethics and leadership of Marines. An equally storied, if less well known Colonel, Ed Lesnowicz, had taught me that about Marines and good officers.

That impression was the first of several I formed over more than two decades, that, like the one above, speaks to Mattis’ character. It is a view of him that is less discussed amid the “Mad Dog” din. It is one which argues against service now.


Any Colonel who will trot outside to chat with you…

I met Mattis at the 1st Marine Division Ball in 1995. I was standing outside after dinner, smoking cigars – as you do – and chatting with the Executive Officer (XO) of 7th Marines. I mentioned that I had just been at SAIS with Ed, so we were sharing stories about him. I mentioned that he said if I ever had the chance to meet Mattis, I should, I would like him. Ever faithful, with not even a request, the XO jogged off to get Mattis, and we had a nice ten or fifteen-minute chat. At the time I agreed with Ed, and as Mattis continued his rise I recognised how it reflected the depths of his respectful and gracious characteristics.


Any General who will engage your critique…

As you can see in the Strife piece, although diplomatic, I did respond to his email unrequested with a bit of critique and correction. In this day and age of social media vitriol, the common courtesy to examine the comment and engage with it intelligently should not be lost as a lesson in that piece. If the worst attribute of a leader is hubris, humility is the best.


Any retired General who will happily support your publication of his email… and engage in the most fascinating conversation, too…

I’m a historian, of course I kept those emails.

I thought to place them with Strife because I wanted to put this thinking Marine General in front of an audience who lacked an easy opportunity to access these insights. We Americans don’t always show our best side to the world. When I wrote to him to ask his permission and discuss what I was going to say in the piece, we ended up exchanging several emails discussing recent history. If I could share those with you… but until I am allowed to, let me just say that he doesn’t triangulate by bumper sticker either.


…doesn’t belong in such a troubled Administration.

Not one single example of any of the characteristics Mattis demonstrated so easily has been on display by our President elect, or any of his Cabinet selections or supporters. Please, show me one example of care or ethics, of graciousness and respect, humility not hubris, or the willingness to think broadly. That is a problem for Mattis, because no matter the strength of his character, the environment will be corrosive.

I understand Mattis’ desire to serve, and I fervently hope he will, but not now. It will leave its mark, and we will need leadership and candidates for a future, principled conservative movement.


Dr. Jill S. Russell is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. Her doctoral dissertation was on American military logistics and strategic culture. Dr. Russell is currently teaching at the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham. You can follow her on Twitter @jsargentr.



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