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July 08, 2010

Marine General James Mattis Named To Head Central Command

I think you're going to find almost total unanimity around the Mil-blogosphere celebrating this appointment.

Why are so many so high on Mattis? He's pretty much the embodiment of the warrior-monk ethos this kind of fight requires.

Mattis is known for his ferocity and his risk-taking—which included regularly riding out into combat with his jump platoon, despite his high rank. (That's something he'll probably have to give up now.) He is also known for his intellect. He is well-read in history and military strategy but has also studied innovation and adaptation techniques.

Mattis is also known for his mouth. He is a jokester in person and also blunt. In the spring of 2003, in the first of his meetings with recently defeated Iraqi military leaders he famously said: "I come in peace. I didn't bring artillery. But I'm pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I'll kill you all." In a speech in 2005, when describing the atrocities committed by some members of the Taliban, he said, "It was fun to shoot some people."

You might think elevating this kind of general a risk for the president. After all, didn't McChrystal's mouth get him fired? But these quotes are of a different order than the ones from McChrystal in Rolling Stone, and among the troops, the Mattis quotes they repeat emphasize more than just force. "No better friend, no worse enemy," he wrote his troops before they embarked on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. When he returned to Al-Anbar, he added to that set of instructions, "First do no harm."

He was also instrumental in updating Marine Corps training for the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. You know how everyone says "Petraeus literally wrote the modern book on COIN"? Well he also literally had a co-author...James Mattis. In addition to his other impressive traits, this maybe one of the most important. Technically, Petraeus will be working for Mattis but given how things have shaken out, clearly Petraeus is the man, no matter what the org chart says. Having a former collaborator and sympathetic mind as Petraeus' nominal boss makes the best out of what could be an awkward situation.

Take a few minutes to read this longer profile and you'll see how great this guy is. If you're looking for a guy who says, 'carpet bomb the place', Mattis isn't for you but he knows that when it's time to kill, then you better kill and win.

Al-Anbar turned out to be a bad laboratory for Mattis' experiment. In March of 2004, not long after Mattis took control, four military contractors from Blackwater were killed in Fallujah and their burned bodies were hung from a bridge. In response to the attack, the Marines were ordered to wipe out the insurgents with a heavy show of force. Mattis told his superiors they were insane to call for such a massive response. The Blackwater killers could be found and killed precisely and in keeping with his strategy. But he followed orders and led the attack (which was then cut short when political leaders lost their nerve).

Still, even at the end of the heaviest fighting, Mattis met with sheiks to continue the effort to win over the locals. He left Iraq in August of 2004, but the Marines continued to repeat his mantra: "First, do no harm." Two years later, after the province almost slipped out of control completely, the "Anbar Awakening" reduced violence in the province, damaged al-Qaida in Iraq, and turned the war.


The second fundamental necessity for counterinsurgency is ferocity. It is a paradox: To be restrained, you must be willing to be ferocious. Ferocity gives soldiers and Marines the confidence to accept more risk. If soldiers are certain they can be ferocious when the time comes, it will make them less jumpy when they are accepting the increased personal risks of leaving a protected base to engage with the locals or dropping body armor while they walk through town. Ferocity makes a unit feel more comfortable knowing they can fight their way out of a situation if necessary.

"We have an overweening sensitivity to the slaughtering of our enemies," says Mattis. "I've put medals on Marines who have killed guys at 700 yards. And I've come right out and said it: 'That was a beautiful shot.' You must reward the kind of behavior that you want." This sentiment got Mattis into trouble in 2005 when he said, in some cases it was "fun to shoot some people." He has also been battered by public sensitivity over his handling of the 2005 killing of 24 Iraqis in Haditha. Liberals think he was too soft on the Marines involved. Conservatives think he bowed to political pressure and was too harsh on them.

As for the diplomatic side of his job, he's served as head of NATO's Allied Command Transformation, so he knows the players in Europe and worked with them all. His success while commanding in Anbar Province also gives him extensive experience in Arab culture which will be important in dealing with many of the leaders in the Mideast.

In short, this is a great selection.

If Afghanistan can be turned into some kind of victory (and I've been pretty skeptical about that for awhile), Petraeus and Mattis are the team to do it. I have had my issues with Gates and I think my disgust with Obama is pretty well known but they both deserve credit for giving us the best shot at a good outcome with these picks.

About two weeks ago, Secretary of Defense Gates passed Mattis over for the Marine Commandant job. Now he's head of CentCom. Funny how life works sometimes.

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posted by DrewM. at 03:00 PM

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